Keeping Sunday special... or not

IT’S a bit of a dilemma.

IT’S a bit of a dilemma.

As a political columnist, I really must comment on the forthcoming Sunday trading debate, but as president of the Channel Islands’ Co-op, I could be accused of having a vested interest. Such is life.

The arguments from both the pro and anti Sunday trading lobbies can be split into two distinct types. Firstly, there are the purely practical points and secondly, the more philosophical perspectives.

Supporters of the status quo will argue that seven-day shopping simply adds costs without increasing total customer spend and therefore tends to put up prices. There is certainly some truth in that contention, but the logical extension of the argument is that shops should only be able to open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. That way costs [and therefore prices] could really be slashed. In reality that’s nonsense, because retail is a service industry and convenience is equally as important to customers as cost.

Anyway, spending isn’t totally inelastic and increased recreational shopping at weekends would no doubt increase impulse spending in areas like household goods and fashion. In fact, it could help local retailers in their constant fight against the drift to internet shopping.

Those against change will also point out that deregulation will probably lead to the closure of several small community shops that rely on that day’s trade – when the big boys are closed – to keep their heads above water. Again, I have no doubt that’s true and it would be rather sad.

The real question is whether, in a world of free competition, some businesses should be kept profitable not by genuine consumer demand but instead by an uneven playing field produced by a law that favours small shops over big ones. Surely where to shop on Sundays should surely be a consumer’s choice and not that of government?

Then there are the more ideological arguments on either side.

Firstly there’s the religious contention that the Sabbath is a day of rest decreed by God. The counter argument by the ever-growing secular lobby is that Christians can follow that doctrine if they wish but they shouldn’t impose it on others.

Other traditionalists will simply argue that having a special day when most families slow down and spend time together is better than constant, frenetic consumerism. Some modernisers will have considerable sympathy for that point of view. But they will still believe that such an old-fashioned approach can’t be imposed by law but rather must be a voluntary lifestyle choice. Certainly if the law was repealed, it would be in the hands of islanders as to how much Sunday trading actually took place. Shops can open at two o’clock in the morning now but they don’t choose to because – unlike in UK city centres – the demand just isn’t there.

Which set of arguments will win out when the States debates suspending the Sunday Trading Law? Who knows, but there is no doubt that deregulation is coming eventually. It’s simply a question of whether it’s now or in some years’ time.

Personally, I think it would probably be neater to embrace the inevitable. A side of me will certainly be sad if Sunday becomes just another day, but that will only happen if the demand is there from islanders.

Whether a one-year suspension is the best way to achieve change is questionable. I can see all the political attractions, but in the real world, it leaves scores of island retailers with the dilemma of taking on Sunday staff who may then need to be laid off again. Of course, it can be argued that such a risk is remote because the chances of re-imposing restrictions after a year of free trade are almost non-existent. But if that’s the case, why not be honest from the outset and go straight for a full repeal of Guernsey’s Sunday Trading Law?

One thing is certain. The debate on Deputy Hadley’s requete will raise the same strong emotions, on both sides of the argument, as this issue always has in the past. The simple truth, though, is that Guernsey’s special community feel has not been wrecked by the sale of petrol or alcohol on Sundays as the prophets of doom tried to convince us would happen. Nor will it be destroyed by all shops being allowed to open.

The bottom line is that if Guernsey Sundays are to stay special, it really has to be through the free choice of its citizens, not by government imposition.