In defence of British time

Today was the last day of British Summer Time, by which for seven months of the year, the British call midnight 1am and noon 1pm. For the five months from the end of October to the end of March, Greenwich Mean Time rules: midnight is midnight and noon is noon. And pretty much every year, there are the familiar calls for GMT to be abolished, and the accusations that we are all being held to ransom by a conspiracy of the Scots, builders and farmers. Most people will tonight sleep for an extra hour, except for us Muslims who still have to be up at what was previously called 5.30am, but will now be known as the rather less friendly 4.30am, for suhur or pre-fast meal.

I don’t know about how other Muslims deal with this, but I will probably ignore GMT for the first few days and pretend that the time is still GMT+1. It’s just easier to get up at 5.30 than 4.30. What this will also mean is that, when getting up for a 7am work start, I will be able to spend an hour or so in front of my computer before heading off for the late start. Which might well mean a busier blog. Or a busier programming schedule. Or whatever I decide to do with my extra hour.

A lot of people want to abolish daylight saving. The usual reason is that road deaths go up in the weeks after the clock change, because people have to get used to the darker evenings and driving home an hour later. Another is that people develop Seasonal Affective Disorder due to having to experience more darkness, because they get up well after sunset and night falls before they get out of the office. When I first listened to the discussion on the Vanessa Feltz show on Friday morning, I thought of a number of arguments for retaining GMT, all of which on examination proved to be selfish and petty.

For one thing, GMT is weird and anomalous. The last hour in the numerical sequence is the first hour of the next day or half-day: it goes 12, then 1 up to 11. Noon and midnight begin the day or the afternoon, but are referred to as the last hour of the previous day’s, or morning’s, numbers. British Summer Time seems more sensible: the first hour, is referred to as one, and 12 is really 12 after midnight or after noon, not midnight or noon itself. What’s strange about BST, however, is that the official day doesn’t begin at noon or midnight. It begins an hour before, at 12am and 12pm. I once had to speak to someone around that time of night in the summertime, who said they had prayers to do “before midnight”. I said that midnight is 1am, because it was summer. My friend replied, “not to me it isn’t”, and put down the phone.

The objections to abolishing GMT are legitimate ones, although they don’t necessarily justify covering the rest of us. The Scots, who have their own parliament, should (or should be able to) legislate their own time system separate from ours. Farmers generally have what urbanites would consider anti-social hours anyway, as, to a lesser extent, do builders (I often have to deliver to construction sites well before office hours). As a driver, I benefit from the change, with 7am starts being later into the morning (and thus lighter), except, of course, on long driving days.

And I actually enjoy the dark evenings; the summer, characterised by warm weather and bright sunlight, gives way to winter, characterised by indoor lights and firelight. Even if they did abolish the sudden change, by the middle of winter people would still be driving home in the dark, which would still have fallen by the time people leave work (which is usually after 5pm). It would be interesting to see if the surge in accidents in November would simply be displaced into December if GMT were abolished - causing the spike in accidents to be associated with Christmas. On top of which, in mid-winter, the season of treacherous weather begins, and perhaps it’s useful for people to be accustomed to driving in the dark by this time.

Perhaps this alone makes the case for not abolishing GMT. It’s actually never been tried (although BST was briefly abolished in the late 1960s, an experiment abandoned after three years). What I really would object to is the imposition of Central European Time, in effect “double summertime” with midnight being called 2am and midday being called 2pm, as happens in France. Besides the difficulty this would cause to anyone who has to pray at mid-day (which, of course, is something to recommend it to some twisted people) because mid-day would fall just after lunch hour finishes, this quite simply makes no sense. Midnight and noon are when they are, regardless of what we call them.

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