Could a future Government reverse metrication?

A recent correspondent expressed the wish “Let’s hope the new (Conservative) government puts a stop to metrication as far as is practically possible.” Naturally, we disagree with this sentiment – but, whoever wins the election, what could they actually do to turn the clock back? and, realistically, what  would they do?

At one time the Conservatives claimed that they would legislate to permit weighing and pricing of “loose goods” in imperial units (presumably without a metric equivalent) – as demanded by certain market traders.  For example, their 2005 policy statement, “Action on Deregulation”, announced: “We will negotiate to remove the compulsory nature of sales in metric amounts, which is contrary to consumer demands.”  (However, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed since this promise was not repeated in their election manifesto of that year, which was partly drafted by – guess who –  David Cameron).

(For their part, Labour ministers have also tried to pander to the imperialists by criticising trading standards officers for carrying out their duty to enforce the law passed by Parliament, and even claiming credit for having “saved” pounds and ounces on price labels in 2009).

Reverting to the question posed, in the first place the above 2005 statement implicitly acknowledges that the current EU Directive (which incidentally was negotiated with all-party support in the 1990s) would actually prevent a reversion to imperial weighing (although of course it does permit an imperial “supplementary indication”).  So any Government wishing to permit weighing in lbs and oz would need to renegotiate this provision with the European Commission, and if they were to agree, pilot it through the European Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.  Only then could they seek to amend UK law.

However, this might not be such an obstacle as it seems at first sight.  As former Commissioner, Gunter Verheugen, has famously remarked, the EU has never been interested in getting into a fight with an elected government over an issue that doesn’t affect cross-border trade or any other member state.  The Commission is not known for taking a principled stand on metrication issues (think of how they caved in to American pressure on dual marking on packaging and labelling), so in the interests of an easy life they might well find convenient reasons for giving in to populist clamour from British politicians and media.

But, when push comes to shove, would a future Government really actually do this (whatever it might have said before the election)?  On balance I think it unlikely – for the following reasons:

  • What politicians say in order to get elected often conflicts with practical reality when they are in office.
  • Read the history book rather than the crystal ball.  As noted above, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s successive governments of both parties negotiated and agreed the various EU Directives and the UK legislation that flowed from it – most recently the 1995 regulations requiring metric weighing and pricing of “loose goods” from 2000 (see SI 1995/1804).
  • Many front benchers are in the age group that received their secondary education in metric units.  Like Andrew Lansley (Conservative), who recently advocated “centilitres” rather than “units” of alcohol, they are not so viscerally hostile to metric units as some of their predecessors.
  • Although some leading politicians of all parties affect disdain for EU institutions they will need to work with their EU partners.  Is it really worth expending scarce political capital on this issue when they have much bigger fish to fry (such as the budget rebate, the Common Agricultural Policy,  the Lisbon Treaty, further enlargement, the European Defence Force, renegotiating the Working Time Directive etc etc)?  I think not.
  • If they were successful in persuading the EU to amend the Directive, they would have lost a convenient scapegoat and would be unable to deflect criticism by blaming the EU for home-grown policies that they prefer not to defend publicly.
  • There is likely to be considerable opposition from stakeholders in the UK to allowing a free-for-all in measurement units.  Most businesses (especially major retailers) operate wholly in metric (albeit sometimes with supplementary indications at the point of sale) and, although they have rarely publicly supported metrication, they will not welcome pressure from competitors to revert to imperial weighing and pricing, and perhaps having to replace all their scales again, retrain their staff etc.  Similarly, professional and educational organisations are likely to be dismayed at such a reactionary and unnecessary move.
  • Sir Humphrey1 would probably also be able to think of many other practical reasons for not reversing nearly half a century of consistent Civil Service policy – however half-heartedly it may have been implemented.

It may well be true that some politicians have sent out signals that they dislike metrication and would like to restore parity to imperial units.  For example, the former Conservative leadership contender, David Davies, made a pitch for the imperialist vote by having himself photographed with a market trader who had been successfully prosecuted by the local Council for using imperial scales.  Others, however, have maintained an embarrassed silence.

A realistic assessment is that, if faced with the responsibilities of power, no future Government would want to waste time and political capital on a project that would annoy as many people as it would please.  That is no doubt why the subject does not receive a mention in any of the major parties’ manifestoes. So if there any electors who intend to vote for a party in the expectation that they will soon be able to revert to weighing tomatoes in pounds, buying petrol in gallons or registering land in acres  – they are likely to be disappointed.

[Footnote: For the avoidance of doubt, UKMA does not support or oppose any particular political party but supports any candidate who will advocate early completion of the 45-year saga of British metrication.]

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1Sir Humphrey Appleby was the fictional Permanent Secretary of the Department of Administrative Affairs in the 1980s television series “Yes, Minister.”

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12 Responses to Could a future Government reverse metrication?

  1. Martin Vlietstra says:

    I believe that the new government, whatever its colour, will not try to negotiate any reversal of metrication to date for the simple reason that it will bring the current situation under the spotlight and if they fail they might well have to sort out the following immediately:

    * Use of correct symbols for feet and inches on road signs
    * Use of correct symbols for tonnes on road signs
    * Clarification of exactly what the revised text of directive 80/181/EEC means – does it include advertising?
    * Clarification of what the directive meant by a road – would it use the OECD definition, which explicitly excludes cycle tracks and implicitly excludes bridleways and footpaths?

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  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Even though the EU clearly does not want to force the issue of metrication with respect to the UK and does not see any trade-related issues with the current muddle that should be the purview of the EU, there clearly are safety related issues that cross national borders that the EU should (though it will not) address.

    If a non-UK lorry driver smashes into a bridge because he or she does not properly understand the posted height or width restrictions and is injured or killed, that is a transnational safety issue. If a non-UK driver drives too fast and is hurt or killed in an accident or injures or kills someone else because their speedometer is marked in a different set of units from the posted speed limits, that is a transnational safety issue. If a non-UK resident needs medical care and is given the wrong dose of a drug in a doctor's office or hospital because the staff did not properly understand the patient's weight as told to them in kilograms (as opposed to, let's say, "stones") or the patient was inadvertently weighed on a scale that was set to display in pounds unbeknownst to the staffer doing the weighing, that is a transnational safety issue.

    So much for the government or the EU taking its responsibilities seriously and in a competent and thorough-going manner.

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  3. Robert Goodhand says:

    The current primary piece of legislation is the Weights and Measures Act 1985 which allows the yard or the metre, the pound or the kilogram equally to be used in trade. It's that simple.
    I'd just be happy for any future governement to recognise this and not try to wheedle out of it by pretending there is some sort of constitutional hierarchy of Acts which gives certain earlier Acts precedence over later ones. See Thoburn v Sunderland City Council

    [Editor: This is plain wrong. What Robert Goodhand fails to say is that all the courts rejected this argument. In fact the Act had been amended to remove the imperial measures from the list of authorised units. See Lord Justice Laws judgement at http://www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk/judgmentsfiles/j1008/THOBURN_v_SUNDERLAND.htm]]

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  4. Robert Goodhand says:

    To the Editor

    1) Specify precisely which sentence in my whole comment is wrong.
    2) Specify precisely where and how the 1985 Act has been amended.

    I thought one of the big campaigns in this election was to curb the powers of judges to overturn the intentions of parliament.

    [The Act was amended by Statutory Instrument 1994 No. 2867 (The Units of Measurement Regulations 1994), which deleted the imperial measurements from the list of permitted units. See http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si1994/Uksi_19942867_en_1.htm. This needs to be read together with The Weights and Measures Act 1985 (Metrication) (Amendment) Order 1994 (SI 1994 No. 2866) available at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si1994/Uksi_19942866_en_1.htm. The amendment was of course approved by both Houses of Parliament, so there is no question of judges "overturning the intentions of Parliament". As the matter has been conclusively determined by both Parliament and the Courts, can we leave it there? - Editor]

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  5. philh says:

    Prior to 1995 it was the case that metric and imperial were allowed for trade. Between 1995 and 2000 both pounds and kilograms were still allowed for loose goods.

    Metric units were allowed as early as 1897 but never gained the popular status of imperial largely because they were discouraged by a regime of prescribed quantities that were rounded imperial amounts.

    Since that time outdated imperial units have been progressively removed from the allowed list. So there was nothing radically new in principle when they were deleted altogether.

    It has never been in the interests of the consumer to have to deal with two systems for trade. The situation that prevailed for more than a century should never have been allowed.

    It would be quite deplorable if any future government attempted to revert Britain back to that sorry situation.

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  6. Ken Cooper says:

    In this month's "TS Today" (The Trading Standards Institute's monthly publication), the 3 "main" parties - Conservative, Labour & Liberal Democrats and 6 of the "minor" parties - Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, DUP, Sinn Fein & UKIP - outline their consumer affairs & business regulation policies.

    Only one of these 9 parties even mention Weights & Measures as one of their priorities. Unsurprisingly, it's the far-right Eurosceptics of UKIP.

    They state "After Britain leaves the EU, UKIP will negotiate free trade agreements with states all over the world. We want to retain the flexibility of our weights and measurements, so we can trade with countries that use imperial and metric measurements, and not be bound to restrictive EU rules"

    Luckily for supporters of metrication, UKIP are unlikely to even win one seat on May 6th, so they will be in no position to influence Government policy, whoever wins.

    Current odds at Ladbrokes are:-

    UKIP to win a seat 2/1
    UKIP NOT to win a seat 4/11 on (worth a punt, I feel!)

    Note: these are the odds to win 1 seat, not to win the election! UKIP really are just about unelectable in a first-past-the-post contest.

    So, if we look only at the parties which are likely to win seats at the election, I would be extremely surprised if the new government (whether it is a single party or a coalition) choose to take any steps toward reversing any area in which the UK has already metricated. If any of the parties do have such plans, they are remaining very quiet about them!

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  7. A says:

    If any government suggests reverting back to Imperial or calls for deregulation, they should be given a question like this:

    "Do you want to be responsible for Britain's downfall in being an unimportant and economically unattractive country?"

    What these people are forgetting is that the implications of Metrication go beyong shops and road signs. Britain is already the odd one out in Europe and it is not working to our advantage.

    The British government is supposed to represent Britain and work with other countries around the world. If the government decides to be obtuse and do things differently, its going to have a detrimental effect to this country. Britain's influence in Europe is beginning to wane and I don't think the country is quite being seen as it used to by our neighbours.

    The European Space program is one such example of Britain being shut out on major projects. France and Germany were involved in an important project dealing with the bulk of the technology, manufacturing and development. Britain was given very little of the share which France and Germany could have done themselves or given the task to another member. It could be argued that interest in Astronomy is not strong in Britain (conveniently forgetting all the contributions ever made) and thus not wanting to play a big part in the ESA. However, I am more inclined to believe that it is this country's incessant attitude of opposing everything and being obnoxiously different. And the Metric System is one such example which is putting off other nations in dealing with Britain.

    Britain is stuck in the mess of having two systems. Businesses in the USA are switching to Metric so they can no longer be seen as justification for imperial. Industries use Metric globally. Harmonizations and Standards are sought after.

    The recession has ended, Britain is starting to recover. If any future British government reverses the efforts on using the Metric system, then there really is no hope in hell that Britain could survive or continue to be part of the international community at any significant capacity.

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  8. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Perhaps the new UK government might be persuaded to allow the government in Northern Ireland to convert road signs there as a pilot to demonstrate how cost-effectively it could be done and iron out any kinks in the process (as long as the Unionists were assured the rest of the UK would then be converted using the lessons learned from N.I.).

    I suppose one can always dream ... 🙂

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  9. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Ken Cooper wrote

    They [the UKIP] state “After Britain leaves the EU, UKIP will negotiate free trade agreements with states all over the world. We want to retain the flexibility of our weights and measurements, so we can trade with countries that use imperial and metric measurements, and not be bound to restrictive EU rules”

    If the UKIP (or anybody else) were to read the history of the metric system, they will see that the biggest contributors to the technical side of things were the British scientists (in spite of British Government indifference).

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  10. philh says:

    The UKIP statement also ignores the fact that those so called "restrictive EU rules" include concessions to non-metric countries outside the EU in the form of supplementary indications.
    Not that I approve of them but it does mean that leavng the EU would give us no advantage where that is concerned.

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  11. John Steele says:

    Guessing that mystery, un-named non-metric market ISN'T Liberia or Burma, let me point out that the mystery market:
    *Does require metric as well as Customary, and doesn't allow Imperial where it differs from Customary.
    *We only agree on length and weight. In fact, on weight, only if stones, hundredweights and tons are avoided.
    *Our gallon and bushel and all their subdivisions are different, including the fluid ounce

    Besides the fact that we REQUIRE metric, the easiest way to track the differences between Customary and Imperial is via their metric equivalents. So I'm a trifle unclear on the alleged advantage. 🙂

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  12. Ken Cooper says:

    The UKIP statement also ignores the fact that the "imperal system" is not actually the preferred system in use in any country in the world.

    How do they expect UK businesses to be allowed to export "pint" bottles of beer to the US when the US & Imperial pints differ by nearly 100ml?

    Why do they seem to expect that other world nations might accept exports marked only in an archaic system that isn't even fully understood in the UK?

    As usual, the UKIP soundbite can easily be exposed as lacking in substance when you actually examine the real life consequences of their half-baked policies.

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