75. Echoes of Empire?

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

5 June 2022

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There is a new consultation about ‘bringing back Imperial measures’. Silliness, insanity or weaponised nostalgia? Take your pick

Jacob Rees-Mogg is Minister for ‘Brexit Opportunities’ (Private Eye)

This Government is struggling to identify ‘The Opportunities of Brexit’. Jacob Rees-Mogg has been assigned this thankless task (I have a few suggestions for him). In his own previous department his ‘style guide‘ insists on use of imperial, rather than metric units. So the latest proposals should come as no surprise. They are shocking nonetheless.

You will probably have heard that, to mark the Platinum Jubilee, the Government would like to roll back on the Weights and Measures Act 1985 and remove the obligation to use metric units at the point of sale. You may even have thought about completing the questionnaire (if you have seen it) or writing to your MP. If not, please do. The consultation can be found here.

Below is a letter I have sent on behalf of the UK Metric association (with tweaks) to various parliamentarians.

And here are my comments on the consultation process. If you need reminding of why metric is the only way forward see here. And if you want to joint the UKMA, please do.

I am writing to you on behalf of the UK Metric Association, as I feel you may wish to support our cause. It will not surprise you that we are concerned about Government proposals to roll back the Weights and Measures Act 1985 and allow greater use of imperial measures in commerce. We note the consultation exercise which is framed in a very biased way.

If this goes ahead it certainly will not be in the national interest, nor indeed can the Prime Minister seriously believe it is. It appears to be an exercise in weaponised nostalgia, designed perhaps to impress a small subsection of the Brexiter vote, and perhaps the timing reflects a wish by Mr. Johnson to distract from the political difficulties in which he finds himself. At a time of national crisis, we really should not have to be discussing an issue like this, but it has been put on the table and it would be wrong to ignore it, as that would imply acquiescence.

I’m sure you will need no persuading about the benefits of metric, and you will see below some of the arguments which we feel could be used on this particular occasion. I hope that you will feel able to use your influence both in Parliament and elsewhere to oppose this initiative.

Best wishes,

Dr Peter Burke
Acting Chair, UK Metric Association

Some points which could be made in opposing a roll back to Imperial units.

The most obvious thing is that the metrication has been touted as one of the opportunities created by Brexit. It is perhaps a reflection of how few such opportunities there are that blue passports, crown stamps and this proposal have even gained any publicity. However, the mere fact that it is possible to do something does not make it a good idea.

The occasion of this initiative is the platinum jubilee. This is not just a British celebration, but one involving the entire Commonwealth, of which of course the Queen is titular head. It is asserted that return to Imperial would in some way honour the Queen’s long reign. In reality, one of the few political issues on which the Queen has been outspoken is her view about the importance of the Commonwealth. All other Commonwealth countries have now completed or almost completed their journey towards metrication. If the UK sees its future as a Commonwealth nation then it would be wise to work towards alignment rather than separation.

It is wholly untrue to say that metric units have been imposed by the EU. They go back much further, and are a world rather than a European standard. They are in fact a British invention, having been first proposed in the 17th century by an Oxford don, John Wilkins. If we want to be patriotic, then we should perhaps celebrate this fact with pride.

The U.K.’s journey towards metrication started in the 1860s, and it was in 1965, long before EEC entry was even on the agenda, that the UK government made a definitive decision to metricate. Unfortunately in the 1970s the pace of change slowed and it was the Thatcher government that abolished the Metrication Board. Since that time we have been in limbo, with some things done in metric and some not. This causes confusion and sometimes (as in the medical field) serious risk. Ever since the Magna Carta it has been considered to be essential to have one set of units which is recognised worldwide, and in this day and age that has to be metric.

Metric units are used not only in science, medicine, the building industry and in the kitchen, but also in most sports including all athletics.

Friends of Imperial units will claim that the use will bring us into alignment with the USA. This is incorrect. Although it is true that the USA is one of very few countries in the world which has not gone metric, nonetheless it uses metric units in science, healthcare and many other areas. Furthermore, US “customary units” are different from British imperial units.

The argument commonly used by those who oppose metrication is that this is a matter of ancient freedoms and traders and customers are entitled to use whatever units they wish. This is analogous to saying that people should be entitled to trade in pounds, shillings and pence. Imagine two adjacent market traders who are advertising their prices in different units. The customer will find it difficult or impossible to make price comparisons and this is therefore a rogues’ charter. And this at a time when we are all having to watch the pennies. Even the professional bodies of market traders, of grocers and of trading standards officers see this and have come out strongly against the change.

The oft-quoted case of the ‘metric martyrs‘ has nothing to do with illegal use of imperial units, it was based on the use of weighing scales that did not meet the required standard, which is and will remain metric. It is perfectly legal for traders to display prices in imperial alongside metric. Re-adoption of imperial units would mean many traders and indeed trading standards offices having to purchase new equipment at very considerable expense. This at a time of austerity would be really indefensible.

Metric units have been taught as the primary unit in schools since the 1970s. As the population ages there will be fewer and fewer people who think solely in imperial. Those who assert that imperial units are simpler should reflect on whether they themselves even understand all the units, and how they would add, multiply or divide, even with the help of a calculator. They should perhaps try this quiz. Metric units all have a clear relationship to each other, and for example converting from millimetres to kilometres is simply a matter of moving a decimal point. In day-to-day life there is no question about which is simpler to learn and simpler to use.

For further information please see the UK metric Association website, ukma.org.uk and in particular our response to the latest initiative.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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