Steve Connor: The dark nights return

Lab Notes

Everyone reading this should be aware by now that the dark, winter nights have "drawn in" like an unwelcome northerly breeze.

The clocks have gone back an hour and British Summer Time (BST) has transformed overnight into the dark evenings of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Living at the northerly latitude of the British Isles has its advantages in summer. The days are long, and twilight lingers on into late evening. But in winter, the northerly latitude inflicts short days, long nights and all the misery, both psychological and physical, that arrives with a scarcity of natural daylight.

How much better it would be if kept BST (which is GMT+1) through the winter, and put the clocks forward an extra hour in spring to GMT+2? This arrangement, known as "double BST", would mean more of our waking hours would be spent in daylight, both in summer and winter. We would also be in the same time zone as our European neighbours.

The arguments for abandoning GMT get rehearsed almost as often as the clocks are changed. The inhabitants of northern Scotland are said not to like the idea, although opinion polls suggest that Scots overall are evenly divided on the topic. In England and Wales, similar polls show that 75 per cent of the population would favour the change.

Time has never been the fixed entity that we often imagine it to be. Prior to 1916, Britain enjoyed – if that is the word – GMT all year round. Then in the midst of the First World War, where saving fuel and money was a priority, the British government passed the Summertime Act: the clocks were put forward an hour in spring, and back again in autumn.

The idea of making better use of summer's daylight had in fact been proposed several years earlier, but it had taken the crisis of a war to bring about the change. A Surrey builder called William Willett was incensed to find everyone still in their beds on his early morning horse rides through his local Petts Wood, and campaigned tirelessly for the clocks to be put forward in summer. A memorial to him can still be seen in Petts Wood in the form of a sundial set to BST.

During the Second World War, again to save fuel and money, Britain adopted "double BST", but it was abandoned after the end of the war and the Summertime system returned.

Between 1968 and 1971, the government again experimented with the nation's time. It introduced GMT+1 all year round (labelling this system, confusingly enough, "British Standard Time"). When the experiment ended, the Home Office carried out an exhaustive review of the pros and cons, only to rule that the costs of being an hour ahead of GMT all year long outweighed the benefits.

Safety campaigners and environmentalists want the experiment to be repeated with modern methods of evaluating the possible benefits of ridding us of GMT and moving either to BST or to "double BST".

Mayer Hillman, a retired senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute in London, estimates that the change would increase the opportunities for outdoor leisure activities at the end of each day, improving the health and general wellbeing of the nation.

Getting rid of GMT would produce, in view of our sleeping habits, an additional 300 hours of daylight for adults each year, and an additional 200 hours for children, Dr Mayer says in the current issue of the British Medical Journal. Adopting this change to the clocks is a remarkably easy way of better aligning our waking hours with the available daylight, he says.

We cannot, of course, change the amount of total daylight hours we get in winter, unless we all relocate to a more southerly latitude! But at least we can make the evenings less oppressive – even if it is at the expense of darker mornings (when most of us are still in our beds anyway).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk