Leading Article: Give us a sunny bank holiday

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FOR those of our readers not fully acquainted with the Dennis the Menace oeuvre, there is an episode in the television version of the cartoon in which all grown-ups are magically turned into 10-year-olds. The first act of the juvenile President of the United States is to declare in a television broadcast: "Everybody take the day off!"

Forget the levying of taxes and the defence of the realm: the most basic and irreducible power of politicians is the allocation of public holidays. And, yes, we - those of us among the fortunate majority who do have the day off - are grateful for today's. But we do have to ask, why Easter Monday?

The main point of it is that it comes after Good Friday, and thus provides the nation with an officially-sanctioned long weekend. But why should we have a four-day shutdown when the weather is so unreliable? Even if the sight on television of David Trimble with snow in his hair came as a complete surprise in your sunnier parts, the chances are that it is cold outside today. And we already have one long official holiday in which the only sensible thing to do is stay under the duvet.

The only answer seems to be that Easter is a very important religious festival and so deserves two bank holidays instead of just one. Which raises the question of religious symbols in our national life.

Unlike Good Friday, it is not as if the Monday after the Resurrection is a significant day in the Christian story: the gospels are rather unspecific about the precise timetable of events after "the first day of the week", which was Sunday. Indeed, many Christians object to the Santa-Claus-ification of what is, after all, their most important time of remembrance. Nor do you have to be a believer to wonder if we have not, collectively, lost the plot with this festival of bunnies, chocolate and television. Especially as the chocolate has lost all spiritual significance - what has Thornton's chocolate tyrannosaurus to do with even pagan fertility rites? And the television seems to consist mostly of golf, sexed-up dramas and The Italian Job. Good, but not worth watching yet again just for the bit where Michael Caine says: "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

This Easter, of course, we have something practical and contemporary to celebrate. The timing of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland also has religious significance. When the Prime Minister agreed the deadline of the midnight before Good Friday, there can be no doubt that he appreciated its symbolic potential in a territory divided by a common faith.

It would be no bad thing, for instance, if last weekend's document, circulated to all Northern Irish homes as simply "The Agreement", becomes known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Religiosity is not generally something the British warm to in their elected representatives, and it is certainly unhelpful in some Northern Irish politicians, such as the "Reverend" Ian Paisley. But it has turned out to be one of Tony Blair's unexpected strengths that he is the first prime minister since Baldwin to say explicitly that he sees politics as a means of putting Christian principles into practice.

Fortunately, Mr Blair's Christian principles - unlike Mr Paisley's - are inclusive and tolerant. It is not for a secular newspaper to judge who better reflects the spirit of the original Easter, but we can at least observe that voters should know as much as possible about the value systems which motivate their leaders.

William Hague, then, will have done himself no harm by saying yesterday that he preferred communing with God and nature in the countryside to going to church every week. In other words, he is an Anglican.

But it is when Anglicanism, or any other religion, intrudes on the institutions of the state - rather than on the motives of lawmakers - that we should worry. In the light of the settlement in Northern Ireland, the paraphernalia of an "established" church looks ever more anachronistic, with its anti- Catholic rules of royal succession and the right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

Public holidays are state institutions too. Of course, in an ideal world the state would not regulate the timing of holidays at all. But as long as it does, it should seek to drain them of religious meaning. This process is already under way, with 25 May called the Spring Holiday instead of Whit. But there is more to be done. Why not drop Easter Monday and give us our long weekend while the sun shines, in August?