Rod Liddle

If Western Islanders want miserable Sundays, what right have the rest of us to interfere?

Sunday was a fairly dismal time for me, as a kid — and indeed for our dog, Skipper.

If Western Islanders want miserable Sundays, what right have the rest of us to interfere?
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Sunday was a fairly dismal time for me, as a kid — and indeed for our dog, Skipper.

Sunday was a fairly dismal time for me, as a kid — and indeed for our dog, Skipper. Church I could just about put up with, but Sunday school was an embarrassment too far: I would scurry home from it in fear that my friends might see me, wracked with shame, like a Tory MP on his way home from a visit to the rent boy. Attending Sunday school did not do much for you with your mates, in the way of kudos.

But then home wasn’t much better. The television was allowed on only for Songs of Praise at about 7.30 p.m., and I wasn’t allowed out to play because it was, of course, the Lord’s day, and He didn’t approve of football. Even kicking a ball around in the garden was beyond limits. I was permitted to read, which occupied me for a bit. The rest of the time I flicked elastic bands at Skipper’s balls and gave myself points for how often I hit the target. Or, if he was asleep, filling his mouth up with marbles, which made him growl in an hilariously confused manner when he woke up. Truth is, I resented Skipper on Sundays — he was allowed out twice a day, for a crap. For me the day stretched out long and brown and miserable so that even a visit from very old relatives was welcome respite.

I never thought of my parents as being especially religious and in truth quite a few of my friends were confined in exactly the same way, so it didn’t seem weird, just miserable. It all changed when I was about ten years old, partly I think because we were a little more affluent than we had been and somehow felt that the old laws didn’t apply to us quite so severely; and partly because they started showing one-day cricket matches on the television, which, for my dad, trumped anything Jesus Christ might have to say on the matter. And if cricket was OK then logically so was football.

This was 1970 and I don’t look back on it with much in the way of nostalgia, those deadened Sundays. The Sundays I have now are no less hideous, mind, and I have no dog to torment. But everyone seems so frenetically busy on a Sunday these days, buying stuff, loading up their cars with rubbish from garden centres and Sainsbury’s. I am an agnostic, then, on the Sunday trading laws. I was in favour of reform back in 1994 but now I am not so sure that we were right. It’s most likely age, I suppose, but I do think there is something to be said for boredom.

All this being said, though, I am fairly unequivocal about the bloody Equality and Human Rights Commission poking its big nose into the affairs of the people of the Western Isles, with its relentless demands that everybody should be allowed to do anything always, regardless of tradition or the Bible. Up on the islands of Lewis, Harris and North Uist they still keep their leisure centres firmly locked on a Sunday as a consequence of their long held sabbatarianism, but apparently the horrible EHRC is telling them that they will have to change their ways. There is a new public sector duty on all local authorities due to come into effect in April, presumably as part of the fatuous Equality Act, to ‘eliminate discrimination’ in its provision of services. In a statement of magnificent pomposity the EHRC has said: ‘Where a public body is aware that concerns have already been raised about the effect of certain policies or practices on certain groups, the commission’s guidance indicates that an assessment of the impact of that policy is given priority.’

What this gobbledegook is being taken to mean is that councils might have to open the leisure centres and golf clubs because not to do so would be discriminating against people who are not religious. The issue is confused still further because councils sometimes allow church groups to use some public facilities for the outdated and discredited practice of worshipping the Lord on a Sunday. In allowing these weirdo religious people this right they are therefore discriminating against non-religious people who wish to, say, play squash instead. Either way the council will find itself faced with carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment unless, fortuitously, the good Lord strikes down the EHRC with a mighty thunderbolt. Just writing the words ‘Equality Impact Assessment’ fills me with a crushing despair, like you get when you inadvertently turn the TV on to The X Factor.

The sabbatarians have been fighting a gradually losing battle for a couple of decades now, and hardly any less so in the Western Isles than anywhere else. You would bet that centuries of tradition and religious observance will be swept aside by this peculiar oxymoron of compulsory liberalism. That is to say a liberalism which will be forced upon you whether you want it or not. There’s little doubt too that when it comes to protecting minority rights and interests, Britain’s Christians will be last in the line for succour. Whether you agree with principle or not, opening public buildings for recreation will markedly change the tenor of Sundays for everyone in the Western Isles. In other words, their lives will be affected by the rights afforded to another minority. But who knows, maybe in time they’ll come to enjoy playing sport on a Sunday themselves, instead of praying, staring at kittiwakes and flicking elastic bands at the dog.