Mary Dejevsky: Bank Holidays: let's be rid of this 19th-century notion

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The Independent Online

So you yielded to the temptation to enjoy the weekend sunshine out of town. How long did it take you to get home last night? Perhaps you were stuck on the motorway, thwarted by three lanes reduced to two, a closed tunnel or faulty lights. Perchance your travels were less ambitious, how long did you have to wait for your bus or train, as the holiday weekend gave you a sub-Sunday service? "Thank you for choosing People's Line," the voice intones pleasantly as you alight. No, no, we reply in our long-suffering British way, thank you for running a service at all.

Now, a think-tank – the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research – is proposing that this eight-times-a-year misery should be augmented. It wants an additional bank holiday, to be dedicated to "community heroes" as a sort of "national thank-you" (their expression, not mine). It suggests the second Monday in November as the perfect, multi-purpose date.

This, it reasons, would create a free day in the long holiday desert that is the autumn; bring our public holiday quota more into line with that of Continental Europe, and build on an existing commemoration – Remembrance Sunday. It might even, the IPPR hazards, fit into Gordon Brown's agenda of fostering a sense of national identity.

All of which is laudable, if you accept the premise that we need another bank holiday. I fear it is another example of conventional thinking at its worst. It is true that we have fewer public holidays than most of our European partners, and also true that from the last Monday in August to Christmas Day is a long time to go without a long weekend. But another bank holiday is not going to help. It will merely increase the collective stress level either side of another long weekend.

In this age of individual portfolios and flexible working, we should be moving in quite the opposite direction. Bank holidays were a late 19th-century means of compensating for some of the many religious holidays that had been abolished. They were bank holidays because when banks were closed no other businesses could operate. Now, the banks are among the very few commercial concerns that routinely keep their doors shut on these Mondays, even as the surrounding shops teem with people.

Over the past 20 years, Britain has become a round-the-week round-the-clock commercial operation. You can question the values of a society that has done away with the notion of the seventh day as a day of rest – and I have my misgivings about the loss of a day when families are guaranteed time together – but you cannot deny its convenience. It can be convenient, too, for employees, who can juggle their working hours with their other commitments. In Britain we have one of the highest rates of part-time working, and this all-hours, all-day opening is one of the reasons why.

Through all this change, however, bank holidays have remained inviolate. There is a line here that government, employers and trades unions have hesitated to cross. More people, to be sure, work on bank holidays now. Some are required to by the nature of their work; others volunteer in return for extra pay or time in lieu. But the principle remains, as do the dates – even though, contrary to popular belief, no on has been entitled to take a bank holiday off.

This will change from October – too late, of course, for anyone to benefit from this year's belated summer sun. Those whose companies treated the eight bank holidays as part of their overall entitlement will then qualify for another eight days as of right. As employers point out, this has a cost.

But it is also a lost opportunity. Why did the legislation which introduced this entitlement not also abolish fixed bank holidays – fixed, what is worse, on Mondays? With deregulation a principle that no government now challenges, why is it not also applied to holidays? Where there is a strong tradition, such as Christmas or New Year, the dates could be set nationally. Other holidays could be locally ordained, or left to the individual's discretion.

Thus the moveable feast of Easter would cease to be a problem – observant Christians could treat Good Friday as one of their eight free days' entitlement. Adherents of other religions could absent themselves on their holy days. The mass exodus at the May, spring and summer bank holidays would be spread across the summer, as would peak season staff shortages. Schools might finally be persuaded to introduce the six-term year they have shunned, and tour companies would have no excuse for not diluting their high-season premiums.

Oh yes, and you might have enjoyed a less embattled journey home last night.