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Time Is a Political Issue

Changing Time in Our Lives is a Trap for Any Government

Parliamentary Time and Big Ben - Sarah C-M

Whether it’s abolishing British Summer Time, fixing Easter Sunday or changing school terms and day timings, governments undertake such controversy at their peril.

Christmas Day is fixed, Remembrance Sunday is always the nearest one to 11th November. So how hard is to agree on Easter? Well, an Act of Parliament of 1928 allows it to be the nearest Sunday to 12 April, but it requires agreement of the churches. In the meantime, our Easter floats variously between 22 March and 25 April each year.

Scrapping British Summer Time

As governments run out of time, they sometimes focus on issues they hope will distract public and media. The old idea of abolishing British Summer Time is back; so is adding a Bank Holiday to bridge the gap between late August and Christmas.

Undoubtedly there are fewer accidents in daylight when children go to school and adults to work. The same argument applies when they go home at the day’s end. However, we cannot create more total light per day in the winter, so it’s either mornings or afternoons.

Therefore the working day itself becomes contentious. In Scotland it’s darker earlier in winter than in southern England, so the discussion polarises geographically. During World War II all Britain had double Summer Time to extend factory working and many people were sorry it ended in 1945.

There are campaigns for Summer Time in winter and Double Summer Time in summer, while others want us to adopt Central European Time, to bring us in line with the rest of Europe. However, both Europe and the USA live in many time zones comfortably.

The changing of long-held licensing laws to extend availability of alcohol almost all day every day was meant as a boost to the hospitality sector with a more continental-cafe culture. It may be that the problems and costs of anti-social behaviour and healthcare outweigh the benefits.

The School Day and Term Times

The British school day and term times are based on the factory and farm cycles of previous generations. Some localities now embrace a 4-term year, avoiding the six week summer holiday; others prefer earlier starts and finishes each day to allow sports, arts and community activities to be experienced.

Difficulties of getting siblings to and from schools with different timings/holidays, child care arrangements for staff, the tiredness of teenagers in the mornings – are all part of the fabric of dissent that weaves our land together. There is no uniformity, and it would be a brave or foolish government that tried to impose it.

When Napoleon introduced a 10 day week between 1793 and 1805, there was strong peasant-worker resistance, as they went from one day in seven off to one in ten. During the miners’ strike in 1973-74, factories were subjected to a maximum 3-day working week and homes to a rota of power shutdowns to save energy. A war-time spirit of endurance ensued, but it wasn’t a happy time.

With the recession endangering employment, the prospect of working less to save jobs has been a hot issue. As have been the questions of whether new nuclear power stations, windfarms and wave tide schemes with years needed to come on stream, are sufficient to quench our ever-growing love of electricity. Use of precious time resource is always controversial.

Parliamentary Time is Debatable

Even the Parliamentary allocation of time is divisive. Should a government guillotine business and stifle debate (dissent)? Should Parliament sit for a three day week, to allow more constituency time for MPs? Were late or all-night sittings such a bad thing? Should the Parliamentary year should be less?

Business/working hours, full or partial Sunday trading, how long to detain terror suspects, how long should a custodial sentence be – these are just some of the issues we settle from time to time, only to see them come back with new thinking for the next generation.

First published on Suite 101, 12 March 2010.

Photo: Parliamentary Time and Big Ben – Sarah C-M

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