Leap in the dark: Europe puts its clocks back

Fall back: Big Ben showed an earlier time at sunset on Sunday. © Colin / Wikimedia Commons

Millions of people spent an extra hour in bed after the clocks changed on Sunday. But 100 years after British Summer Time was invented, a growing chorus is calling for the practice to end.

One summer dawn in 1905, a builder called William Willett was riding his horse through the countryside. He noticed that all the blinds were down on the houses. Everyone was asleep.

Willett was inspired to publish a pamphlet called The Waste of Daylight. He dedicated the rest of his life to changing Britain’s clocks, in an attempt to rouse people earlier. In 1916, during the fuel shortages of the first world war, British Summer Time was passed into law. Winston Churchill said Willett had given ‘more light to his countrymen’.

A century on, the clocks went back across Europe at 2am on Sunday. In London, sunrise moved from 7:49am to 6:51, and sunset from 5:38pm to 4:36. Nearly five months of gloomy late afternoons have begun, to the horror of late risers.

Most of the Western world uses Daylight Saving Time. Many northern hemisphere countries wound their clocks back this weekend or will do so next; the main exceptions are in the tropics, where sunrise and sunset are at similar times all year round. Now some are calling for the clocks to stay forward all year.

In the UK, Clare Poges writes in The Times, ‘the arguments for change are overwhelming’. Fuel consumption would fall and people would be able to dedicate their afternoons to leisure. It would boost tourism, help to counter depression and save lives. And the idea has a precedent: between 1968 and 1971 Britain experimented with Single / Double Summer Time.

But the issue is divisive. Change would benefit late workers in cities, but farmers dread the prospect of darker mornings. It is also surprisingly political: Scottish nationalists are among the most vocal critics of plans to put the clocks forward.

Some even lament the 1916 change altogether. In March 2015 Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday columnist and an early riser, criticised the ‘increasing amount of night in early morning’ and the artificial acceleration of ‘the enjoyable slow and dusky advance into evening’. He said the UK should put its clocks back and keep them there — as Russia did in October 2014.

Calling time

Keep the clocks forward, say night owls. Common sense dictates that we should maximise the amount of daylight when most people are awake. Opponents mostly come from niche special interest groups. Bringing the time forward would be symbolic of a dynamic, fast-changing society and a declaration of economic intent.

Awful idea based on questionable evidence, respond the morning larks. It would ignore the interests of people — such as farmers and Scots in the UK — who are already easily forgotten by those with power. People should show more appreciation for the beauty of mornings and change their own lives, not the time for the rest of us.

You Decide

  1. Are you a morning person or an evening person?
  2. Should your country change its clocks?

Activities

  1. Try waking up at dawn for a week. Write a diary of your experiences.
  2. Write a short story, of no more than 500 words, about somebody who spends their life in darkness.

Some People Say...

“Clocks should not exist.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does this really matter?
Many people see themselves as either morning people or evening people: larks or owls. And it is interesting to consider the differences between the two. Larks often say they are more motivated and harder-working; owls think they are more fun. So whether you get up early or late can be a very important insight into your character.
Is this really a political issue?
Yes. The time we keep has a significant impact on the society around you, for example by making mornings or evenings safer. And it helps to illustrate how those in charge react to different people’s interests.
I am not British. Where else do the clocks change?
All of Europe except Russia; parts of the Middle East; almost all of the USA and Canada; Mexico; parts of Brazil and Australia; Paraguay; New Zealand; Mongolia; and Morocco.

Word Watch

William Willett
Willett died in 1915, aged 58 — a year before the change he campaigned for was passed into law.
Months
The clocks will go forward again on Sunday March 26th.
Daylight Saving Time
The practice of putting the clocks forward to maximise the amount of light.
Next
In countries such as Greenland, Mexico and parts of Canada, the clocks will change on Sunday November 6th.
Depression
Childline, a counselling service for children and young people in the UK, says calls from users contemplating suicide increase in winter.
Lives
The number of road accidents increases in the dark.
Single / Double Summer Time
The time would be one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time in winter and two hours ahead of it in summer — just as it is across most of continental Europe.
Scottish
The change is unpopular in Scotland. In parts of the country, the sun would not rise until around 10am in winter if the UK stopped putting the clocks back.

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