THE debate about keeping Sunday special is an odd one as it stopped being that long ago.
Yesterday David Cameron suffered his most damaging Commons defeat since his re-election as 27 Tory MPs ignored last minute pleas and rebelled against government plans to relax Sunday trading laws.
While this strikes me as being for the common good, the modern Sunday isn’t that different to the other six days. In York the streets are crowded and the shops busy. When we arrived here in the late 1980s, we used to walk around the empty streets with our son in his pushchair, window shopping and wandering, enjoying the quiet and soaking up the atmosphere of the city free from demands on purse or wallet.
I am glad the government lost that vote; especially happy that Tory MPs ignored their own ministers, including Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, and Brandon Lewis, the local government minister. The fairly loathsome Lewis said the government’s plan would have given “local communities the power to create more jobs and to boost local high streets”.
What he wanted was to open up the last scrappy bit of Sunday when the big shops have to close after six hours. That wouldn’t create jobs and boost local high streets; it would force shop workers to work a little longer and spread the spending for an hour or two more – without necessarily boosting the economy at all.
But it was odd to hear all that talk of keeping Sundays special, amid grumblings that the vote had been carried with the help of MPs from Scotland, where the laws have already been relaxed (and, yes, that is hardly consistent).
You see, Sundays of old were special in ways that are hard to remember now. There was a particular stultification to a Sunday when no shops were open and church bells hung in the air. As a child in Bristol in the 1960s, I dimly recall being ticked off for playing noisily on a Sunday, which was considered disrespectful, even by my non-believing parents.
Some years later in south Manchester, we went to Sunday school and later joined a church-based youth group a little like the Scouts, called Junos and Inters. A Google search reveals that this group still exists as a youth ministry. Viewed from my distant atheist hill, it all seems vaguely creepy, but that was what you did on a Sunday then – and many people still wish to attend church.
Not my father, though. He was brought up in a religious household and as a boy had to go to church three times on a Sunday. This put him off religion for life, making him something of a rebel in his family. When we used to visit the grandparents in Southampton, he would try to avoid Sundays and any awkwardness over going to church.
Some years later I used to do my under-age drinking in a pub in Cheadle Hulme called the Church Inn, and once when my grandmother was staying, I said I was off to the Church and the misunderstanding left her very pleased.
My mother’s parents went to church too, although I have the impression they were less religious, but attended because that’s what people did on a Sunday. There wasn’t a lot else to do.
Sundays of old are hard to imagine now, with everywhere shut and nothing to do if it involved spending money. My feelings are mixed, as no one would want those silent behave-yourself Sundays back, yet the spend-spend-spend Sundays aren’t much fun either. Buying stuff long ago became the new religion and we won’t stop that now. But even from my non-believing pulpit, I sometimes yearn for those quiet, undemanding Sundays of the late 1980s.
Yesterday’s vote holds on to a piece of that old Sunday, instead of fully surrendering to demands that we work and shop all hours. And for that tattered scrap we should be thankful, even if it was in part down to mischief-making Scots.