George Osborne
George Osborne is planning to relax the rules around Sunday trading for shopsReuters

Once upon a time in ancient England, circa 1993, it was nigh-on impossible to pop down to the shop and buy a pint of milk on a Sunday afternoon.

A legacy from the days when the country was governed with laws based on theocratic whims, Sunday is the day of rest for Christians, so it followed that there should be no retail trading.

But that began to change in the late-1980s when the Shops Bill was put before the House of Commons seeking to completely relax the strict rules around Sunday trading.

It was an attempt to reform previous Shops Acts of 1912, 1938 and 1950 which outlawed Sunday trading for most firms.

Local authorities were given by the acts the power of "partial exemption orders" which, under tight rules about when and for how long, some firms would be allowed to trade with permission from the council.

But the liberalising Shops Bill 1986 was struck down in the House of Commons over a mix of concerns about the effect on the family, community and religious observance. It united in opposition social conservatives on the left and right as it still does today.

Parliament was presented with a "humble petition of residents of Jarrow" which opposed unlimited trading on a Sunday because it "has special characteristics as a day of rest, recreation and worship for the benefit of our family and community life".

By 1994, we had reached the end of our tolerance for drinking black tea on Sunday nights. The Sunday Trading Act was passed, though it was watered down from the reforms proposed back in the 1980s.

And that is where we still are. The 1994 act allows small shops unrestricted trading on a Sunday. A small shop is defined as under 280 square metres in size.

Large shops are allowed to open on Sunday, but only for six consecutive hours between 10am and 6pm. They must close on Easter Sunday and Christmas Day.

There are exemptions for some large shops, including airport and railway station outlets, those at service stations, and exhibition stands selling goods, for example.

Chancellor George Osborne is expected to go further in his latest budget, due on 8 July. Reports suggest he will allow shops to open for longer on Sundays than the six consecutive hours currently permitted, to boost the economy, help create more jobs and meet consumer demand. Though he may devolve the power to make that extension to local authorities.

Having strict rules for Sunday trading is characteristic of many western Christian societies. Germany has notoriously strict rules on Sunday trading. And Norway has some of the tightest rules in Europe.

"Stores in Norway currently are not allowed to open on Sundays unless they're smaller than 100 square meters in size or located at transport hubs like train stations or airports, or areas frequented by tourists," according to newsinenglish.no.

But England and Wales is following other European states which have relaxed their Sunday trading rules, including Sweden, Spain, Italy and Finland. And, of course, Scotland -- where there are no Sunday trading restrictions.