Only time will tell if the union holds

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 21 November 2011 in Diary
As we take one step closer to changing the clocks, Nik Darlington assesses the possible impact of the Daylight Savings Bill on the United Kingdom

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Those words, written by WH Auden in 1936, will forever be remembered for John Hannah’s eulogy in Four Weddings and a Funeral. They captured perfectly the emotions surrounding time and loss. And spoken by a Scot, for a Scot, no less.

The Daylight Savings Bill, a private member’s bill submitted last year by the Conservative MP, Rebecca Harris, finally faces a money resolution on Tuesday, which it must clear in order to advance to committee stage. Ten months have gone by since the bill dramatically passed a second reading in December 2010. Ten months of waiting and official indecision and coquettish wink-winking.

Stop all the clocks. The government has said it is open to what the Bill has to offer: a mandatory cost-benefit analysis of moving clocks forward by one hour for all or part of the year and, if the analysis is favourable, a trial period.

Last year, Ed Davey, a Lib Dem junior business minister, opposed the bill, arguing:

“There are concerns about the longer, darker winter mornings that would result: much is said about impacts in northern parts of the UK, but a change would mean delaying dawn in mid-winter even in London until after nine o’ clock.

One thing we remain convinced that we cannot make this change unless we have consensus throughout the United Kingdom. The change...would be particularly acute in Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

The SNP can be prone to shortbread hyperbole but Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, made a sound point about the state of the union:

“The progress of this bill is literally a wake-up call to the prospect of dark mornings for everyone north of Manchester, and this has been pushed through by MPs from the south with no regard to the impact these changes would have on the quality of life for people in the north. This change would be acutely felt in Scotland, raising real safety and quality of life concerns, and this is now a real test for the Tory government and its claims of a respect agenda for Scotland.”

There is, of course, an element of political posturing to be found in SNP criticisms.  However, this much is true: forging ahead with a clock change to the detriment of a significant geographic area of the United Kingdom is not just ignorant and insensitive, it is downright madness.

The claims that moving the clocks forward will benefit the nation’s health and wellbeing, boost tourism and make roads less dangerous do not add up to a properly conclusive case. They are regularly based on assumptions almost as fanciful as the business case for High Speed 2.

And an alleged reduction in carbon emissions? Possibly, in some parts of the country, some of the time. But more electricity would be used on darker mornings in northern climbs.  The NFU Scotland may have backed a consultation, but as Dr Eilidh Whiteford, MP for Banff & Buchan, said last year, farmers are “less opposed to the measure than they were forty years ago [because] they now have heating and lighting in their steadings [which] rather undermines the carbon saving argument”.

If we genuinely want to tackle our carbon footprint, don’t pull the plug on important support for green technology, such as feed-in tariffs or carbon capture-and-storage, and don’t wobble on green taxation. A stunt like changing the clocks is precisely that, a stunt.  It’s not a solution.

Crucially in constitutional terms, it could drive an unwarranted wedge between Scotland and England. The temperature of the union debate climbed several degrees last weekend, with wall-to-wall coverage in Scotland’s newspapers – and the Scottish versions of UK newspapers – about the snags of Scottish independence, taking in EU / euro membership, defence contracts, and business confidence, to name a few.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, is making the running. As well as owning the independence argument, naturally, the SNP owns the sensible compromise too. All three of the main opposition parties – Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories – have stubbornly abandoned the stage.

The Lib Dems are nowhere anymore in Scotland. They have gained a Scottish Secretary but lost a Scottish base. Labour is still reeling from a hiding born of hubris. Scottish Labour party politicians are incapable, at least publicly, of understanding that the Scottish electorate is no longer its chattel. And the Tories? The election of youthful Ruth Davidson is a step in a direction, which is something of a start for a previously directionless party. It remains unclear whether hers is the right direction, instead of Murdo Fraser’s political self-immolation and rejuvenation.

Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have to position themselves as representing Scottish interests and that means accepting the Scotland Bill in full and advocating further transferral of powers to Holyrood – particularly fiscal powers. And yet, they won’t. The new Tory leader wants the Scotland Bill to “draw a line in the sand”. The Labour party doesn’t have a leader.  And I haven’t the first idea who is the leader of the Lib Dems (is it still Mr Rennie?).

If the Daylight Savings Bill advances, it will be another feather in Alex Salmond’s richly adorned cap. Another tune on which the nationalist pipers can play.  And another step towards the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Stop all the clocks. Bring out the coffin. Let the mourners come.

Tags: Alex Salmond, Daylight savings Bill, England, Scotland, Scotland Bill

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