Do not go gentle into that good night…

Illustrations: Christian Tate

For well over a century now a battle has been raging in Westminster between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Admittedly, in Parliament’s perennial tussle over daylight saving – whether we should allow more sunshine into our lives by bringing to a halt the dismal ritual of moving the clocks back every October – both camps see themselves as fighting on the side of light. In broad caricature, the battle lines are drawn between “southern Tories” happy to sever Britain’s 131-year attachment to Greenwich Mean Time so they’ll be free to indulge their fantasies of endless evenings on the English Riviera, and doughty crofters from the far north and west of Scotland where daylight hours in winter are far too precious a commodity to be tinkered with. As epic struggles against the dark go, it’s Hogwarts meets ‘Highlander’.

“They would throw Scotland – and anywhere north of Manchester – into darkness for a good two months of the year. This fact doesn’t bother them. But they will inevitably lose.” So says Angus Brendan MacNeil, the combative Hebridean MP who is leading the charge against the Daylight Saving Bill that’s currently before Parliament. Having helped the Scottish National Party see the back of similar bills twice before, MacNeil casts himself as the defender of Scotland’s right to light on gruelling winter mornings – mornings which stay darker for longer the further north you go.

Ranked against him are not just Tories but MPs of all stripes, several of them Scottish. Many among them are pushing for Single-Double Summer Time, which sounds like a madcap children’s TV show but actually denotes GMT+1 in the winter and GMT+2 in summer and would bring Britain into line with France, Germany, Spain et al. These arch-horological rationalisers find it hard to stomach that for the past 40 years successive attempts at legislation have been blocked by a stubborn, time-sensitive minority, who have either blethered the bills into submission or given the government of the day enough in the way of heebie-jeebies to kill them off. “Fair enough, there should be a debate,” Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, said recently, “but one based on facts, not on the exhumation of the English as evil bogeymen aiming to steal the sun from the Scottish sky.”

This time round, though, the longer-evening lobby might just find a way to lift the legislative gloom. Rebecca Harris, the newly elected Conservative MP for Castle Point in Essex, admits she had little idea of the bunfight she was getting into when she drafted Daylight Saving as a private member’s bill last year. “People said, ‘Oh, it’s been tried eight times before, it’ll never get past the first reading.’ Which is why I did my bill a bit differently.” Her masterstroke, which on 3rd December helped her bill pass its second reading with a vote of 92 to eight, was to resist calling for immediate action. Instead her bill seeks to “take the political sting out of the issue” by humbly proposing a public review of the evidence, with a view to conducting a three-year trial should the findings prove compelling.

The beauty of the softly, softly approach is that the evidence, so far, is overwhelmingly on Harris’s side. The campaign group Lighter Later (www.lighterlater.org), which has been working closely with Harris to promote the bill, points to the impressive sweep of organisations that have added their voices to the chorus for clock-change: road-safety campaigners, who can cite independent studies that suggest a extra hour’s sun in the evenings will save 80 lives a year, most of them children; the UK tourism industry, which could benefit from an estimated £3 billion in revenue and some 70,000 jobs; sporting associations, who suspect that 235 extra hours of recreational daylight a year will encourage a more active, more athletic nation; and environmentalists, who expect a reduction in carbon emissions equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road each year.

Couldn’t England ditch Greenwich Mean Time while Scotland persisted with it, perhaps rebranded as Greenock Mean Time?”

“In one fell swoop,” says Maddy Carroll of Lighter Later, “we could introduce a policy that costs bugger all to implement, is really quick and really easy and can save 80 lives a year – it’s a no-brainer.”

And the clincher is it’s even less of a brainer north of the border: the likelihood is that many of these benefits would actually be magnified in Scotland, where a preponderance of pedestrians on the roads could mean proportionately more lives being saved (20 of the UK-wide 80), and where tourism accounts for a much bigger chunk of the economy than in England (11 per cent as opposed to 3.5 per cent). Under the weight of these figures, even the most entrenched Summer Time sceptics are beginning to buckle: the National Union of Farmers Scotland recently ended its long tradition of official disdain towards clock change pending Harris’s review.

Yet she still might not get one. The government is anxious about stirring sedition in the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, and has stipulated that, no matter how irresistible the facts, no clock-change legislation will be taken forward without the explicit agreement of all the UK’s devolved assemblies. This buoys Angus MacNeil no end. He believes Downing Street’s constraint is enough, if Alex Salmond and the SNP are returned in the Scottish Parliament elections in May, to render the Daylight Saving Bill “dead in the water”.

But why, Harris wonders – as well she might – has there been “so much opposition to me simply saying, ‘Let’s look at the evidence’”?

“They’re on what I would call a slippery slope,” is MacNeil’s answer. “They will be stopped some time and I would rather stop them now.”

MacNeil, who positions himself in the debate literally, by way of latitude and longitude (“I live seven degrees west of Greenwich, a half-hour west of Greenwich astronomically, and also north”), is keen to stress his objections are borne of practical considerations and not bloodymindedness. “If they want to use the hour at the end of the day, then simply get up an hour earlier,” he suggests. “What they’re telling us is to do things later, which is unusual, encouraging people to be slothful. I’m encouraging them to be active and vigorous.”

MacNeil has certainly been active and vigorous in his campain to derail daylight saving. In March he tabled an amendment to a Scotland Bill otherwise concerned with the minutae of finance and jurisdictional boundaries, which sought to give Holyrood the final say on which time zone Scotland should be in – a move which was resoundingly rejected by the House and described as “ludicrous” and “lunacy” by both Tory and Labour MPs.

Harris, who’s fond of MacNeil outside of their set-tos in the chamber, couches it in softer terms: “This puts Angus in a complicated position. I don’t think it would be a good idea for the UK to have two separate time zones, which is what his amendment implies; that would be potentially to the disadvantage of Scotland.”

But would it really? Spain and Portugal share both borders and three degrees of longitude, yet seem to cope with setting their watches an hour apart. What would stand in the way of the UK dividing its time in a similar way? Couldn’t England ditch Greenwich Mean Time while Scotland persisted with it, perhaps rebranded as Greenock Mean Time?

clocks

“Well, I think at the moment we’ve got Greenock Mean Time!” says MacNeil. “It’s Greenock and Greenwich Mean Time, and it will always remain that. Having it devolved is a practical idea. Everything’s centralised in London in the UK for broadcasting and everything else, but none of this stuff is insurmountable at all.”

Inverclyde Council declined to comment on whether they would be interested in instituting their own meridian line 4.5 degrees west of Greenwich’s, outside Greenock Town Hall. And rightly so – despite a few sober voices in Westminster calling for it to be looked into as an option, the prospect of a separate time zone for Scotland has been “unequivocally” ruled out by the Prime Minister, according to under-secretary for Scotland David Mundell, and is at best a fanciful conceit. Even MacNeil concedes as much: “The reality of the politics is that is that if the English decide to move their time zone they’ll take us along with them, and we’ll have no power to do anything about it.”

Why, then, would he even suggest devolving timekeeping if it’s a power Holyrood could never bring itself to exercise? For MacNeil and the SNP it all comes down to courtesy. It bothers them that two of the UK’s other devolved authorities can be trusted with their own time management. “The Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats are quite happy that the Isle of Man can have power over their clocks and that Northern Ireland can have power over their clocks but bizarrely Scotland can’t,” complains MacNeil. “It seems quite anomalous.”

The power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland has indicated it “doesn’t give two hoots” whose hand is on their hour-hand; they will abide by Westminster’s decision come what may – and this bothers MacNeil even more. “It’s all right for them to sort of mock Scotland having it when they have it but won’t give it up.”

Time is a touchy subject in the realm of devolution politics, perhaps because on the face of it, clock-setting seems a natural issue for the devolved assemblies to adjudicate on. The hours at which the sun rises and sets are fundamental parameters of a nation’s character (just ask the Finns), and fixing a people’s time zone is bound to be a bit of a fudge – an unscientific compromise between local custom and geography. So for MacNeil, having the right to say no, even a suffocated right, counts. “It leaves us all in a more mutually respectful position – if we all have the power to go to the table and agree, rather than have it forced upon us. It’s not inconceivable that Scotland might say, ‘Yeah, let’s move it an hour; let’s move it two.’ But at least we should do that on our terms and in partnership with others.”

If this all sounds dangerously close to a concession to the clock-defilers, he’s got one more gibe to yank their fob chains with. “They’ve called it ‘Churchill Time’. Me, I think it’s ‘Chamberlain Time’. I think it’s just appeasement! It’s appeasement for a Europhile movement within the Conservative Party. He said controversially…” he says, in reality, impishly. For a man who doesn’t want the clocks to change, Angus is pretty fond of a good wind-up.

Rebecca Harris, meanwhile, who since stepping forward as the Woman of the Hour has been attacked as a “Barbecue Belt” Essex girl in the Telegraph and a “Berlin Time” traitor by the Daily Mail, is by now taking potshots like this very much in her stride. “It was clearly very effective during the Second World War, when Churchill took us on to it,” she says. “His plan was that it would save fuel and allow people to get home safely before blackout. And I think if it achieved that then, it’s likely to have a similar effect now.”

Postscript: Harris’s bill was filibustered out in January 2012. No bills addressing the issue have been put forward since.

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