Inch by inch back to the 1850s
Please make your views known by October 1st – see below.
“Review EU restrictions on selling in pounds and ounces – We will review the EU ban on markings and sales in imperial units and legislate in due course”HM Government
Frankly, I’d rather not talk about it. I wish there were no need.
I need hardly remind you of how many things have gone wrong since 1st January, and how many groups of people have had their lives ruined by Brexit, nor of how assiduous this government, backed by the right-wing press and the BBC, has been in trying to attribute it to anything, literally anything else. Nor do I need to remind me of the latest developments, culminating in shortages of many essentials.
Against this, the last thing the country needs is yet another deeply destructive “independence” initiative. And yet here we have it, the TIGRR report.
The misleadingly cuddly acronym stands for Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform. This was a report commissioned from MPs Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and George Freeman, and presented in June. Their task was to find something – anything – which could be construed as a benefit of the “freedoms” delivered by Brexit. The government has responded, approvingly, over the name, you guessed it, of Lord David ‘Betamax’ Frost.
The great roll-back
The TIGRR report proposes some changes, which are made to appear trailblazing but in many cases are thinly-concealed proposals to roll back on safety standards, data protection etc. However, the press has perhaps predictably seized upon the proposal to ‘amend’ the Weights and Measures Act 1985, which set out to ensure that at the point of sale goods should have metric quantities stated at least as prominently as their imperial equivalent. It was the failure to observe this – or more exactly the refusal to use approved metric scales – that led to the now notorious “Metric Martyr” cases, and these in turn are sometimes credited, if that is the word, as the spark that lit the Brexit fire.
The news was greeted by the tabloid press with joy. Allegedly traders could now return to selling their bananas and fish in pounds and ounces, and this was somehow seen as a triumph for common sense and freedom. Really?
I’m sure I do not need to tell the readers of this column why metric units are better. Indeed I’m sure this is not lost even on Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees Mogg – whose ‘style guide’ for his staff required them to use imperial – and Boris Johnson. The fact that they are better, so these people will say, misses the point. They are an assertion of independence and an opportunity to celebrate Brexit. And this is after all, especially over the past year, something of which they have been struggling to find any basis whatsoever.
So why this love of imperial units? The clue is in the name. Those who have nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past would like to bring it back and they see these units as talismanic. Does this mean they would also like to return to gunboat diplomacy and slavery, upon which after all imperial power was based? Do they hanker after the cart and horse, stocks on the village green, or even the death penalty?
Or, for that matter, if we gave the old units of weight their alternative, French, name, avoirdupois, would they be as popular among the Little Englanders?
Believe it or not…
So, to deal with a couple of common misapprehensions.
Firstly, “Metric units are newfangled and alien and were imposed upon us by the EU”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The concept of weights and measures using the base 10 was originally an English one, going back at least to the 17th century. The UK parliament first agreed to their use in 1862. After a number of false starts and several wars, it was in 1965 – long before EEC membership – that the Labour government finally agreed to roll out metrication across the board. The Metrication Board was abolished by the incoming Conservative government in 1980, and implementation ground to a halt without any clear decision being made, partly because the Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Sally Oppenheim, believed that metric units should be ‘optional’. Her boss, Geoffrey Howe, regretted this to his dying day and in fact in more recent times was patron of the UK metric Association (UKMA).
Following on from the U.K.’s decision to metricate, all other Commonwealth countries agreed to follow suit and have in fact broadly succeeded in the effort. The Commonwealth, like most of the world, is now metric. It is just the UK which has got cold feet.
Secondly, “the units are confusing”. Since the 1960s metric units have been the primary units used in schools. Nothing could be simpler. To convert between one unit and another e.g. centimetres to metres, you just move a decimal point. There is a logical and consistent relationship between the units and even between different categories, eg length, weight, area and volume. So a tonne is a thousand kilograms or a million grams, and a litre of water weighs a kilogram and occupies a cube with sides 100 millimetres in length. Compare that with the complex relationship between imperial units, eg yard, perch, furlong, and mile. Indeed many people who swear by them – old and young – do not know the relationship between these different units, and therefore would find it impossible to make conversions, such as the number of paces in a mile, even with a calculator. Not confusing? Just look at this video.
Thirdly, “imperial units would bring us into line with our new best friends across the Atlantic”. But the American “customary” units are different from their UK equivalents. I was disappointed in an American pub to be served a ‘pint’ made up of 16 rather than 20 ounces. And to an American a stone is an overgrown pebble. This is a source more of confusion than harmony. Add to that the fact that in the scientific sphere Americans, like us, use metric and the argument collapses. The only other countries in the world which do not use metric units are Liberia and Myanmar: I find it difficult to think these are pluses. Perhaps that is where the new trade deals are – nothing would surprise me from this government. But if so they will need to hurry, before those countries too go metric.
Fourthly, “metrication would be difficult and expensive”. It has proven possible to make the change in a timely way both in the Commonwealth and in Ireland. It is a matter of will, not means.
Debating with a Metric Martyr
Following on from the threatened implementation of the report, I’ve had the opportunity to debate the issue on BBC Radio a few times on behalf of the UKMA. One of my opponents was Neil Heron, a spokesman for the Metric Martyrs, himself a market trader. His argument was interesting. He did not dispute that metric units were better but argued in favour of freedom of choice, so that people like himself could sell their produce in units which they and the customer agreed. This to my mind is a bit like saying that when the currency was decimalised it should be left to individuals to choose whether to buy and sell in old money or new – I’m sure that would have gone well… And imagine two market traders next door to each other, one selling in kilograms and one in pounds. How can the customer compare prices? In what universe is this not carte blanche to dishonest traders? And in safety-critical areas such as medicine and transport, conversion errors can cost lives. It is no surprise that since the Magna Carta the law has required that there should be one standard of weights and measures throughout the country.
If in doubt, blame the EU…
Is the EU the baddie of the piece? In fact subsequent to the Metric Martyrs cases our erstwhile EU friends agreed indefinite opt outs (as in so many areas), so that it would be legal, for example, to sell beer in pints. Why we should wish to do so, when wine and spirits is measured in millilitres, is beyond me. But it is allowed – ‘crown stamp’ or not. Other permitted anomalies are abundant. Why do we run in kilometres but drive in miles? Why are distances in football quoted in yards but in rugby, as in most sports, metres? There is no logic.
The dual system of measurement was always an albatross around the neck of British business, and the EU, rather than trying to lay down the law, merely smiled at it, it does after all place the UK at a competitive disadvantage.
Given that metric units are, and have long been, the norm in science, technology, engineering, building, medicine and even the kitchen, they are the only units on which we can possibly agree once we move on from the dual system. Don’t our politicians see this? I suspect they do and it may well be that they are using this as yet another opportunity to grandstand, further to endear themselves to entrenched traditionalists, and to force progressives to use up even more energy opposing yet another ill-conceived and pointless distraction. There is, after all, much to distract us from.
If, like me, you are enraged by these proposals, there is still time to respond. The consultation period ends on 1st October. Here is the link to use.
The views stated are the personal views of the author. The author is Chair of Oxford for Europe and a member of the committee of the UK Metric Association. This is a shortened version of an article originally posted by Oxford for Europe.