81. Measurement Madness – No Thanks!!

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

22 August 2022

(To search the website or to comment on this piece please see foot of page)

Chair’s blog

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

In June the government launched a consultation on one of its most hare-brained initiatives, and that is saying quite something. The consultation ends this week. You have a chance to respond, and please do so by following this link.

Beer is sold in pints, even when it is Spanish. So is milk. Imperial and metric shown side by side (photo: author)

What HMG in its wisdom is proposing is a change to the Weights and Measures Act 1985 (as amended), so that traders will be allowed to sell produce in imperial units without giving a metric equivalent. Many people reading this will see this as a pointless but fairly trivial change. However it has the potential to be more than that. It represents the first step backwards on a gradual progression towards sanity in weights and measures which has been going on for at least 150 years. It is symbolic as yet another step intended to isolate this country from the 21st century world and lock it into a nostalgic fantasy. Like much of what we are hearing from the outgoing Prime Minister and his potential would-be successors, it is designed to throw red meat to a small and highly atypical minority of the population, for whom flags and blue passports are more important than dealing with the very real and pressing problems of today. It is a distraction, but a dangerous one.

Perhaps it would be worth reflecting on some of the misconceptions on which the initiative is based.

A few myths

The changes will allow greater choice. This is simply untrue. Traders are free if they want to put imperial markings on their goods or to display prices based on imperial units. All that is legally required is that there is also a metric equivalent displayed with equal prominence. By law the imperial measures, e.g. pounds or pints, are described as supplementary indicators. Pints are still the main unit used for the sale of fresh milk, beer and cider, just as miles are in use for distances. What the change would do in theory is to allow greater “choice” to traders, because they can omit the metric indicators, and at the same time reduce choice for customers, because they may be deprived of the option of seeing prices in metric. It will make it more difficult to compare prices and potentially open the door to sharp practice. For example if carpets are sold in square yards they look very much cheaper than if they are sold in square metres. Open and fair trade requires comparability, not confusion. Even the market traders’ professional body sees this and has come out against the change. So of course have all the other major organisations with a stake in the issue.

John Wilkins, credited with inventing the metric system

Brexit creates the opportunity to diverge. Even if this were true, the fact of being allowed to do something does not make it a good idea. We would not wish, for example, to return to the use of pounds, shillings and pence. Perhaps it says something about just how trivial the “opportunities of Brexit” are that it has been found necessary to seize on issues like this, or indeed blue passports, crown stamps and noisy inefficient vacuum cleaners.

Metric units are somehow un-British. Even if this were a valid criticism, it is simply untrue. The first person to propose the idea of a metric system was an Englishman, John Wilkins, an Oxford Don and later Bishop of Chester. Add to that, several metric units, eg the Watt, Newton, Kelvin and Joule, are named after British scientists. In contrast, the system of weights which we call imperial is more properly called Avoirdupois, and a more French term would be difficult to imagine. Metric is the norm around the world, except in 3 countries, the USA, Myanmar and Liberia, and throughout the Commonwealth.

Metric units were imposed by the EU. The government consultation document erroneously gives the impression that metrication started in the 1990s. This could not be further from the truth. Discussion on metrication started in the UK parliament in 1862, only 48 years after the standardisation of British imperial units. It was in 1897 that a firm decision was made to metricate, and there has been gradual progress since. For example OS Maps have used a kilometre-based system since the 1940s. In 1965 it was decided to go wholly metric, long before EEC membership, but progress has stalled since.

Imperial is easier to work with. Totally untrue. We have 10 fingers, and that is why we use the base 10. Calculations are simple and conversions involve just moving a decimal point. All units have a clear relationship to each other. Calculations using imperial are difficult for those who understand them and impossible for those who do not – which is an increasing proportion of the community. Metric units are the primary units taught in schools since 1974. Learning imperial units properly would add a significant load to the curriculum, and few in our community have achieved this. Witness the embarrassment of Lord Parkinson, Arts Minister and advocate of imperial, who could not say how many ounces in a pound.. We might know the answer to that question, but how many pounds in a ton?? Paul Bright, in a brilliant article, spells out the whole absurdity of the thing.

The USA uses imperial units. This is incorrect. Although it is true that the USA is one of only three countries in the world outside the UK which has not gone metric, nonetheless it uses metric units in science, healthcare and many other areas – and there is a strong lobby in the US in favour of full metrication. Furthermore, US “customary units” are different from British imperial units: The Americans have different pints, gallons and tons, and they do not understand stones.

Concentrate on the important things.

Ever since the Magna Carta it has been an aspiration to have a single system of units throughout the country. With global trading we need a single system throughout the world. Metric units are used not only in science, medicine, the building industry and in the kitchen, but also in most sports including all athletics, as the recent Birmingham Commonwealth Games will have reminded us. The government paper makes it clear that none of this is going to change, so in effect it is proposing to condemn us indefinitely to the use of dual units, with all the confusion that brings. The planned changes have significant costs for traders, consumers and trading standards departments, and these will ultimately have to be borne by the public. And dual systems carry potential risks of error. In addition what is proposed is totally at variance with the notion of ‘global Britain’ and will feed into the growing narrative of this country as an international laughing stock.

The proposers of the plan are living in the past, or trying to distract the public from today’s important issues, or both. They need to be told so. Please try to complete and submit the questionnaire. Try not to get too angry about the biased and closed nature of the questions or the fact that the matter appears to have been prejudged – as Helen Johnson points out in her excellent analysis

Please complete the survey

Here it is again. If you would like some pointers, you can find some suggestions from UKMA here. The consultation closes on 26th August at 11pm.

And if you feel strongly, there is a petition you can sign.

Update: The consultation has now closed. If you want to join the UK Metric Association go to ukma.org.uk

Metric is not just a European idea.

The author is chair of the UK Metric Association and of Oxford for Europe. The views stated here are not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

If you wish to comment on this blog, please see below

Previous blogs

Please also keep an eye out for our series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. Details here.

See Also:



Twitter: @Oxfordstays

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply