Oliver Burkeman recently wrote a feature for the Guardian Weekend magazine on why Sunday is the least liked day of the week. Burkeman’s column, ‘This Will Change Your Life’, broadly covers the empirical evidence for self-help and well-being techniques.
Few emotions are as instantly familiar as that deflating, edgy-yet-lethargic feeling seared into our psyches in childhood, and in Britain often accompanied by memories of bygone BBC programming: Songs Of Praise, Lovejoy, classic serials starring Imelda Staunton….
…as soon as you label any period as “specially” enjoyable, you’ll become so self-conscious, monitoring its specialness, that enjoyment is near-impossible. And second, in a culture that’s no longer monoreligious, being told which day to set aside triggers an inevitable rebelliousness. I rarely want to go supermarket shopping on a Sunday evening until I remember it’s forbidden.
Attitudes to Sunday trading are regularly surveyed by the Government and by campaigning organisations. The BRIN database currently stores records of 110 surveys conducted between 1962 and 2008. As the UK Polling Report blog put it, ‘Historically, Sunday trading has been one of the things that pollsters regularly tracked’ (see here for the rest of the article).
The last serious review of Sunday trading laws was in 2006, when liberalisation of Sunday trading was ruled out for England and Wales (by contrast, Scotland has no restriction on opening hours for large stores). Part of the review’s evidence gathering included a module of items on the ONS Omnibus survey in December 2005-July 2006, with headline results available here. The BRIN database entry for this survey can be found here.
The DTI gathered that public support for longer opening hours was weak, which is interesting if people also don’t really seem to benefit from Sunday being special. The official line was that there was no ‘public consensus’. The case for and against Sunday trading was debated in the press benefiting from adversarial poll sponsoring by the Keep Sunday Special campaign and the pro-liberalisation ‘My Sunday My Choice’ campaign.
The Keep Sunday Special campaign has been sponsoring survey questions since 1985, when a bill was first put to Parliament. The bill failed, due to an alliance between Conservative MPs concerned with protecting religious observance, and Labour MPs concerned about worker conditions. The 1994 bill allowed limited trading by large stores, and basically regularised the position of small stores which had been opening on Sunday for years.
So why don’t people seem to enjoy Sundays if they express preferences for different laws? Perhaps people think it crass to report that they would prefer to shop more on Sundays even if they secretly would: few people want to look materialistic and pro-shopping in a survey. Or perhaps they genuinely value the chance to have a ‘special Sunday’, but haven’t figured out how to use it to their best advantage in a post-religious age. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the working week which spoils Sunday, and changing Sunday trading wouldn’t make any difference at all.
There may be some grist to the ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign: evidence from the US suggests that the states which liberalised their Sunday trading earlier were also those where church attendance dropped more quickly. Jonathan Gruber and Daniel Hungerman argue that this relationship was causal in their paper The Church vs the Mall. They also suggest that some social harms increased in prevalence, but only among those who were initially religious before the repeal of the restrictions. (For information, the paper analysed data from the US General Social Survey, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, denominational accounts, and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.)
However, this phenomenon may have been specific to the US. It may well be the case that in the UK society is so much more secularised that liberalisation would not have the same social effect. A similar study would be difficult to conduct for the UK because the same policy shock is not available to examine the causal effect of Sunday trading laws on religiosity. Any reported association in the UK could be argued to be down to the effect of religiosity on Sunday trading laws. But it’s a very interesting question, and one which is likely to resurface due to the recession.
The issue has also been live recently in Berlin where the Constitutional Court deemed it ‘unconstitutional’ to liberalise Sunday trading in December 2009, due to the position of ‘days of rest and spiritual improvement’ in the Basic Law.