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Millennium Celebrations

8.35 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the claim made by the National Physical Laboratory, the British Horological Federation and the National Mapping Agency of Great Britain that the third millennium is to be celebrated at Greenwich on the wrong meridian with the wrong time-scale and in the wrong year of the second millennium.

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to the House for allowing me to bring before it once again some of the complexities of time, perhaps to make the public more aware of just how complex they are and also perhaps to give an opportunity to the Government to correct them before the millennium starts.

I must make clear at the outset that this Question has not been raised as an indirect means of criticising the Dome at Greenwich, its costs or its contents. I see the Government's objective regarding the Dome as a genuine attempt to divert, satisfy and educate the general public in the year of the millennium--a goal which I heartily support.

Am I not correct in saying that it follows a long tradition in populist government, which was commented on as long as 2,000 years ago by the Roman poet Decimus Juvenal? Did he not use the immortal phrase, pane et circenses to describe bread and games of the circus with which the Caesars used to divert the people from the anxieties of everyday life?

I believe that the Dome is something along the same lines. As I say, I support it but with two possible provisos to this approach. By all means let the Government help us enjoy the occasion to the fullest, but does a government of today, in order to remain popular, have to feed the people with scientific facts, as they are perceived, rather than with the scientific truth? I believe that the majority of noble Lords are aware that the sun is perceived to revolve around the Earth. The scientific truth is otherwise, as we all know. Galileo Galilei in 1633 risked his life and virtually lost his reputation by making the public statement,

    "And yet the Earth moves".

I shall return to this question later.

Meanwhile, there is another problem, of how best to maximise the national income from the promotion of these celebrations. How can this be achieved successfully if Britain remains outside the European time zone? Is the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, not aware of the loss of potential franchise income to the British communications industry, which is just one example, which will arise by celebrating the arrival of the new millennium at least one hour later than the rest of Europe? I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that the world may be unable to watch the celebrations in the Dome, as has been predicted by the Minister without Portfolio, because Europe will have gone to bed and the Americas will not yet be awake.

Is the noble Lord also aware that the world may be surprised that the so-called "modern" Britain still apparently wishes to retain an outdated time scale on its statute book and that the Dome displays an architect's model with the historic rather than the correct prime meridian?

The focus of my Question is to try to ensure that visitors to Greenwich and the Dome are given correct rather than perceived scientific and historic facts about the millennium celebrations on 1st January 2000 and in particular the co-ordinates of time, place and date with which Greenwich has been historically linked for the

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past 300 years. For example, the prime meridian, or the longitude line zero, is not--and I quote from the new Millennium Experience pamphlet,

    "defined by the line drawn on the eye-piece of the large 'Transit Circle' telescope in the Old Royal Observatory",

as it was defined in the Treaty of Washington 1884. That information is out of date. The Ordnance Survey customer information sheet of September 1997 states more correctly that the new prime meridian for the millennium will be defined by the IT and ET reference frames of 1989.

I am asking the Government to ensure that the new prime meridian--now calculated to an accuracy of centimetres by global positioning system satellites--will be clearly indicated on the ground to visitors to Greenwich and the dome. Furthermore, I am asking the Government whether they will have the courage and imagination during the term of the British presidency to persuade the European Union to adopt a new European time zone based on the ETRF89 prime meridian at Greenwich.

After all, is not time intended to be the main theme of the dome? Was not Greenwich selected in preference to Manchester, Edinburgh or Cardiff because of its 300-year history of accurate timekeeping? Then why does there appear to be so much confusion over this subject? I wonder whether it is because the Government apparently require two senior Ministers to be responsible for time--the Minister with responsibility for science and technology, for the leap second of the national time scale and the Minister of State, Home Department for summer time? Is not that the equivalent of having one Minister responsible for the big hand and another for the small hand of public time? Does that anomaly explain why noble Lords, including myself, received a negative response to suggestions in previous debates? Is it incomprehension or the duality of departmental responsibility that is the root cause of that silence?

Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister has stated on a number of occasions that it is his intention that the New Millennium Experience should bequeath a permanent legacy to not only the citizens of Greenwich but the nation? Does the Minister consider that the rebirth of GMT as Greenwich meridian time, as a new local time for both Britain and Europe, would be a fitting legacy after the celebrations are over? Would not that be a more permanent legacy than the empty marquee on a desolate mudbank that will await the removal vans on 1st January 2001?

As the Government are aware, 1st January 2001 is the real beginning of the third millennium, but most people have indicated that they wish to celebrate the occasion from 1st January 2000. I do not argue with that because I shall be joining them. The difference in dates is historic rather than scientific and was recognised as such at the beginning of this century. The newspapers of the period reported that the 20th century was to be publicly recognised as starting on 1st January 1901, not 1900. That was because the official date of Christendom should have been 0 AD not 1 AD--whereas the historical birth is put at between 4 BC and 7 BC, according to Lambeth Palace.

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The first year of the new Christian calendar, which I think was designated by Pope John I, was 1 AD--anno domini, in the year of the Lord--rather than 0 AD because the zero was not available in Europe until about 200 years later. Interestingly, the term BC, meaning before Christ, to register the years prior to 1 AD was not created until about 1,000 years later, in 1681. The terms BC and AD to define the years of Christendom are, I understand, about to fall out of use. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate will put me right, but that is what I have been told. I understand that new terms--BCE and CE--might be possible replacements, with BCE standing for Before Christian Era and CE for Christian Era. Non-Christian countries and, I suppose, agnostics may prefer to interpret the letter C as standing for the "common" era of all humanity.

Might not the Christian Churches call a special ecumenical committee to agree those terms before the start of the new millennium, so that the year 1 CE could be internationally recognised as the official start of the Christian or common era? The years before 1 CE would be known as BCE--before Christian or common era. My concern is that if there is no general clarification or standardisation, software organisations such as Microsoft might select terms of their own choosing. It is unlikely in my view that such terms would pay deference to Church history. The millennium bug, which is causing so much trouble in IT systems in Government and the private sector, has been caused by the failure of designers correctly to identify the co-ordinates of time and date. I hope that clarifying BC and AD to BCE and CE will allow them to become a standardised IT protocol that will see us through to the next millennium.

I understand that more than £1 million per day is being spent and will continue to be spent on the dome celebrations, until 1st January 2000. They are primarily intended to illustrate in dramatic form "modern" Britain's achievements past, present and future. Can the noble Lord the Minister say why we as a nation will not be celebrating that momentous occasion together with, and at the same time as, the rest of Europe? Why will so-called "modern" Britain still have an outdated time scale on the statute book, when the rest of Europe and the industrial world have accepted as the default time scale since 1975 atomic or co-ordinated universal time? Is not this the moment, while there is still time before the new millennium, to ask the Select Committee on Science and Technology to form a special sub-committee to investigate the question of how British time is presented to the public, Europe and the outside world?

Does not the noble Lord agree that if such a sub-committee were to be formed, it should have the widest possible terms of reference? They would of course include the ability to recommend rationalisation of the responsibilities of the two departments currently responsible for time into one--the most suitable being the Department for Trade and Industry, which has a scientific section. Does the Minister agree also that such a sub-committee could investigate the best methods of harmonising British civil time with European time--either by introducing a new civil time scale, as I have

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suggested, or equalising the values of the existing time zones between Britain and Europe? Does the Minister agree that the sub-committee could also have powers to recommend whether or not the referendum on entry to the European monetary system should include the question of time harmonisation?

I hope that the noble Lord will not be advised by his department to ignore suggestions, as has happened on previous occasions, and that he understands that matters of deep principle underlie the specific questions that I have raised in this Unstarred Question. If I receive a negative response regarding recognition of the scientific facts, that will merely confirm the situation for me this evening--just as it did for Galileo Galilei some 365 years ago. The date of 1st January 2001 CE may mark the birth of a new Dark Age--an era of virtual reality in which Church and state could find it more convenient to replace factual reality with their own perception of what is real. I hope that I am proved wrong.

8.48 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I am sorry to say that I have not had the benefit of listening to previous debates or discussions on this subject, but I had been made aware that a word from the Churches would be welcome. I believe that there would be general agreement among the Churches that we may not know the precise date of Christ's birth at Bethlehem. It is very possible, therefore, that we may celebrate the third millennium on the wrong meridian, with the wrong time scale and in the wrong year. But perhaps the wrong year may not be that far out.

My friend and colleague the Dean of Lichfield, in my own diocese, is both an eminent New Testament scholar and an ancient historian. He informs me that, as the noble Lord said, a date between 4 BC and 7 BC is favoured by many scholars for the birth of Christ-- 4 BC being the same year in which Herod the Great died. If 4 BC is correct and if we are concerned about the particular year of Christ's birth, it means that the 2,000th anniversary of His birth already happened in 1996, so the Dome is therefore already four years behind schedule--if 4 BC is correct.

Other scholars within the Churches and Christendom generally would look at it from another point of view. Although the event of Christ's birth is of great importance to Christianity, there would be general agreement that the climactic events recorded in the New Testament are not Christmas Day, but Good Friday and Easter Day. In those events, so the Church believes, death itself was defeated and evil routed. But, again, those key events probably took place in AD 30 or thereabouts, so that a strong body of opinion which sees those events as the centre of the Christian era would hold that there is still a generation to go before an even more important celebration is due.

My real point is this: such issues as the precise dating of Christ's birthday--I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about the suggested committee to consider the scientific issues--as raised by the noble Lord's Unstarred Question are secondary to the

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Church's understanding of the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter for a Christian mind is the coming of Christ. I must advise the noble Lord that I have no news or evidence of a discussion in the Churches about switching to BCE and CE. The key issue for a Christian mind is not whether we can put an exact date on the coming of Christ, but the meaning which the coming of Christ gives to human history in terms of new personal purpose, new direction and new hope.

Recently at Question Time, a Member of your Lordships' House asked bluntly, "Whose birthday is it anyway?" A lot of heads turned towards these Benches. The answer now from this person on this Bench is that, in the Church's view, it is the birthday of the Son of God into the course of human history, thereby giving to all time and all history, including our own individual lives, new purpose, new priorities and new hope.

On a Christian view, time is not to be killed. Time is a highly precious commodity. Even a new millennium is a time not merely to be celebrated, which is why arguments about dates and domes are secondary in the Christian view. Instead, all time--not just millennium time--is precious because it can be used for the greatest benefit to mankind and for the loving purposes of God.

All the Churches in England have therefore set themselves this task as the millennium draws near: to forge a living link between the fact of Christ's birth, the year 2000 and, even more importantly, the possibility of personal meaning and public hope. In the Churches' strategy there are three clear messages, which have been widely accepted by all the Churches in these islands: "A New Start at Home"; "A New Start for the World's Poor"--that is the practical issue relating to the preciousness of time--and "A New Start with God".

In my own West Midlands diocese, for example, we plan to make "A New Start At Home" in those areas of the diocese which have suffered the large collapse of manufacturing industry. I refer to places such as Wolverhampton, Walsall and Black Country communities such as Tipton and West Bromwich. In those areas brave efforts have been made by agencies such as the Black Country Development Corporation with regard to land reclamation, the detoxification of old mine shafts and the creation of new prime sites to attract Japanese, European and American investment. Those are examples of using the preciousness of time to benefit people's lives. However, as the Church sees it, in my area, urban regeneration with its new roads and prime sites leaves one huge task unfinished. I refer to the task of "people regeneration" and to the regeneration of community life, family life and personal life. That is what, for us, the millennium is about.

In my own diocese, therefore, the year 2000 does not mean arguments about dates and domes; it means developing the splendid work of Christian truancy workers, guiding truanting children and neglectful families back to the community of the school. The millennium in my diocese means the strengthening of our partnership in relevant industrial training schemes. It means the opening of community care centres, like the one I opened last Sunday in Bilston with the local Member of Parliament, where life-long learning,

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industrial retraining and care for the well being of families and children can grow. For us, that is what the millennium is about.

Finally, aside from the scientific debate which is important in its own way, if the millennium truly is to honour the one whose birthday it is, we need to set up another signpost--of greater freedom for the world's poor. We need a new start not only at home, but also for the world's poor. More than a century after slaves were officially freed, millions in the world are now in bondage because of crippling debt, compounding itself over and over in a dark spiral. I lost a daughter in a place near the Equator in East Africa where no medical facilities were available to save her life. There are still no medical facilities there--and that is because that country is too busy repaying its debts instead of spending its money on those vital issues.

In conclusion, I am suggesting that our minds need not be too greatly preoccupied with precise questions--but I wish the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, good fortune with his scientific committee--concerning the right meridian, the right time scale and the right year. Rather, at this new millennium, I suggest that our minds might be more profitably addressed to the deeper implications of whose birthday it is in terms of more effective action for justice, peace and the greatest benefit for mankind.

8.57 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I must first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, on the ingenuity of his Unstarred Question. He asks about the claims by three different bodies about three different things, so in theory there could be nine different answers. However, I think it important to state at the outset that at least some of the bodies in question have not made a claim in quite the way he expresses it. Noble Lords have gone beyond the apparently conflicting physics of the millennium into more spiritual considerations and deliberations on society.

However, the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, raised serious points of science and I should like to deal with those first. I start with the question, "What is the year when the next millennium starts?" The noble Lord is absolutely right that the next millennium will begin on 1st January 2001. The Government are aware of that, but the decision has been taken to concentrate millennium celebrations across the country throughout the year 2000 as all inquiries indicate that that is the year in which the public wish to mark it. There is some logic in this. One might say that the year 2000 is an extended New Year's Eve for the year 2001. After all, it is on 31st December of each year that we see the maximum amount of celebration, not the first day of the new year. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that the remainder of Europe also appears to be celebrating the new millennium with us in the year 2000.

I move to the scientific question of what is the right or wrong meridian. Certainly, there are two meridians at Greenwich but, unlike lines of latitude where nature provides us with an obvious reference in the equator, the reference point for lines of longitude is arbitrary. I do not say that all lines of longitude are equally good

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because it is important that the reference is well defined and capable of being measured, but within these constraints we have a choice.

The noble Lord has mentioned the prime meridian. This is the most familiar meridian which is indicated by a brass strip in the courtyard of the observatory. But this is not the only meridian at Greenwich. To demonstrate that this does not matter the noble Lord will be aware of what happened about 50 years ago when the Ordnance Survey repeated the triangulation of the country which originally took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As part of the new survey, observations were taken to connect other stations with the instrument sitting on Airy's meridian, the one indicated by the brass strip. To the surprise of the surveyors there was a discrepancy in longitude equivalent to about eight metres--far greater than could be attributed to errors in observation, even in the 18th century.

The discrepancy was explained by the Royal Observatory's then chief assistant. In 1840 the seventh Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, had decided to install a larger meridian instrument and wished to operate both instruments for a while to ensure continuity of measurement. As a result, Airy's instrument was installed six metres to the east of Bradley's. To this day, Ordnance Survey maps still use Bradley's meridian. But the fact that different meridians are in use does not matter as long as we know the relationships between them. Physics has moved on in the past century, and it continues today. Because the earth's crust is constantly moving, a meridian line firmly fixed to the ground in one place is not ideal for work of the highest accuracy. The scientific community therefore now uses for practical purposes a frame of reference known as the Terrestrial Reference Frame of the International Earth Rotation Service. This reference frame is based on observations of satellites and celestial radio sources known as quasars made from various co-ordinated stations around the globe. It is designed so as not to rotate as the tectonic plates move around with respect to each other. The effect of this is that any meridian fixed to the surface of the earth will move with respect to the reference frame.

At the latitude of Greenwich the meridian of the International Terrestrial Reference Frame is about 100 metres to the east of Airy or prime meridian. The movements of the tectonic plate on which we sit are quite small--only a few centimetres a year--and do not explain the 100 metre difference. However the International Terrestrial Reference Frame was a successor to an older reference frame that used about 80 observatories around the world. The positions of these were determined using the astronomical methods and time measurements available at the time, and it appears that an error crept in somewhere along the way. But, as with the meridian used for Ordnance Survey maps, it does not matter which meridian is used provided we know where it is. I hope that that deals with the noble Lord's concerns about the meridian.

I turn to the question of time. Time and longitude were for centuries intimately connected. The noble Lord is an expert on time. He will be aware that for most

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practical purposes we now use a time scale based on atomic clocks. In theory this is independent of position. I say "in theory" because the time scale in question, Co-ordinated Universal Time, is not pure atomic time, but a timescale which, by adding occasional leap seconds, has been kept to closer than one second of what I shall call familiarly Greenwich Mean Time. By these means the link between time scale that we all use, often without realising it, and longitude has been maintained.

I cannot speak for the British Horological Federation, but I do not think that either the National Physical Laboratory or the Ordnance Survey, which is the body that I believe the noble Lord means when he refers to the national mapping agency of Great Britain in the title of his debate, has ever claimed that we will be celebrating the next millennium on the wrong meridian with the wrong time scale. What they have done is to describe what happens for scientific purposes, and that may not be the same as people's perceptions. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, to be a little tolerant of people's perceptions. The Government have to be, and perhaps that explains some of our actions.

When and where will the 1st January 2000 begin? The basis for the beginning of the universal day was decided at the International Meridian Conference in 1884 when it was decided that the universal day would be a mean solar day beginning at the moment of mean midnight at Greenwich. Today, this can be interpreted to mean many things. On the one hand, perhaps it means that we should refer to the time according to a mean sun on the meridian currently used for astronomical purposes; namely, the one that is 100 metres to the east of the brass strip. On the other hand, perhaps we should apply the same principle as we apply to Ordnance Survey maps and Bradley's meridian and refer to it as the meridian in use in 1884. If so, we would refer to the brass strip in the courtyard. Whichever meridian we use as our reference, at most it is 100 metres from the brass strip in the courtyard at Greenwich. A difference in longitude at Greenwich of 100 metres is equivalent to a difference in time of about one third of a second. Moreover, whichever time scale we use--Co-ordinated Universal Time or one of the three forms of universal time--we would be within one second of Greenwich Mean Time. All in all, there may be an uncertainty of a second or so at the start of the millennium celebrations, but I join the right reverend Prelate in asking: does it really matter?

No one can deny the important role that the Greenwich Observatory has played in time, measurement and navigation. Greenwich is still synonymous with time throughout the world. What is a second or so in the context of something which only happens once every thousand years?

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, spoke of the advantages of our being on European time. He pointed out that if we were to harmonise time across the European Union we would be celebrating the beginning of the millennium at the same time as the rest of the Continent. I understand from the Secretary of State for Home Affairs that there are no plans at present for the United Kingdom to move to central European time.

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The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, also suggested that the Committee on Science and Technology could look into the question of time. I should point out that that committee is independent of the government. This matter is best raised with its chairman, Lord Phillips. I met him today in the corridor and mentioned the matter to him. He asked me to write to him and although the Select Committee is very busy on other matters I am sure that he will take the noble Lord's suggestion into consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, also suggested renaming Co-ordinated Universal Time as Greenwich Meridian Time, and he mentioned the Prime Minister in this context.

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