We already drive on the left, give road distances in miles and drink pints. So one good feature of Brexit is that Britain will be able to develop a whole series of exciting new idiosyncrasies to annoy continental Europeans. For instance, I am planning to bring a private petition to Parliament demanding that Britain formally adopt the UK tabloid approach to metrication, where all low temperatures are reported in Celsius and highs in Fahrenheit.
A colleague of mine, Pete Dyson, has an idea that might raise the eyebrows of our continental chums. He points out to me that the EU sanctioned dates on which we change our clocks for daylight saving time are holding us back. Pete is a human geographer, so he should know, but just to be sure I checked with my brother who is a bona fide astronomer. It really is pretty dumb.
British Summer Time is a bit of a misnomer. We spend 31 or 32 weeks of every year on summer time, only reverting to GMT (or British Winter Time, as it perhaps should be called) for the remaining 20 or 21. But the days in which we get up an hour later are not evenly spaced around the winter solstice (if they were, we would have put our clocks back on 17 September).
The purpose of daylight saving is to ensure that as many as possible of our waking hours are spent in daylight. If the arrangement were optimised for southern England, we could easily spend the whole year on British Summer Time or synchronise our clocks with France. This, however, would mean that during winters in north Scotland, children would walk to school in pitch darkness and farmers would need to rise long before daybreak to perform their vital work of stuffing antibiotics into the front of cows and pulling milk out of the back.
In truth, I have never bought the Scottish argument. As far as I know, cows don’t have watches, and so have no idea what time it is when the farmer turns up in the morning. And it wouldn’t be hard for schools and businesses in Caithness to kick off at 10 a.m. in winter months. But there are other arguments for GMT. Even though I live slightly east of Greenwich, I find it a bit grim waking up in pitch darkness. And the ease of doing business with North America is another factor. (If there is one country which should change its time zone wholesale, it is Spain: Madrid is due south of Swansea, yet Franco moved to the same time zone as Berlin in the 1940s. Many experts think it’s time they rejoined Portugal on GMT.)
What Britain could do, however, is align the dates on which we change our clocks with those in the United States and Canada. This means the first Sunday in November and the second Sunday in March. It is completely insane to wait until the end of March before moving to British Summer Time as we do now. Britain is depressing enough in the winter without imposing needless extra weeks of evening darkness.
There are very good energy saving arguments for this move. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents would support it, as would the health lobby — since it would give people more time after school or work to engage in outdoor pursuits. And it would also curtail what is perhaps the worst aspect of living in Britain, which is the four months of the year spent in light deprivation. March is the worst part of this. The evenings before Christmas are dark, but it’s a cosy, Dickensian kind of darkness. By March it’s simply depressing.
Phase Two of this plan will involve extending winter school holidays so we can actually bugger off somewhere nice. Any takers?
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.