The proposal to change Britain’s clocks has returned, this time with tacit government support.
Since the day I flew backwards across the International Date Line I have known that you should not mess around with time. On that occasion I left Siberia on Monday morning and arrived in Alaska the previous Sunday afternoon in time for lunch. This was and remains confusing, though it offers disproof of the old cliché that you cannot put the clock back. Though I have been to North Korea and Bhutan, I still count it among the most startling journeys I have ever taken. It lasted about an hour.
And it is about an hour that sets me — and I hope you — apart from Rebecca Harris, one of those homogenised, UHT female Tory MPs, all glowing with forward-looking verve. And gosh, she is forward-looking. She wishes us all to live an hour further forward than we already do, getting up in the dark for most of the winter, and watching Newsnight in summer while it is still light outside. It wouldn’t much matter what Mrs Harris wants, were it not for the fact that there are recent rumours that the Prime Minister has decided it might be expedient to take her side.
Rebecca Harris calls her campaign ‘Lighter Later’, though its measurable effects mean it could equally well be called ‘Darker Later’. I have annoyed her supporters greatly by baptising her scheme ‘Berlin Time’, a jibe which I’ll come back to shortly. She wants to term it ‘Churchill Time’, an unconvincing reference to the exceptional period of virtual war communism between 1940 and 1945, when there was a grave shortage of farm workers and it made sense to put off sunset as late as possible in summer to get the harvest in. You might as well invoke the old warrior’s name in a campaign to bring back rationing, or perhaps the blackout, in peacetime. The magnificent Jacob Rees-Mogg MP has dubbed it ‘Vampire Time’, because, however often this shifty proposal is defeated and buried, it rises again from its tomb.
Mrs Harris’s bill appeared to be deceased last summer, when it won a second reading but the government declined to support it. Normally, this means doom for a private member’s bill. Its supporters had claimed to begin with that Mr Cameron sympathised, though it was hard to find concrete evidence of this, and the Mail on Sunday’s vigorous campaign against it may have made him wonder.
And yet there is now a great deal of authoritative whispering at high levels around Westminster that the Berlin project is dusting the earth off its shroud and preparing to climb, yet again, out of its coffin. Because the Commons did not break up in September, as it normally would have done, it is still technically possible for the bill to be shoved back on to the parliamentary conveyor belt and so become law before May. But because the time and space available are very limited, it could only do so if the Tory whips let it be known that it has Downing Street support. This is now likely.
Very significantly, it is said that the Prime Minister sees the measure as a sort of Christmas present to Nick Clegg. This, it seems, is the way government is carried out in the coalition. It is also strong circumstantial evidence that the plan is an EU project, as its opponents have always suspected and as its supporters have always denied. Equally interesting, it is a breezy gesture of southern nonchalance in the direction of Scotland. Berlin time would be an oppressive nuisance in England, but it would be even more pestilent in Alex Salmond’s nascent People’s Republic. Mr Salmond would be able to make much of a London elite prepared to see children die on dark and frozen roads in the Highlands so that effete Englishmen could enjoy late barbecues in the sunshine in the Home Counties. If Mr Cameron wanted to encourage Scottish separatism, while pretending to favour the Union, he could not have chosen a better way of doing so.
The bill has been around many times before in varying shapes. It is hard to think of any other proposal that has come back to parliament so many times and in so many forms, and always supported by Europhiles. It is easy to deduce that Brussels — so obsessed with uniformity that it wants us all to have the same style of car number-plates — is infatuated with the idea of a single time zone for the superstate. But Brussels also knows it will not get such a thing by asking for it directly. The current excuse is that pushing our time so far ahead will in some mystical way boost income from tourism, cause us all to do more exercise and — of course — ‘reduce carbon emissions’. Sheaves of wondrous figures supposedly proving this are available from the Department of National Guesswork, for anyone gullible enough to be fooled by such things.
For of course parliament cannot increase the amount of daylight by one second. It can only move it about from one end of the day to another. And even then it is limited, as it is in so many other ways, by European Union law. This says we must shift our clocks backwards one hour on a set date in autumn and forwards one hour on a set date in the spring. That is why we cannot repeat the strange experiment of 1968–71, when we went halfway to Berlin. In October 1968, we did not put our clocks back as usual, but instead left them an hour ahead and stopped moving them at all thereafter. The resulting Stygian mornings in winter were loathed by all those who had to rise early. They were also followed by an increase in traffic deaths (not casualties as a whole, but deaths) which may have had something to do with the problems of children going to school on busy, poorly lit roads. Parliament, as is now forgotten, abandoned this unpopular mistake with great relief after three years.
It could have been even worse. For we did not put our clocks forward an hour in summer as well. The Portuguese did this in 1992, lured by promises startlingly similar to those offered by Mrs Harris. They gave it up after four horrible years during which sleepless children were chivvied from their beds by starlight in winter, and could not settle down to rest until nearly midnight in summer. So they failed at school, while consumption of anti-depressants and sleeping pills among their parents increased noticeably.
There is a simple reason for this problem. Time is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of fact. It states the unalterable physical relationship between the sun and the part of the earth on which we stand. The 15 degrees of longitude which separate London from Berlin are not arbitrary, but absolute. There is and always will be an hour’s difference between the times of sunrise in the two capitals.
I have called it Berlin time because its political origins lie in that city, in the years of the Hohenzollerns. That was when a recently united Germany introduced Central European Time, based of course on the Berlin meridian. The clocks all conformed, from the Dutch frontier in the west to Königsberg, within sight of imperial Russia, in the east. Since then, thanks to war, occupation and diplomacy, that zone has spread and spread, just as the EU has spread.
As the late Sir Nicholas Ridley found to his cost after an interview with this magazine, it is not done to mention the element of German domination at the heart of the EU. Yet the fact that large swaths of Europe must eat breakfast in twilight in winter is a constant reminder of who is really in charge. Berlin, where the clocks are sensibly in step with the local meridian, does not suffer this problem.
Until the good people of Berlin agree to live and work by the time in Minsk, which would be advisable only if Mrs Harris’s predictions about tourism and exercise are actually true, I won’t believe this plan is for our own good, and nor should you. This Bill needs a stake through its heart, if not two.