The Scots will gripe but, even so, let there be light

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Professor Youngson delivered my first course in economics at nine in the morning in the David Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh. I walked to his lectures in the dark. My student days coincided with a three-year experiment in which British Summer Time was extended to the whole year.

When I returned home, the news bulletins would regularly begin with reports of injuries to children: the carnage on Scottish roads was emptying its schools as it filled its hospitals. Only after a few months did data on road accidents become available, and the results were unequivocal: the number had fallen.

There were indeed more injuries in the darker mornings, but that was offset by a larger reduction in accidents in the lighter afternoons. “The whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face” may go unwillingly to school, but Shakespeare was probably wrong to think he creeps like a snail. He hurries because he is late and is more likely to be injured on his dilatory journey home.

I learnt more than economics in those years. I learnt that anecdotes are more powerful than statistical data. I also learnt that opinion was often immune to contrary evidence, especially when that opinion expresses an underlying prejudice – in this case, the Scottish sense of victimhood. Children were being killed because effete English folk would rather adjust the clocks than get up early.

The experiment was not continued. The strength of Scottish opposition remains the main reason why clocks in Britain are an hour behind those in most of Europe. This week, a Conservative MP representing a southern constituency will put forward a private member’s bill to change it.

It is probably impolitic to mention that there might be benefits if Britain followed Brussels time rather than Greenwich Mean Time. But we share our time zone with two other countries with a combined population of 15m. They are – as it happens – Ireland and Portugal. Central European Time is observed from Warsaw to Madrid, by 300m people in 30 states. There is some economic advantage to a common standard.

But there are more important issues than not having to change your watch when you catch a Eurostar. We are awake for perhaps 16 hours a day, but there is light, on average, for 13 hours a day. So wherever we live, however we set the time, and whenever we rise, we stay awake during at least a thousand hours of darkness a year.

But, except in very northerly latitudes, we need experience no more than a thousand gloomy hours. Midday in Britain’s winter is roughly halfway between sunrise and sunset. But midday is not the middle of most people’s day. It is not even the middle of most people’s working day. We sleep when it is light, and hence use daylight inefficiently.

That is probably bad for our wellbeing. When I was a student, we complained that the Edinburgh winter was cold and dark. Now we call that phenomenon seasonal affective disorder, and buy lamps and therapies to make us feel better. We could just make more effective use of the daylight we have.

Daylight saving would bring other benefits. There would be fewer accidents at work and on the roads. We could spend less on heat and light, and peaks in energy demand would be less extreme, leading to savings in generating capacity.

Is Scotland different? Not much. The experiment with summer time did reduce Scottish road accidents significantly, but this effect was confined to the south of the country, where most of the population live. In the depths of winter the north of Scotland was still dark in the afternoon even when the clocks had been advanced. Inverness has at best seven hours of daylight in December, less than a full working day, and 19 hours of light in summer. The only solution to that problem is to move the whole country south.

That is beyond the power of government. But shifting the clocks forward is not. We should take the opportunity to do so.

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