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Thomas Byrne: Sunday trading laws protect the family and civil society. Libertarians should not do away with them.

Screen shot 2012-03-27 at 15.21.53Thomas Byrne is a Conservative Party member and politics student at York University. Follow Thomas on Twitter

It's a bizarre thing that we have come to rely on a Liberal Democrat for honesty. We were promised by Conservative ministers that the relaxation of restrictions on supermarket trading were not going to be a Trojan horse for permanent change, but perhaps spending too much time with Nick Clegg has given the Prime Minister a taste for dishonesty. To push the changes through wouldn't be a declaration of war upon Christianity, the damage has been done there by the changes in 1994. This would a sticking up of two fingers to wider society and the soft Christian outlook that they hold - and for what? Something that will only tighten the grip of supermarkets over the small business owner, the employee and their families.

Tim Montgomerie was right to say that we can and should be Tesco Tories and celebrate the role that supermarkets have had to play in cutting the cost of necessities for the average man on the street. £5,000 a year on his count, and, being a cash-strapped student ever reliant on budget food, it has probably pushed my bills down even more. While celebrating what benefits they bring, and continue to spread to us all, we can't allow ourselves to capitulate entirely to their needs and demands.

Yes, as Conservatives we value business, but we balance that with the other values we consider important for the common good. We value strengthening families as a bulwark against pure individualism. As David Willetts said in his Bright Blue speech (pdf) "We are not libertarian loners. There is more to life than the pursuit of personal freedom and independence". By preserving Sunday trading laws, we are not infringing on personal liberty as some free market libertarians would claim, but ordering our liberty using the law, in order for us to balance the other needs that pure individualism cannot bring on its own. Capitalism, and the power of capital thereof, while not the only driver of what we do, as some on the left claim, is still a powerful force over us all.

Sunday before 1994 was a day in which families were, for a while, set free from capitalism and were able to join together as a family, or as a community, knowing that they were all equally able to set aside their time for this task. Those claiming that religion should have no say over what they do are attacking a fiction. The law was widely supported because it was a privilege that was universal.

It was those lucky enough not to have to work on a Sunday; those new liberals embracing their high incomes and the time off it bought them, who campaigned for their abolition. They won. What we have seen is Sunday slowly turned into just another day where the poor are forced to work and therefore forced away from their family and friends. It has changed the attitudes of the young, too. There is a clear divide between the young and the old as to whether the current laws should stay the same as the invisible hand of business has crushed tradition. Some couples now see shopping at supermarkets as a leisure activity in itself. Has family time really been reduced to buying the latest games console because the state won’t grant them any time to form a real relationship with their children?

It is unlikely we can return to the past without considerable political effort from those on both the left and right of the political spectrum, but it is possible that we can stop the remains of something decent in society being washed away. We have already almost entirely deregulated the hours in which large stores are able to open – except on a Sunday. The effect of dismantling the remaining trading laws would simply be to erode the protection that small business owners and their employees have to spend time with their families and then destroy their business entirely. It would force the supermarkets to open full hours on a Sunday (and all the staff that entails) in order to stay in competition without any benefit to the consumer, apart from their own convenience. For the selfishness of the middle class we would be giving up some of the last traditional protections that we have left.

It seems intuitive to say that by pushing back the frontiers of the state against the market we can solve our economic problems, but we should not forget the damaging role that the market can have on our civil institutions. What will bring the economy back on track is the wide ranging reforms we are making. Everything that the Coalition has set out to do will strengthen both the economy and society, whether it be cutting taxes and regulation for the underdog, or mending our broken society where so many are excluded. Abolishing Sunday Trading Laws will do neither. Loathe that I am to quote Gordon Brown, the message that it sends out is that "God helps those whom he has already helped". Supermarkets need no more help from us.

Worse than implementing the actual policy would be to go back on a promise which we said we would not. If libertarians within the party want to campaign for the abolition of Sunday trading laws then they are free to demand it be put into our next manifesto. Don't exacerbate our already damaged trust in the political class with your willingness to put your ideology ahead of honesty with the public.


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