Big Bang vs “voluntary gradualism”

A correspondent asks whether countries that carried out their metrication programme quickly fared better or worse than countries that have tried to do the job gradually and voluntarily.

Our correspondent wrote:

“I wonder if anyone has the time and resources to write an article for Metric Views on [whether] the policy of gradual metrication been a success compared with other country’s policies of doing it in less than a decade.  Could we put together any objective measures by which you might measure the success of such a policy – cost, public acceptance, lack of resistance from stakeholders etc.?  Just a thought.”

The first thing to be said is that the original intention, when the policy of metrication was announced in 1965, was that the job would be completed in 10 years – that is, by 1975. However, although behind-the-scenes preparations were well advanced by 1970, including a target date for converting road signs in 1973, little had actually been achieved in practical terms by the time of the general election.  Edward Heath unexpectedly won the election, and although famous for taking the UK into the EEC, he did little to encourage metrication.  Indeed he allowed his Transport Minister to postpone indefinitely the conversion of road signs, and the 1972 White Paper announced that conversion would in future be voluntary and gradual: “There will be no “M-day” for metrication.” (paragraph 12),   No Government since then has had the commitment or political courage to set a new target date.  Instead they have diverted criticism on to the EU.

This policy of “voluntary gradualism” was reaffirmed by Tony Blair in a letter to Lord Howe in 2004, and even more recently by Lord Drayson (Minister for Science) in a letter to the Chairman of UKMA last December, in which he said:

“The Government’s longstanding policy in relation to units of measurement is to move towards full metrication in time, but at a pace that recognizes that a significant proportion of consumers are still more comfortable with using imperial units.  Metric units are used for the majority of transactions regulated by the Weights and Measures Act 1985.  The United Kingdom is already substantially metric …… We recognise that a single system of units of measurement as a reference point is vital for fair trade and consumer protection.  However, we also believe it is important that imperial units can continue to be used alongside metric ones whilst they remain more familiar for some consumers.”

The sad result of this policy, as we know to our cost, is that the UK has got half way through metrication and got stuck, with little prospect of resolution without decisive intervention by the Government.  So we have the “very British mess” of two systems described on UKMA’s website at this link.  I think it can fairly be said that the UK’s approach has failed.

Other countries which commenced conversion in the late 1960s or early 1970s have tried different approaches. Australia and South Africa are examples of countries that largely completed their changeover within the 10 year timetable, whereas the USA has been even slower than the UK – albeit there is considerable unseen progress (e.g. in the American car industry).  Canada has converted its road signs but encountered resistance to the changeover in retailing, putting it further ahead than the UK in some ways but further behind in others (the American influence is of course very strong).  The Irish Republic is an interesting case.  Initially slow like the UK, it succeeded in converting its road signs and speed limits in 2005 and has now largely completed its programme – albeit pints (imperial) linger on in pubs.  One may speculate that one of the reasons why the Irish overtook the Brits is that by leaving the sterling area and later adopting the Euro, and then completing the metric changeover, they were demonstrating their independence from their former colonial masters.

Can any lessons be drawn from all this?  Can we in fact, as our correspondent asked, develop any objective measures?

I think this is actually an impossible task.  As far as costs are concerned, most of the costs were incurred so long ago that, even if they had been identified at the time, there are no surviving records of them.  Ditto the benefits.  What we can say, however, is that the UK has failed to reap the benefits of its investments in new machine tools, retraining programmes, school textbooks etc precisely because a large proportion of the population still uses obsolete units of measurement.  The “voluntary/gradual” approach means you get all the costs but not all the benefits.

The second criterion suggested by our correspondent was public acceptability.

Clearly, the UK has had a problem here – but arguably a problem that is self inflicted.  Whereas in, for example, Australia, the government was careful to explain the reasons and the programme for metrication (see this link for extracts from the official report), and then implemented the changeover relatively quickly, the UK Government tried to do it by stealth and without explaining the reasons to the general public. They also tried to do the easy bits first (pharmaceuticals, building and construction) while hoping that the difficult bits (esp retailing) would be addressed later long after the current politicians and civil servants had left office.

It is probably also true that Britain has a larger proportion of traditionalists who reject all change, especially if it appears to affect imagined icons of Britishness. Then of course came the incorrect identification of the issue with the EU, and so opposition to metrication became a metaphor for Euroscepticism.  If only the thing had been done quickly, before the anti-European campaign had been cranked up, it could all have been history by the end of the 1970s.

The third suggested criterion, resistance from stakeholders, requires a little examination.  The primary stakeholders (manufacturing and building industries, local authority trading standards officers, major retailers, consumer representatives) have generally supported (or at least acquiesced in) metrication.  The main resistance has come from independent shopkeepers and market traders, supported or exploited by right wing political groups.  In economic terms these are not all that significant, but by dint of political stunts (the so-called “metric martyrs”) they have captured the interest of the media and thereby won some sympathy amongst the general public.  Again it has been the failure of politicians to explain the changeover, take responsibility for their own policy and carry it through in a reasonable timescale that has allowed grievances to fester and grow.

So my response to our correspondent’s question – whether countries that converted quickly to metric units fared better or worse than countries that have tried to do the job voluntarily and gradually – is that the question really answers itself.  “Voluntary gradualism” merely prolongs the agony and does not work.  Unfortunately, successive UK governments have refused to learn from the experience of more successful countries such as Australia (or even Ireland in respect of road signs) and, despite all warnings, have deliberately followed those policies that are least likely to succeed.

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14 Responses to Big Bang vs “voluntary gradualism”

  1. Seares says:

    Don't forget- metrication was even proposed by a Parliamentary Select Committee back in 1862!

  2. Derek says:

    Over the last fifty years, the contribution of manufacture to the UK’s GDP has fallen dramatically, from about a third to about a tenth. This reduction is now taking place in the US, as the worldwide market for inch-pound products disappears.

    Discussions have taken place in MetricViews about the extent to which “voluntary gradualism” in the metric conversion of manufacturing industry has been responsible for this decline, without reaching any firm conclusion. However, it is clear that both the UK and US economies now rely excessively on financial services rather than manufacture to generate economic growth, and both have accordingly been hard hit by the recent banking crisis.

    Of course, traditionalists in the UK and the US can console themselves with the fact that the speed at which we are heading towards the economic precipice is measured in mph.

  3. Pat Naughtin says:

    Dear All,

    Seares says:
    2009-12-11 at 10:34
    Don’t forget- metrication was even proposed by a Parliamentary Select Committee back in 1862!

    And also don't forget that the original idea for the 'universal measure' that became the metric system – in France in the 1790s – came from Bishop John Wilkins in London in 1668. See and


    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

  4. eric says:

    No need to waste time on a study to ascertain which metrication method succeeds, or fails. Just look at Canada, Britain and N.America, countries that preferred a mixture of compulsion and voluntary measures to achieve this goal. All of them are saddled with cumbersome, expensive and accident prone hybrids. Contrast that hopeless approach with Australia, New Zealand and S.Africa's successful implementation. Those countries mandated the changeover to metric within a certain time frame.
    No metricating country ever completed the transition on a voluntary basis.
    There are some central American countries and Caribbean islands that confirm this statement.

  5. John says:

    I was in Canada all through its conversion process. Originally, it did go very speedily and quite smoothly - it would be fair to say that most of the public, if not 100% enthusiastic, at least accepted it had to be done if Canada was to remain competitive in the modern global economy. I say 'most' - but not all. The turning point - the point where progress more or less stopped - came when the proprietor of an independent gasoline (petrol) station objected to the cost of converting his pumps from gallons to litres.

    He took it to court as an act of martyrdom. He lost in court - but instead of the Canadian government of the day using this as a symbol of confirmation, they got cold feet instead, and decided all future metrication would be using a 'softly softly' approach. The inevitable happened, and there has been much reversion to old imperial units, helped in no small measure by Canada's proximity to, and huge trade with, the USA. Add in the original Free Trade Agreement, followed by NAFTA, which allowed a free-for-all in product sizing, and the sheer force of the USA overwhelmed Canada's conversion process.

    Many of the products now sold in Canada have reverted to old imperial sizes (e.g. shampoo, which was once sold in 1 L sizes, but is almost universally now sold in 946 mL sizes). Now, it is a mess. I recently bought a house in Nova Scotia. Lot sizes, once given in m2 or in ha, are now sometimes shown in acres, sometimes in square feet - impossible to compare.

  6. eric says:

    Re-John, thanks for that informative post.

    Well, your example proves the point again. What some pro metric people have yet to learn is that trying to convince people to switch to the metric system because it is so much better does not work.

    Maybe a plausible study of how much it costs per annum to maintain that unholy mess in Canada and the US will convince metric averse citizens in both countries to think again?

  7. Jeremiah says:

    I'm confused a bit by Pat Naughtin's precise conversion of 38 Rheinland inches or 39.25 London inches to 996.95 mm. This can be viewed at: /docs/CommentaryOnWilkinsOfMeasure.pdf (see the top of page 8).

    The confusion comes from Pat using an inch millimetre conversion factor of 25.4 which did not exist until 1960. So how can it be precisely applied to 1668?

    According to this website:, the Rheinland Zoll had a value of 26.154 mm (based on 1 Rheinland fuss equaled 0.31385 m) in 1842 and 26.145 mm (based on 1 Rheinland fuss equaled 0.31374) in 1816.

    If we assume that 38 Rheinland Zoll always equaled 39.25 inches, then that would put the value of John Wilkens' "standard" between 993.5 & 994 mm. In 1842, the Rheinland zoll was approximately 1.03 times longer the the English inch. This would make 38 Rheinland zoll equal to only 39.13 English inches and not 39.25 as in 1668. 39.13 inches x 25.4 mm/inch (using the 1960 definition as Pat did), gives a value of the "standard" of about 994 mm. 994 mm is 3 mm smaller then Pat's over-precise 996.95 mm value.

    Of course none of these values would apply in 1668. The point of this all is that we don't know exactly what the inch of 1668 (either London or Rheinland) was relative to the present metre would be. So it is incorrect to state to 2 decimal point accuracy a value for John Wilken's "standard" based on the definition of the inch from 1960.

    Even the Americans recognize that the pre-1960 inch and the post-1960 definitions are different enough to retain the old value of the foot for surveying.

    I would like to see Pat reflect that John Wilkins "standard" was close enough to the present metre that he could be considered as the father of the metric system. If a value needs to be stated, the a range of values would be most appropriate and could be based on the fact that pre-metric dimensions were never precise and never intended to be precise. Saying that John Wilkins "standard" was equal to about 994 mm +/- 2 mm would best fit the uncertainty of the units discussed.

  8. Jeremiah says:

    In response to John, to say that Canada reverted to imperial would not be correct. If Canada switched from 1 L quantities to 946 mL, but are still reported in metric only, then they are still metric. Even though 946 mL is the same as 1 US quart, the US quart is not imperial, it is USC. But if the word quart is not present on the package, then there is no reversion to using pre-SI units.

    I'm sure if the UK had switched to USC from imperial instead of to metric, the back slash from the fringe groups would have been just as intense. Even though some like to claim that the US uses imperial, and they know there is a significant difference, then their motive is to deceive.

    Even though the US market is larger then that of Canada there is no reason that Canada can't flood the US with metric designed and produced products. If Chinese, Mexican, European, Japanese, and every one else easily produces metric products for the US market, then so can Canada and the UK.

    Back in the early '80s when it was obvious the US was not going to change, I had heard that Canada was wooing US companies to relocate to Canada to produce American brand products in the metric system and selling them all over the world. I wonder how many took Canada up on the offer. Even if many didn't relocate to Canada to take advantage of Canada's metric atmosphere, they instead went elsewhere, such as Mexico and Asia. Either way the US is now flooded with metric products from elsewhere that Americans refused to make in metric, but seem to have no problem buying them when made in metric elsewhere.

  9. Jeremiah says:

    Eric hit the nail on the head. Too often I hear pro-metric persons argue that we need to go metric because it is better or easier. To the imperial minded, the complexity of imperial is ignored simply by avoiding difficult conversions and comparisons. Shoppers don't compare prices of products in different units. Consumers don't bother to calculate their mpg. If a traveler is told the plane he is in is flying at 30 000 feet, he/she will never bother to calculate how many miles or inches that is.

    Because of the complexity, inter-imperial/USC conversions are never done and a whole culture has evolved around not doing such conversions. A change to metric would not alter that culture.

    Metric supporters need to preach the gospel of lost jobs due to not using metric and with lost jobs a loss of the good life and the middle class living standard. Americans and British have to be informed that businesses wanting to use metric to make more money for themselves are not going to waste their profits on training an unwilling employee to work in the metric system. Instead they will close the doors and go elsewhere to where the metric system is already understood and the culture of the metric system is ingrained.

    Most pro-metric supporters seem to be too afraid to confront the established order and as a result help perpetuate the problem. The present economic situation in the US and UK is the perfect time for pro-metric supporters to get the word out that unemployment will continue to rise and manufacturing industries will continue to relocate to metric countries until they receive positive reinforcement that the US and UK people's have adopted a pro-metric attitude.

    I can't imagine what damage was caused to UK industry when the news spread around the world last year that the British were overjoyed that they can continue to use imperial and despite having an education in metric, claimed not to understand it. I'm sure that the purchase of British goods from other lands was very much affected.

  10. eric says:

    Re=Jeremiah: In response to John, to say that Canada reverted to imperial would not be correct. If Canada switched from 1 L quantities to 946 mL, but are still reported in metric only, then they are still metric.

    Call it nitpicking, but Canada did revert to imperial. Using metric units to denote imperial quantities makes a mess of the metric system. Imagine America converting all imperial units to metric and calling it complete metrication? Imperialising metric units is the worst anyone can do because it alienates metric inclined people without winning one convert.

  11. philh says:

    Whilst the economic arguments for metrication are sound enough it is not sufficient by itself. There is a tendancy for those in industry that need to work in metric do so behind the scenes and disguise its outward persona. The US do a lot of that.

    Given that metric has overwhelming advantages as a system why not say so?

    We need to campaign on all fronts!

  12. eric says:

    Re-philh, agreed. To stress metric advantages is absolutely essential, but it won't convince Ann and Joe blow to switch. People only use about 4 to 7 imperial, or metric measurement units on a daily basis without any problems. So why should they change? When it comes to more involved calculations like carpets and floor tiles the shops do the hard work for them. The real unfortunates are the children and their teachers, who have to waste needlessly precious time on an outdated hodgepodge of disjointed units that nobody in his right mind uses.

  13. Jeremiah says:

    Eric, only people interested in metrication would know that 946 mL is the same as 1 US quart. Anyone else would think the product is metric simply because it is labeled in metric only. They may think it is odd that it is not a full litre, but that is all.

    I'm sure that those who are accustom to imperial units would not know the significance of 946 mL as this amount does not have an imperial equivalent. An imperial quart would be 1136 mL, a difference of 190 mL.

    I would also think that those products which come in soft converted US sizes are those that come from American companies. Products of Canadian origin or those that come from elsewhere in the world would either come in a 1 L size or some other rounded metric amount. Only the Americans would use increments of 946 mL.

    Metrication does not have anything to do with the choice of product sizes. That is up to the industry. Metrication has occurred when the old units no longer appear, even though the numbers may seem odd. I would prefer to see 1 L as opposed to 946 mL, but I would accept 946 mL by itself than see packages include references to extinct units.

  14. Jeremiah says:

    Unfortunately Phil, those campaigning for metrication seem to ignore completely the damage done to the economy when SI is not used or understood. Most of the arguments I've seen in favour of metrication revolve around its simplicity.

    Combine this with the reasons I've given previously as to why the simplicity of SI is not an issue with the general populace and you will see and understand why metrication has failed in the US & UK.

    Metrication has to be tied in with economic issues. If it can be shown that metrication is prospering developing countries and the lack of metrication in the US and UK is a major cause for job loss and industries fleeing, a different attitude towards metrication will develop.

    Honestly, how often have you read a news article about metrication or the metric system that even mentioned economic reasons for metricating as opposed to the often mentioned ease of use?

    Yes, I would like to see a campaign hit all the fronts, but first I'd like to see less of an emphasis on ease and more of an emphasis on economy.


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