A day for the rest: For many, Sunday is special because of its enforced boredom


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Usdaw or Asda? The Chancellor today takes the risky political step of launching a consultation period on changes to Sunday trading.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers – along with most of the churches – fear the threat to the “specialness” of Sunday, the biblical day of rest, and the work-life balance of retail workers. Shoppers, by contrast, usually want to be able to buy an iPad at 8pm on a Sunday, just as they can on a Wednesday.

It’s a generational thing, really, Sundays. Older citizens can recall a time when Sunday was the most feared day of the week, and not only because the bulk of the population used to turn up at church or chapel to make themselves accountable to the Almighty.

Sunday was indeed special, in the sense that no shops were open, there was very little television, and there was very little else to (not) do. In parts of Wales, you couldn’t even pop into the pub. The Sunday newspapers, perhaps for that reason, developed their traditional market in titillation and scandal for an otherwise bored nation.

One of the most memorable episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour was entitled simply “Sunday Afternoon”, and had the lad himself attempting to traverse the great prairie between the Sunday roast and bedtime. And failing. (“Stone me, what a life!”)

Yet it was never an immutable part of British life and sprang from the excesses of English puritanism – specifically the Sunday Observance Acts of 1627 and 1677 – and an accretion of such restrictions thereafter, not least the Retail Meat Dealers (Shops) Act of 1936 and the strange wonder that was the 1950 Shops Act. Under that law you could buy a pornographic book on a Sunday but not a Bible, unless that Bible had been bought from a bookstall at a designated airport or railway station.

In 1994, and after much angst, some of these regulations were swept away. But many remain, and they sit oddly in a multi-faith society, one that counts consumerism as a new religion.

Will George Osborne finally lift Oliver Cromwell’s shadow from the retail sector? We shall say a prayer for him.