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No choice

11 March 2016

COMPROMISES are hard to defend. Few ideologues will rush to barricades that allow through a steady trickle of traffic as part of an issue-calming measure. So the UK’s half-hearted Sunday-trading laws were ripe for interference by a Government that promotes profit over principle, and both over process (the late insertion of the new changes to the Sunday-trading laws into the Enterprise Bill ensured that a minimal amount of time was available to debate them). An insight into the Government’s thinking was provided by the Communities Minister, Brandon Lewis, in an interview with Sky News before the debate: “We want to make sure that we give more consumers the flexibility on Sundays to do what is right for them.” The latest round of debate about Sunday trading might be over, but it is hard to avoid using this sentence to judge the whole of the Conservative project: the assumption that the electorate can be thought of merely as “consumers”; the lack of consideration for people with any other function or stake: suppliers, distributors, shop workers, or residents; the use of the attractive-sounding “flexibility” instead of a more honest word, “power” — available only to those with the money to exercise it; and the individualisation of ethics: “what is right for them”.

The open championing of choice by successive governments has been hard to argue against. It is what people use their money for — the choice of where to live, where to eat, what to wear; and the introduction of choices that do not depend on wealth — which school for your children, where to go for hospital treatment, how to manage your pension — has empowered many people. The problem is not that the wealthy will always have more choices, even in these basic areas: it is that other factors reduce the choice that many have to almost nothing. Having the ability to choose a good school depends on there being a good school within reach a good school that has a place for your child. The choice of a good hospital depends, by and large, on where you live. And the choice whether or not to work on a Sunday — a choice, or “right”, frequently asserted by government legislators — depends on the availability of other work. In many instances, therefore, no real choice exists. Love of one’s neighbours involves something more active than simply leaving them to function as best they can without interference.

Behind this smokescreen of choice lies the abnegation of responsibility on the part of the Government. It is clear that many people want to shop on Sundays. It is true, too, that many would be willing to work longer hours on Sundays — particularly if the alternative is no work at all. But a Government has a mandate to care for its people, and this care overrides the dictates of personal choice. Just as the Government can decide that it is dangerous to drive at more than 70 miles an hour, or that some diseases and not others should be vaccinated against, it can be bolder in declaring that a shared period of rest and non-consumption is beneficial to human well-being. The evidence is there. It is not, after all, a new idea, and should be promoted nationally, not just locally.

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