It all started with an article in the Catholic Herald:
“One of Britain’s largest toy store chains will keep all its 149 branches closed this Christmas Eve, as the day falls on a Sunday.
“The Entertainer will likely lose around £2 million in sales thanks to the decision, but owner Gary Grant says it is important his 1,700 staff have time to spend with their families on Sunday.”
Bravo, Mr Grant.
In response, UnHerd’s editor, Tim Montgomerie, offered the following thought on Twitter:
“Sunday trading was one of the worst things attempted by Mrs Thatcher. There should be parts of life that aren’t marketised and space for families to enjoy time *together*”
The really interesting thing was the response to this response, which was certainly divided, but not according to conventional categories of left and right. Lining up against Tim was a broad swathe of opinion from the libertarian right to the centre-left. Those taking his side ranged from traditionalist Tories through to trade union socialists (via the former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron).
With apologies to Mr Farron, what separates the two sides is their attitude to liberalism, which is the idea that the highest – and, perhaps, only – purpose of politics is to maximise individual liberty. Different kinds of liberal disagree as to the best way of achieving this objective; for instance, some see the market as the best guarantor of individual freedom of action, others place an equal or greater emphasis on the enabling role of the state. But, whatever the means, liberals agree as to the ends.
In a piece for the New Statesman, Adrian Pabst dissents from the liberal consensus. He rejects the radical self-centredness of modernity and implores us to turn to the philosophy of Edmund Burke:
“Burke rejected the possessive individualism of liberal thinking in favour of social freedom. True liberty is secured by what he called ‘the equality of restraint’, not empty free choice.”
Not trading on a Sunday provides a near perfect example of what ‘equality of restraint’ means. What, on the surface of things, is a restriction on individual liberty, in fact creates a space that otherwise wouldn’t exist – a day when the consumer treadmill stops turning and shared human experience has a chance to revolve around something else.
Of course, it wasn’t enough for liberals to have their values dominate six days of the week, they had to colonise the seventh as well:
“Liberty is now the absence of constraints on individual desire except for the law and private conscience. Legal permissions are given to some, while others feel they are arbitrarily refused. Without any sense of the good we share in common with others, liberal freedom cannot decide between what should be allowed and encouraged and what should not.
“When rival rights and freedoms collide, power decides…”
Crucially, the growing populist challenge to liberalism isn’t about restoring a sense of the common good, but about power deciding differently between rival rights and colliding freedoms. While liberals draw their support from those who do well out the current decision-making framework; populists appeal to those who do badly from it.
The dilemma facing established political parties is whether to straddle this emerging fault line or to position themselves firmly one side or the other. For liberal purists any attempt at equivocation is intolerable – hence the growing interest in political realignment and the founding of new political parties.
In my view, the creation of a clearer divide between liberals and populists would be the wrong political realignment. Like Adrian Pabst, I’d like to see a genuinely Burkean force emerge in our politics, one that is neither liberal nor populist. Though not hostile to individual liberty, it would place it within a broader vision of the common good.Sunday trading may not be the greatest issue of our time, but it does unite those who understand that freedom depends on limits.