The politics of daylight savings time

Since the invention of Standard Time as a way of making timetables usable over long distances, Time Zones have been as much a political issue as a scientific one. If you measure time by a sun-dial, even averaged over a year, noon in Cornwall will not be the same as noon in East Anglia, but it will be the same as parts of France. But having a different time implies a certain political difference, leading to endless maneuvering and negotiations with very little to do with the height of the sun in the sky.

Thus Cornwall and East Anglia both set their clocks according to Westminster statute, and the French align theirs with their eastern neighbours – Germany, Switzerland, and so forth. Countries which take up a larger “width” on the map, such as the USA, Russia, and China have to consider not which time zone to adopt, but how many – Russia recently dropped from 11 to 9 while the People’s Republic of China adopted a single time zone across its vast territory when it came into power 60 years ago.

As a sign of solidarity – between Franco’s Spain and the fascist Axis in the 1930s and 40s, and under more peaceful European alliances in later decades – the “Central European” timezone continues to extend all the way to the Portugese border, far beyond the theoretical line that defines it.

Island nations, isolated in time zones all of their own, declare their closeness or distance from neighbouring powers by the alignment of their clocks. In 1999, a bizarre timekeeping arms race developed, as Pacific islands close to the International Date Line jerrymandered their clocks to be the first to strike midnight in the new Millennium. [1] Yes, I do say the millennium started on 1st Jan 2000, not 2001: there may have been no year zero, but nor was there a year one, at the time; the 2000th anniversary of the Julian/Gregorian calendar is not for another few hundred years.

As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the invention of “Daylight Savings Time”, known in the UK simply as “Summer Time”, brought a whole new dimension of political debate, where time zones are not fixed, but shift back and forth with the seasons. Indeed, it brings a new geographic dimension: where you would previously have expected to change your watch mostly when travelling East or West, the length of the day varies by how far North or South from the equator you are.

The permutations this allows are bewildering: If one territory adopts the system but another doesn’t, they may be in the same time zone for exactly half of the year. And even if both change their clocks by the same amount, they may not change them on the same day – so for a few days each year they will disagree about the current time. Countries at the same longitude but in opposite hemispheres might even “swap” time zones every 6 months: after all, while Australia are preparing to move their clocks forwards to a summer position, North Americans will be moving theirs back for winter.

In fact, it seems every country has its own complications. In large, federal, countries like the USA and Australia, Daylight Savings may be a state rather than a centralised decision. In parts of Australia there is long-running political debate over whether to start changing their clocks, while other parts have been doing it for years.

In Israel, it is the date of switchover that is a matter for political debate – orthodox Jews want to finish their Yom Kippur fast “earlier”, which pushes the swithover date earlier than others would like. Of course, the fast only ends earlier according to the clock: it ends at sundown whatever timezone you follow.

Time zones are a necessary consequence of a time system where “12:00” means “noon”, and their political re-drawing is inevitable. But Daylight Savings Time is a purely artificial construct, required only if we insist on living the same regimented routine month in month out. Surely it would save a lot of hassle to get rid of it?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Yes, I do say the millennium started on 1st Jan 2000, not 2001: there may have been no year zero, but nor was there a year one, at the time; the 2000th anniversary of the Julian/Gregorian calendar is not for another few hundred years.
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