Just in the middle of the Christmas holiday season, and just when we were least expecting it, the government had a sudden enforced attack of common sense.
“Our exit from the EU was all about moments just like this, where we can seize new opportunities and provide a real boost to our great British wineries and further growing the economy,”Kevin Hollinrake
This rather grandiose statement from Kevin Hollinrake MP, enterprise, markets and small business minister, says a very great deal not only about the state of this country but about the very low opinion our political masters have of the intelligence of the electorate.
What he was referring to was the much touted announcement by the government that sparkling wine could now be sold in 568 mL (1 pint) containers, something from which allegedly the dictatorial EU had banned us.
The first question to ask is whether he is admitting that all the widely proclaimed benefits of Brexit have evaporated, and that all we are left with is something as petty as this? Ironically, Rees Mogg in his days as Minister for Brexit Opportunities (a role which tellingly no longer exists) virtually admitted the same: when he put together a list of Brexit opportunities, it was headed by the ability to manufacture louder and more power hungry vacuum cleaners. You really couldn’t make it up.
However, since ministers insist on making such statements, perhaps I can ask a few more questions? Do ministers believe we are all as wealthy as they are? During a cost of living crisis, how many people ever buy champagne? How many of those who do are not already satisfied with the options available, namely 750 mL, 375 mL etc? How many manufacturers would be interested in producing a new size bottle just for the UK market? Doing so will carry added costs, so will the new bottle actually sell at 25% less than the current 750 mL? This looks like a classic opportunity for shrinkflation.
Whose votes will this win? The answer would seem to be those Little Englanders who think they can be like Churchill if they copy his taste in beverages (why am I thinking of Boris Johnson?). Allegedly Churchill liked the idea of a pint of champagne to allow for two measures at lunchtime and one in the evening. Churchill was a man of his time and even then his daily consumption of alcohol would have been considered unhealthy; knowing what we know today we would put it more strongly. Why is it that said Little Englanders want to emulate Churchill’s grandiosity but not his more sensible attributes? He was after all a founder member of the European Movement and was one of the first to speak approvingly of a “United States of Europe“.
A dead cat
But all of this talk of pints of champagne is a total diversion, a dead cat. The more significant part of the announcement is the outcome of the government initiated consultation on “choice of units in weights and measures”. The consultation period, you may remember, closed 16 months ago and analysis of results was drawn out into the Christmas period, where perhaps ministers felt it might not be noticed. The outcome was total humiliation for the government. Out of 100,000+ respondents, only 1.3% favoured greater use of imperial units. 81.1% favoured the status quo, in other words the requirement that all retail products, with the sole exception of beer, cider and doorstep milk, should use metric units as their primary indicator, so if imperial units are shown they must be no more prominently displayed.
That this was the outcome is all the more striking when you consider that the questionnaire was biased in favour of imperial units. This has been written about extensively by the UK Metric Association, and it has been condemned as unprofessional by the Office for Statistics Regulation among others. Ironically this is referred to in the report of the consultation. There was an anomaly whereby some online respondents were correctly given a comprehensive choice of options. This was labelled by the report’s authors as an error which was subsequently ‘amended’. “For 2 of the questions, the online form erroneously contained additional answer options not in the consultation document. To ensure consistency, the online form was updated to align with the original consultation document”. I have to say: when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
This whole episode throws quite a lot of light on how news is handled. The initial announcement on the BBC website correctly highlighted the consultation and the government’s response, i.e. no wholesale reversion to imperial units. In the course of the morning, however, that story was pulled and was replaced by one highlighting the pint of champagne. This was definitely not a question of somebody seeing the light, it smells strongly of journalists being leaned on. As is often the case, you have to look elsewhere for the true story, for example on non-UK media such as Ireland’s RTE. Another significant stain on the reputation of the BBC.
Accompanying the government report there is a set of guidelines, which basically states that nothing substantial has changed, though it does throw some cold and not very red meat to those of a Little Englander persuasion by stating, bizarrely:
“The government encourages businesses to consider expanding the choice of units of measurement in sales they offer to their customers, where appropriate, in line with the freedoms set out in the current legislation. For some businesses, offering an imperial measurement alongside the more prominent metric measurement may enhance the inclusivity and accessibility of their products, as some consumers may have greater familiarity with imperial units.”
We keep hearing from the advocates of imperial units that they are more familiar, more intuitive, and more widely understood than metric, and indeed that they are somehow more British and that is a good thing. Right-wing politicians like to talk about our “ancient liberties“.
All of this is of course nonsense. Metric units have been the primary units taught in schools since, at the latest, 1974. There are very good reasons for this, and you can read some here. Very few people under the age of 60, therefore, have been taught imperial units properly, and I would suggest that hardly anyone of any age could tell you how many perches there are to a mile or how many yards to a furlong, never mind how many grains to an ounce. In metric all you have to do to convert between units is move a decimal point. As for Britishness, I can remind you that imperial units are also called Avoirdupois, a French word. The original concept of metric units, on the other hand, came from John Wilkins, an Englishman, in 1668.
The British parliament first started discussing metric units in 1862, only 38 years after a uniform set of imperial measures was agreed upon (so much for ‘ancient liberties’!). And metric is not an EU initiative, the British government decided to go fully metric in 1965, since which time the whole of the Commonwealth has overtaken it. Metric is not just a European standard, but a worldwide one. The only significant apparent exception, the USA, does not use imperial units, but “customary units”, which are different (ever tried ordering a pint of beer in America? You get about 17% less). Even in the USA, as in the rest of the world, metric is the norm in science, medicine etc. As in the UK, the non-metric units, where used, are defined by reference to their metric equivalents. As here, the use of multiple different units causes confusion, error and sometimes danger. Settling on one would make sense and that one must be metric.
Even a stopped clock is right twice a day
Rishi Sunak has fallen a long way since he came to power and his promises of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” sounded plausible. Nonetheless he is a pragmatist and he and his government are capable from time to time of doing the right thing, even if it is no more than a matter of bowing to the inevitable. The decision to ignore the promises of Duncan Smith and Rees Mogg to turn the clock back was the right decision. Perhaps the strength of pro-metric opinion shown up in this consultation will make it possible to go even further and to start once again talking steps towards full metrication. What the headlines ignored in reporting the story is that of the three new units for measuring alcoholic drinks two, namely 200 mL and 500 mL for wine, are in fact metric. I wonder if that is a straw in the wind? I would very much hope so.
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