Will the new Parliament be more pro-metric?

Although it is widely assumed that the next Parliament (to be elected no later than June 2010) will contain more Conservative and fewer Labour MPs, is it possible that they may be more sympathetic to completing the metric changeover?  (Article based on a draft by Martin Vlietstra.)

On Saturday 23rd January 2010, the Times ran an article on the ‘Oxford Mafia’ that was running Britain.  They listed 18 prominent politicians who were active in Oxford University political associations between 1984 and 1990.  They included eleven Conservative Party supporters, six Labour Party supporters and one Liberal Democrat. The names included David Cameron and Ed Balls who both studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) between 1985 and 1988.

Given their ages, it is likely that they were at junior school between 1974 and 1983.  During that time imperial units were all but banned from the classroom.  They would never have learned how to manipulate pounds, shillings and pence nor would they have learned how to manipulate yards, feet and inches, or stones, pounds and ounces.  It would have been too much to expect the school syllabus to include square yards, acres and square miles. The only exposure that they would have had to non-metric units would have been the manipulation of days, hours, minutes and seconds and conversions between Fahrenheit and Celsius – the latter because the value of “c” in the equation y=mx+c is non-zero.

There are likely to be many new faces in Parliament in a few months time. I wonder how many of the new MPs will be able to calculate the average weight of a number of people using stones and pounds, or the average height of a group of people using feet and inches.  This is a skill that they should have picked up in the final years of junior school or the early years of secondary school.  And will they be honest enough to admit that they were not taught this skill and that the only way compensate for this problem is to complete the conversion to the metric system.

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27 Responses to Will the new Parliament be more pro-metric?

  1. David Robe says:

    I really hope there is some truth in this story.

    I'm growing increasingly frustrated by the metric mess we're experiencing in this country. I turn 30 this summer and was never educated in imperial units. I believe imperial units were covered in one maths lesson but obviously not in any great detail.

    The population who were educated in imperial only are becoming a smaller part of the population as a whole. Even my father who is approaching his sixties has worked purely in metric for many years and has had no problems with this.

    I actually wrote to my local MP Caroline Flint about the metric issue and was told the official policy is currently "no change". Great(!)

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  2. Derek says:

    Caroline Flint is perhaps expressing, in different words, the opinion that I first heard in 2006, from an official at the DTI (now BIS):

    ‘The Government’s legislative work on metrication is almost complete, with the notable exceptions of road signs and draught beer and cider. From now on it is down to you, the public.’

    Clearly, the Government’s influence on private activity is limited, and even the media are free to do their own thing. So I thought the use by the BBC of centimetres for snow depths throughout the recent wintry weather (with the exception of occasional lapses by reporters) showed real progress.

    If the newly-elected MP’s use more metric in their public pronouncements than those they replace, then that too will be progress. Doubtless, they will be under pressure from the usual suspects to do the opposite.

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    As had been pointed out in other places many times, the single most effective thing the Government can do is to replace all road signs of all types with metric ones (following the excellent "roadmap" provided by the UKMA).

    Once this happens, I am confident the UK will extricate itself from the metric muddle in short order.

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  4. Ezra Steinberg says:

    My apologies for not having completed my thought in my initial post. I was going to conclude by wondering if there was any chance the new Parliament would even consider putting in place plans for such a road sign conversion given the likely changes to its make-up.

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  5. Seares says:

    I guess the answer will be 'No'. I'm not optimistic. All three parties are cowards on this issue, even the Lib-Dems, who I have supported for 60 of my 78 years. As to the BNP and UKIP, words fail me. The Greens aren't much help either.

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  6. philh says:

    There are no clear party lines but it is probably the case that Conservative MPs (or candidates) tend to oppose metrication for the same reason as UKIP - i.e. an anti-EU agenda.

    The one ray of hope is that if the Conservatives to do return to office then the hard Eurosceptics will mellow. There can be little doubt that the shift right was an attempt to distance themselves from the Blair government that had "stolen their clothes" as media commentators put it.

    Perhaps they will take a more pragmatic view in the fullness of time and appreciate the other side of the argument, namely that supporting metrication is sign of progressive thinking.

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  7. Richard Birkby says:

    Very interesting thoughts. As one of the generation (though a powerless member of it I have to admit) that you mention in the article I can confirm an imperial-free education but that doesn't mean those like me haven't since learned it.

    My impression has always been that the Labour Party had the best intentions but were afraid of doing the "big one" (road signs, as Ezra Steinberg says) for fear of the eurosceptic chorus. But if a Conservative government can be persuaded there is a compelling reason to take this final step no such fears would exist.

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  8. Michael Glass says:

    Conservatives might well agree with getting rid of rules that enable busybodies to pressure public authorities to remove metric signs from public places. It doesn't matter what the lawyers might argue, the British Weights and Measures Association has used the present laws and regulations to remove metric signs on walkways and other places that have nothing to do with road traffic. Conservative members of Parliament might well be outraged that busybodies can use these regulations in this way.

    They might also agree that draught beer may be sold by the litre or half litre if this is desired. This would prevent the farcical situation where a Bavarian themed bar can be fined for selling beer by the litre or half litre. In this instance you can happily support the British Weights and Measures push for freedom in the marketplace and the Conservatives might well agree with you both. All three can then bask in the glory of advancing the British liberty to overindulge in both pints and litres.

    On the other hand, there should be a hard line against cheating in the marketplace. When 99% of traders measure bananas and bacon by the kilo, there is no excuse for others to use unregistered scales marked in what are claimed to be pounds and ounces. Even Colonel Blimp might be persuaded that this is not in the public interest.

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  9. A says:

    You are begging the question. Members of the Conservative party are not the only people in political parties who would have be taught in Metric. To claim that Conservative party members were taught in Metric means that the Conservative party will Metricate Britain is a logical fallacy.

    You are also making the assumption that Conservative party members, unlike other political party members, operate with Metric units daily and have problems with Imperial units. When David Cameron had his third child, the weight was given in Imperial units. I doubt the hospital notified the press of his childs weight and I am more inclined to believe that either he or his wife told the press the weight. Surely, as you say, their only exposure to non-Metric units would be time (seconds is an SI unit) and temperature conversion, the weight would have been given in kg. But it wasn't.

    The Conservatives, like the other parties have shown little interest in Metrication. The previous article just exemplifies ignorance on the Metric system as shown by the lack of understanding or knowledge of the order of magnitudes. Prices are not shown in pence and pounds and measurements follow the same pattern. As I said before, you don't measure in mm and give a margin of error in cm and the same goes with stating alcohol content in cL when the volume is in mL.

    This may appear to be a minor issue but there really is no point in Metricating if things are going to be all over the place because the basics were not understood. The whole point of SI units is to bring about order and standardisation. It should be done right on the first go.

    The Conservatives showing a vague interest in Metric units can be likened to bump starting an engine. You can hear the wheezing of the engine when you trundle along beside and every now and again you here it splutter but the spluttering is no reason to get excited as you are still no further than you were when it was wheezing which is just what it is good as. Until the engine fires up, you are still no closer to having a running engine. And until the post election government says they will abolish Imperial units and Metricate, then its just all wheezing and spluttering.

    To me, this sounds more like a partisan piece masked behind Metrication.

    Maybe I have the wrong end of the stick on the whole issue. It is just speculation after all.

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  10. philh says:

    The previous contributor is right to identify a poor understanding of the metric system as part of the problem. It is also true that those who were educated since 1974 are not necessarily inclined toward its use.

    But should we be surprised at this?

    Understanding and applying it properly requires an everyday environment where it is used for all purposes. The two systems muddle that everyone in Britain has had to endure for the last few decades will inevitably confound the benefit of school children's learning in the classroom.

    Government Education policy in respect of this has failed because of the pathetically naive assumption that somehow the younger generation will do the work for them and the change-over will occur by itself.

    Politicians of all parties have singularly failed to recognise that children are more likely to adapt to the status-quo, in the expectation that their elders know better, than to take the lead on something they never knew was expected of them.

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  11. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Given all this discussion, I find it most ironic that the best hope for completing metrication in the UK (and in Canada, for that matter) is for the USA to convert.

    That is a tall order and not likely to come about any time soon given the economic challenges we face here (though less daunting than those that face the eurozone and the PIIGS). However, even just having the US government amend our FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act) to permit metric-only labeling could be spun on your side of The Pond as the camel's nose in the tent for American metrication, and thus put pressure on the government (whoever wins the next election) to finish the job and stay ahead of the curve.

    We'll keep pushing at our end; let's hope that works!

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  12. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I am in Canada at the moment, and can comment on Canada's position. Apart from road signs, there is no doubt that Canada has slipped back in terms of metric conversion. Just bought some windshield washer antifreeze. This was ALWAYS sold in 4 L bottles, back in the 1980s and '90s. Today? 3.78 L, which of course is 1 US gallon. Quite why I cannot fathom, as this is a product produced locally, for local conditions. Overall, apart from road signs (and associated street furniture), the UK is much further ahead than Canada at the present time (NAFTA has much to do with this, as the US has successfully claimed that requiring metric sizing and labelling is a constraint under NAFTA's rules).

    Regarding the next UK government, I think the best hope (assuming a Conservative win) would be to heavily publicize the economic cost of having two systems. If nothing else, a demonstrable cost advantage in not having two systems should appeal to Conservative values, and might just help the process along. There are some studies available (e.g. the Phelps study in the US of how much it costs the US education system of teaching metric and USC), and some reasonably verifiable numbers would give senior ministers at least some cause to think about completing the conversion process.

    Finally, I noticed recently on some UK websites relating to some landmarks and locations I was checking out, that distances were as often as not in metric (e.g. a certain landmark was 1.7 km from the main road), so as Ezra, says, get the road signs replaced, and the rest should fall into place.

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  13. Ezra Steinberg says:

    John Frewen-Lord's points in the previous post are well taken. In particular, if the U.S. Congress amends the FPLA to permit metric-only labeling, I predict we will see many products sold in North America switch to rational metric sizes labeled only in metric, which will redound to the benefit of Canadian metrication by seeing the return of sensible metric sizes there.

    This will also affect so-called NAFTA packaging, where currently the Spanish and French text typically list only metric units whereas the English text lists only US Customary units (which can also confound anglophone Canadians if the product is being sold by volume since their Imperial volumetric measures are different from the USA's). With the FPLA amended, I'm certain many packages will list the quantity in metric only in the English text (in addition to the Spanish and French), with a cascade effect such that nearly all products sold using NAFTA packaging will eventually be 100% metric across the board.

    As John points out regarding the psychological or "mind set" impact of converting UK road signs to metric, I think metric-only packaging in rational sizes in Canada will help shift the perception of the Canadian public towards accepting metric units as the norm.

    It is now up to us in the USA to convince Congress to amend the FPLA (and to convert or at least neutralize opponents, like the Food Marketing Institute).

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  14. Jeremiah says:

    John Frewen-Lord stated that the product of windshield washer fluid was sold in a 3.78 L size. Was it also marked with a supplemental indicator, such as pints, quarts or gallons (either US or UK) or was it metric only.

    How many of the products that you have seen carry a supplemental indication in either imperial or USC?

    If all that you have seen is that some products have adopted US sizes but the US size is not stated, then no real regression has taken place. The metric system does not dictate amounts, just units. How many people would know this is a US gallon. What would a US gallon mean to Canadians who have no experience with this gallon, since they historically used the imperial gallon?

    I feel that if the FPLA is amended in the US to allow metric only, you will see in the US a similar situation. You will see no change in product size (at least right away), but you will see the USC removed and metric only stated. If anything, you may see further reduction in sizes from 3.78 L to 3.5 L. This may be what the opposers are most afraid of.

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  15. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Actually, some major players (like Procter and Gamble) already have rational metric sized packages. Also, some European imports (like beauty products) are rational also.

    Once FPLA is amended, those packages will drop US Customary indications in a heartbeat (after current stock is depleted down to reorder levels). Do not underestimate the psychological impact of seeing rational metric sizes with no supplementary indications. It has a powerful suggestive message to the user, even if only subconscious.

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  16. Mark preston says:

    So where exactly are we with any possible changes to FPLA ? As I understand it, 48 of the 50 states allow metric only packaging, the exceptions being New York and Arizona. Or am I getting confused between state and federal legislation?

    Is there a conscious effort to amend FPLA? Is it being discussed? Is the Obama administration keen on the idea? Are the major US producers pushing for this? Is NAFTA?

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  17. Ezra Steinberg says:

    It turns out that most packaging is regulated by the FPLA, but the remaining items are regulated by the UPLR (Uniform Packaging and Labeling Regulation), which the individual states adopt "as is" or with their own amendments.

    See http://lamar.colostate.edu/~hillger/laws/ncwm-uniform-laws.html#uplr

    The FPLA is federal legislation and is passed (or amended) by the US Congress and then signed by the President. So, it's an "all or nothing" deal for the United States, its territories and possessions. It is the UPLR that is adopted state-by-state. So far, only New York and Alabama have failed to incorporate the provision in the UPLR for voluntary metric-only labeling for those products covered by the UPLR. I'll see if I can get an update on where things stand with them.

    See also:

    http://ts.nist.gov/WeightsAndMeasures/upload/F-002.pdf

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  18. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Well, most other items not regulated by the FPLA fall under the UPLR.

    As I re-read the announcement I linked to amending the UPLR, I was reminded that some items are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and others by the Food and Drug Administration.

    I'm not sure where voluntary metric-only labeling efforts stand for those products. I'll try and find out.

    Welcome to the regulatory muddle that is these United States of America!

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  19. Tabitha Jones says:

    Let's hope the new conservative government puts a stop to metrication as far as is practically possible.

    [We don't normally publish purely negative comments, but Tabitha actually raises an interesting question: Supposing the Conservatives did win and tried to put the clock back, what could they actually do? This will be the subject of a future MetricViews article. - Editor]

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  20. A says:

    I don't understand why people are assuming that after the election, it will be a Conservative government in power. Its not like they are the clear favourites and points ahead from everyone else. It can still go either way.

    I do not believe that if the Conservatives were to get in power that they would reverse Metrication. How many years have they been in power since Metrication?

    Metrication started in 1965 under a Labour government and the Conservatives have been in power for a combined 22 years and Metrication has only continued in one slow, arduous direction. If anything, the Conservatives if they got in power, would want to continue this trend or they would be accused of deliberately sabotaging the British economy and would come up against resistance from many groups and businesses. It would not make sense for them to regress and surely they would see that it would have a negative impact on the country and on their image.

    It has to be noted that the Conservatives claimed to be the party of the NHS - a Metric exclusive institution. Imagine the backlash from Britains biggest employer?

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  21. Jeremiah says:

    Putting a stop to metrication does not mean reversing what has changed. Tabitha will still have to endure metric weather forcasts, products in the markets that are rounded metric and labeled in metric only, deli scales and pricing that are metric only.

    In order for Tabitha to be happy she will have to spend her entire day staring at road signs and nights going to the pub and asking for pints of beer. Anything else she will have to accept that it is metric and will remain that way.

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  22. Seares says:

    Wouldn't surprise me if David Cameron suddenly announced the conservatives would go back to L S D money if they thought it might garner a few votes from the unthinking masses. Why can every (almost every) country see the sense of metrication while we stick in the mud of muddled measures?

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  23. Tony says:

    It seems to me that the UK has 3 options. 1. We continue with this insane and expensive muddle in which two incompatible systems are used. We will have another generation which does not fully understand the relationships between different weights and measures, and the UK will continue at a disadvantage against our better educated economic rivals. 2. We bite the bullet and finish the job we started 50 years ago and dump the old imperial units which ever larger numbers of people don't understand, and move on. 3. We kill our entire manufacturing industry by turning the clock back and resurrecting the imperial system, ensuring that our goods will be impossible to export and our population will be utterly confused by the use of bizarre old units.
    I would hope that any new government would see that continuing to drag out the job is not in our interests, and we should just finish the job of metrication that my great-grandparents' generation started.  

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  24. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Tabitha wrote "Let’s hope the new conservative government puts a stop to metrication as far as is practically possible"

    How far would it be practical to roll back metrication? How would we teach maths in the schools? With calculators or without? In fact, teaching children how to add up pounds and ounces using calculators, then asking them to add up kilograms will make firm metric converts of all of them (unless of course Tabitha knows something about teaching that I don't know).

    Or the other hand, she might be happy wallowing in her ignorance, in which case I suggest that she reads George Orwell's 1984 and ask herself whether or not we are turning out a nation of sheep?

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  25. John Steele says:

    Ezra,
    The products regulated by FTC and the FDA are the products which fall under FPLA. They must regulate in the sense of providing detailed rules that conform to the general "umbrella" sense of what Congress passed.

    They and NIST do not by themselves have the power to authorize permissive-metric-only, because the current law requires dual. Permissive-metric-only has never been brought to Congress by Dept. of Commerce (which NIST is within). The proposal has existed since 2002, with minor tweaks in 2004, but has been sitting for 6 years because "the time wasn't right." (I think mostly (irrational) opposition from FMI.)

    If 48 of 50 States have approved the same words for things regulated by the States, you'd expect it to pass Congress with a wide margin, but no one would ever accuse them of being sensible, so who knows.

    I am not optimistic it will ever be brought to Congress, and given other metric backtracking, like the removal of metric from the MUTCD, there would be a risk in bringing it Congress. We could be back to USC only and metric forbidden on consumer goods.

    The best hope for this to pass was the EU Directive, and they gave away their bargaining chip. They should have insisted on "tit for tat" and not yielded on supplemental UNTIL Congress passed permissive-metric only. They have folded before at ten year intervals and we have NEVER delivered on what they thought we would. (Fool me twice, shame on me.) I will go out on a limb and predict Congress has still not passed it when the EU reviews the Directive in 2019.

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  26. Mark preston says:

    With a hung parliament appearing to be the likely outcome of the forthcoming general election perhaps now is an ideal opportunity for metrication to come to the fore.

    Assuming that neither Labour nor the Conservatives win enough seats for a clear majority they will either need to rule as a minority or more likely form a coalition with a junior partner.

    Let us assume that the most likely candidate for junior partner is the Liberal Democrats (fairly supportive of metrication). They will want a number of concessions from the other party if they are to offer their support.

    I imagine that they will be in a strong position to request certain provisions - changes to voting system, senior cabinet post(s), university funding etc. What if they also demand that the government makes a statement that they will finally complete the process of metrication here in the UK ?

    I don't imagine that either Labour or the Conservatives would allow a possible coalition to collapse on such a demand. They would rather bite the bullet and form a coalition - it is not such a point of strong opinion in either party.

    Therefore, could a hung parliament and a Lab-Lib or Con-Lib coalition result in progress in this area, I don't think we could rule it out although pressure would perhaps need to be exerted on parties ?

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  27. Sean Weisthall says:

    I hate to say it - but with a list of 'things to do' for the next government (hung or Tory) right in the middle of a recession - do you HONESTLY THINK "getting rid of measures based on imperial" will rank that highly? Really?

    And to Jeremiah - I'm afraid that Tabitha has more choice than you think regarding seeing imperial measures on the sides of things and spoken about - which is a disgrace!

    So can we =please= not put our heads in the sand regarding 1) The likelihood of a new government spending ANY time on metrication and 2) The fantasy that we're "all but there" (like - what are we complaining about exactly?).

    The fight is far from over, I'm afraid.

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