While it is universally accepted that time never stands still, seasonal clock changes are a divisive part of modern life.
UK clocks change from GMT to summer time early Sunday. The US made the shift earlier this month. America is however angling to become a literal bellwether of global change by deliberating legislation to make daylight saving the permanent time zone setting come 2023.
The European Union was set to make a similar move after its Parliament voted to abolish biannual time zone changes in 2019. The proposal garnered overwhelming support, with a public consultation finding 84 per cent of citizens across all 28 member states were in favour of ending the oscillation.
Four years later, however, the move has not been enacted, pushed down the agenda by the coronavirus pandemic.
Logistical difficulties stemming from Brexit have also contributed to the stasis. With Northern Ireland leaving the EU and the Republic of Ireland remaining, the island of Ireland would face being temporally cleft in two.
The UK could choose to align with the EU, but has to date shown no inclination to do so. And to date, the EU itself has been unable to find an aligned position with its southern members favouring permanent summer and its northern members tending to prefer winter hours.
Given the EU is already spread over three time zones, adding further variance could lead to economic mayhem.
Why clocks change
More than 100 years ago, at the end of the 19th century, the International Meridian Conference voted to make Greenwich Mean Time the universal time standard in a move designed to assist industry.
The problem with permanent GMT was it failed to address seasonal light changes.
In Britain, a pamphlet was produced called The Waste of Daylight which suggested maximising the hours of sunlight in the evening would improve physical and mental health, and provide more evening leisure time.
The author of the document and godfather of the time zone debate, William Willet, proposed the plus one-hour summer time many have become accustomed to today.
His case was rejected by the government of the day but the idea was resurrected during the First World War, when it was decided more daylight hours would help to conserve coal.
The Summer Time Act was passed in 2016, although sadly too late for Willet, who had died of influenza the year before.
During the Second World War, Britain went even further and temporarily introduced British Double Summer Time, with clocks going forward two hours. The measure was revived in 1946-47 to cope with the severe fuel shortages consequent on a brutal winter.
Twenty years on, Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1968 experimentally adopted BST as the UK’s year-round time zone, but three years later in 1971, the trial was ended after a free vote in Parliament.
The pros and cons of daylight saving time
Time may change but people don’t, as all historians will vouch, and the debate over time zones taking place today is practically identical to that of Willet’s day.
A man who might reasonably lay claim to being Willet incarnate is Dr Mayer Hillman, senior fellow emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute.
Dr Hillman doesn’t see anything wrong with clock changes — in fact, he sees them as optimal — but he believes the current changes in the UK are not ideal.
Instead of the annual changes between GMT to BST, he would like to see the UK align with the current time zone of much of Western Europe: GMT+1 in the winter and GMT+2 in the summer.
In effect, this would mean that during the peak summer months, darkness would fall at about 10.30pm across most of the country.
On his website, Dr Hillman calls the extra leisure time “highly advantageous” and says children and the elderly will benefit the most as dusk often acts as a curfew for those cohorts.
An argument often levelled against extending daylight hours is that it makes mornings darker and thus makes it more dangerous for children travelling to school.
The argument is a vestige of Parliament’s vote in 1971 to end the three-year BST trial. Data back then showed a slow increase in the deaths of children on the way to school.
Dr Hillman believes the data used in this argument are distorted.
“There is far more activity in terms of travel and transport in the latter part of the day around dusk than there is in the morning,” he says on his website.
“What [Parliament in 1971] overlooked at the time was that there was a far more significant reduction in casualties in the latter part of the today.”
Beyond the physical and mental health benefits, Dr Hillman says more daylight in the evening will have a beneficial effect on crime, citing research from University College London that found a significant increase in muggings at dusk and nightfall.
He also believes closer alignment with Western Europe, assuming it continues to change time zones, will have a benign effect on both business and travel.
Striking the right balance
Dr Hillman’s “let there be light” approach isn’t universally accepted, however.
Dr David Prerau is credited as being the world’s foremost expert in daylight saving time and author of the “light” read, Seize the Daylight.
As the title indicates, Dr Prerau’s position isn’t diametrically opposed to that of Dr Hillman and he, too, believes more should be made of daylight.
However, he doesn’t think daylight saving should be imposed year round due to darker mornings, citing a doomed experiment in the US in 1974.
“It was a two-year emergency measure because of an energy problem,” he told The National.
“But what happened was people thought it might be good but when it actually happened in the middle of the winter, it became very unpopular very quickly.
“And so even though it was only a temporary measure, Congress repealed the second year because there was so much negative feeling.”
Dr Prerau stressed he is no political scientist but suggested politicians of today from both sides of the pond have forgotten this historical lesson.
“[People] didn’t like commuting in the dark. They didn’t like sending their kids to school in the dark, having them walk through dark city streets or waiting on the side of rural roads for buses in the dark,” he said.
Will permanent daylight saving time come to the UK?
The chances of any change to the changing time zones in the UK appears remote.
Having been focused primarily on coronavirus for two years, political bandwidth is now fully taken up by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and correlated economic adversity.
If the global energy crisis becomes even worse, then there is the possibility the UK would consider extending daylight hours to conserve oil and gas as was done in the two world wars.
Making this change permanent would likely incur significant opposition north of the border in Scotland, which is disproportionately affected by dark mornings as a result of its more northern latitude.
The case for more — not fewer — time-zone changes
From the perspective of calibrating light to best fit and enhance lifestyles, there is actually a strong case to be made for as a many as three or four time zone changes in a year.
“[It] would be nice in one aspect,” said Dr Prerau.
“I have a three to four-period thing where you’d go early and then two things in the middle that would be medium and then one that would be the latest.”
Despite the appeal on a seasonal basis, he pointed out the disruption that would likely occur from so many changes.
“People don’t like to be out of sleep, but they lose a lot of people with scheduling things like aeroplanes and trains and so on. [Broadcasters] have to change their schedules, too.”
He doesn’t believe the challenges attached to more time zone changes are insuperable, however.
“I think they could be minimised if [there were] things on television reminding people a few days before the daylight saving time change: ‘The daylight saving time we change is coming. You may even lose an hour of sleep, maybe go to sleep earlier that night’.”
On balance, Dr Prerau thinks that fewer changes are probably best, but says there is no reason why daylight saving couldn’t be extended from its current six months to eight or nine.
What time do the clocks go forward for summer 2022?
Regardless of the various pros and cons of the daylight saving debate, most people should have clocked on to the fact the clocks are about to spring forward in many global time zones.
For those still in the dark, Sunday, March 27 is the date daylight saving returns to the UK. Don’t let it scare the living daylights out of you by not being prepared.