CHANGING to European Central Time would mean lives would be saved, carbon emissions would fall and people would feel better, writes Joyce McMillan
A few evenings ago, just before six o’clock, I nipped out to the shops round the corner from my flat. The night was damp and foggy; and even on a well-lit Edinburgh street, the atmosphere at the height of the rush hour seemed confusing and just slightly dangerous, as pedestrians darted through the traffic, lights flashed everywhere, and everyone tried to travel just that little bit faster than is sensible in a complex urban environment at dusk.
And after a minute or two, I began to recognise one reason why I was feeling particularly disorientated. Two or three weeks ago, it would have been broad daylight at that point during the evening rush hour; but now, thanks to the end of British Summer Time, it was pitch dark, as we lurched suddenly into an evening darkness far more abrupt than nature intended.
We all know why the clocks change, of course. As we approach midwinter, the amount of daylight available in the northern latitudes becomes very short; and the idea is to maximise the usefulness of the daylight we get by placing it at the right point in the day, which, for central Scotland, is currently deemed to be between about 9 am and 4 pm.
There is, though, a rising tide of evidence that we have simply got this timing of our daylight wrong; and that while some people benefit from the earlier morning daylight that comes with the turning back of clocks, absolutely everyone loses because of the impact of early winter darkness.
The most compelling arguments are the ones involving road safety, and particularly the fate of the most vulnerable road users. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that changing to Central European Time, which would give us an extra hour of evening daylight both summer and winter, would save 80 lives and prevent 212 serious injuries each year, while statistics from Britain’s last experiment with year-round British Summer Time, between 1968 and 1971, showed a much larger effect, with almost 2,500 deaths or serious injuries prevented each year, and the positive effect significantly greater in Scotland and the north than in the south.
The arguments for more winter evening daylight go far beyond road safety, though. Health researchers argue that a change to Central European Time would increase the daylight leisure time available to the average British worker by 28 per cent, with huge potential effects on everything from general fitness, to depression brought on by Seasonal Affective Disorder, or lack of sunlight. The tourist industry is unanimous in its belief that an extra hour of evening daylight would have a major positive effect on its performance.
Environmental campaigners believe that an extra hour of daylight, at a peak time for power consumption, could reduce carbon emissions in Britain by the equivalent of all the emissions of a city of half a million people. And campaigners for the elderly describe older people as being effectively “curfewed” by the darkness that falls in late afternoon, and likely to benefit disproportionately from evening rather than morning daylight, as they rarely leave their homes until the morning rush hour is over anyway.
The arguments for an end to this annual moment of misery are overwhelming, in other words; and the counter-arguments involving dark mornings are increasingly weak, given the evidence that even if we have to rise early, we are better able to cope with darkness in the morning than in the evening.
So why don’t we just get on and make the change? Because the time we use, and the time-zone we adopt, is a matter of emotion and allegiance, as much as reason. Only this year, for example – in the midst of an emotive general election – Turkey abruptly decided not to put its clocks back at the same time as the adjacent European countries, but to wait until after the election; chaos ensued, particularly at airports, but presumably some kind of national pride was served. When Britain experimented with year-round BST, in the late 1960s, what was actually a hugely successful trial was engulfed in a mounting media campaign against Harold Wilson’s Labour government, and immediately reversed, amid roars of irrational triumph, by Ted Heath’s incoming Tory administration. And the last time a change to Central European Time came up for debate at Westminster, it was proposed by a Conservative MP from the south of England who was immediately shouted down by a chorus of Scottish voices asserting that while CET might suit the south of England, it would somehow be intolerable in Scotland – whereas in fact, what evidence there is suggests that Scotland would benefit more from the change than any other part of the UK.
So here is my modest proposal for any future debate on this subject: that instead of adopting the ridiculous position of vociferously and tribally opposing a change from which we could only benefit, Scotland and all its representatives should from now on take the initiative in campaigning for change, and making the case either for CET or for year-round BST, whichever seems most positive in its likely effects. The Scottish Government should adopt it as policy, Scottish MPs at Westminster should start to argue for it, and the Scottish people should get behind it, as a simple way to save precious lives, reduce energy costs, boost our economy, and brighten up all our lives.
And if MPs from the south start to resist this modest proposal simply because representatives from Scotland are making it - well, at least this time we will be the ones making the reasonable argument, and they will be the chauvinistic fools, flying off the handle without pause for thought.
Which might make a pleasant change, in the long and over-emotional history of this debate: but should also act as a reminder that no UK political party, including the SNP, has a record to boast of when it comes to the petty politics of this issue; and to the coarse art of cutting off your nose to spite your face, instead of welcoming a change that would benefit everyone in these islands, regardless of who raises the proposal, and which part of our storm-tossed archipelago he or she happens to represent.