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