I quite like shopping. But even I can see that it has become a dysfunctional feature of modern life, ubiquitous and, for some, compulsive.
Frantic scenes during the January sales can look like legalised looting. So when the government dreamed up spurious reasons for a further relaxation of the Sunday trading laws in England and Wales, I assumed George Osborne must want to stimulate spending for tax-grabbing reasons.
Daft or what? In good times as well as bad, there is only so much money to go round, only so much credit we can each rack up, only much “stuff” we can cram into our ever smaller homes without having to throw out some of the stuff we bought last year.
So I was delighted when a cross-party coalition of MPs defeated (by 317 votes to 286) David Cameron’s expressed wishes in the Commons on Wednesday. It’s good for governments to be thwarted once in a while and the prime minister has had it pretty easy, especially since Labour went on sabbatical. MPs from all parties except Ukip, including the SNP (we’ll come to them), backed the revolt. You can read how your MP voted here.
In this particular controversy, shop workers are a low-paid group who need some protection; consumers need one day in the week that is different from the rest; and our credit cards need protection from their owners. Rebel Tory MP and lawyer David Burrowes made a decent speech on his successful amendment. Brandon Lewis, the junior minister sent in to reply, got a toasting (it’s what they’re for).
Of course, people can argue – not just secularists and libertarians – that we should all be able to do whatever we want on Sundays, which are no different from other days except that fewer of us work. I acknowledge the argument made in the 80s when Mrs T was defeated by her own side, and again in the 90s when John Major prevailed in opening up Sunday shopping. The Major compromise works pretty well, so Cameron was telling colleagues until recently. The changes to trading weren’t in the Tory manifesto last May either.
There’s a subplot in which Tory loyalists argued on Wednesday that the defeated clause would only have been permissive in letting local authorities decide for themselves whether to extend existing restricted hours, six hours maximum on bigger stores of more than 3,000 sq ft.
Local autonomy is often a good thing. But critics complained that there would be pressure to copy what the council next door was doing for fear of losing out. Shop workers complain that they get punished if they don’t work the Sunday rota. I can well imagine it; I’ve worked Sundays all my life.
But let’s agree that honest folk can disagree in principle and in practice on how the changes would work. Again, I’m sceptical about the notion that Cameron’s wheeze would help revitalise smaller retailers, especially against the trend to online purchase. The advice sounds as if it came from the same people who persuaded Tony Blair to “liberalise” high street gambling.
So what about the headline-grabbing angle, the one about the SNP’s 54-strong block (two of its MPs are suspended from the whip pending investigations) joining with Labour and other rebels? I’m pretty relaxed about this – in fact, I am quietly cheered for several reasons.
Yes, I know, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said before the election that her flock would not vote on matters that did not affect Scotland. That ought to include Sunday opening hours because Scotland controls its own and has more relaxed rules.
During negotiations over Scotland’s block grant, the Barnett formula and other thorny financial matters, settled favourably for Sturgeon, UK ministers thought they had won an understanding that the SNP would steer clear of Wednesday’s vote. That is denied.
In any case, as she explained, Sturgeon changed her mind. This week her troops changed theirs over Sunday trading on the declared grounds that the change might undermine the “premium” protection given to Scots retail staff for working Sunday shifts.
In the run-up to the Holyrood parliamentary elections in May, Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s new leader in Scotland, had positioned herself to condemn a “Tory SNP stitch-up”, so Sturgeon had a political flank to defend. “Hypocrisy,” cry ministers. Well, maybe.
But as I argued the last time the SNP interfered in an England and Wales matter – over Cameron’s dashed hopes of relaxing the hunting ban – SNP MPs are full members of the Westminster parliament. So they are entitled to vote on anything unless expressly excluded. For the first time they were on a housing matter in January, thanks to the English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) change the Tories voted through in October.
It’s a slippery slope, much trickier than ministers seem to think, as various experts have explained. Don’t forget assorted Ulster Unionists interfered in non-Ulster legislation (usually to support the Tories) for decades.
In contrast to the EVEL time bomb ticking away, I’m happy to see Wednesday’s vote as a bit of normalisation of the SNP block at Westminster, finding useful things to keep them busy and happy in wicked London until the great day comes – if it comes – when they can all go home and count their pennies to their hearts’ content. What with the collapse of oil revenues, that side of things isn’t getting any easier, but that won’t put off many people.
It’s left the big supermarkets upset over the survival of “arcane and outmoded” trading practices. But we don’t care too much about upsetting those greedy rascals, do we?
This article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 10th March 2016 12.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010