Did “Victorian values” block metrication?

What is it about the British that makes it so difficult to implement a simple, obvious and necessary reform – the adoption of a single, rational system of measurement, used by everybody for all purposes?  A newly published dissertation attempts some answers to this question.

MetricViews has received a copy of an undergraduate dissertation written by Frederik Hyttel for his History degree at Bath Spa University in 2009. The full text is published on the UKMA website at this link.

Hyttel, who is Danish, argues that “the continued application of the Victorian principle of non-compulsion and progress through freedom created a political environment defined by its lack of long-term planning; an environment in which a major metrological reform would be difficult, if not impossible.”  He traces the history of repeated, unsuccessful attempts since the 1850s to bring about the reform, which – as we know to our cost – has still not got much more than half way.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the failure has been because the legislature blocked the reform at a crucial stage (for example, the defeat of two Bills in 1904 and 1907).  More recently, it has been because Government ministers have lacked the political courage to carry through the reform in the face of opposition from populist politicians and tabloid media.  As a result, governments have effectively given up on the project, pretending that a voluntary, gradual approach will somehow resolve the problem (which of course it won’t).

Hyttel’s dissertation is an interesting read and contains useful references and bibliography.  However, some of his conclusions are debatable. He treats metrication as a party political issue, and suggests that it was essentially a Labour Party project that was scuppered by Harold Wilson’s unexpected election defeat in 1970.  But this is only partly true.  My own recollection of that period is that metrication was not really visible as a political issue and that it certainly was not an issue between the parties.

The 1965 announcement that the UK was to “go metric” had been generally accepted by the public and by the media as inevitable (as was the decimalisation of the currency), and there was certainly no commitment from the Conservatives to cancel or slow down the project.  The controversy actually occurred within the Conservative Party, leading firstly to the decision in 1970 to postpone the conversion of road signs and then to the 1972 White Paper, which reaffirmed the commitment to metrication but insisted on the “voluntary, gradual” approach. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, despite his pro-European credentials, remained aloof from the debate.  Ironically, it was his successor, Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, who mandated the metric system for the school maths and science curriculum.

Conversely, Hyttel interprets the failure of the Labour Government in 1978/9 to proceed with the draft Orders phasing out imperial units in retailing as evidence of the Labour Party’s lack of commitment to the metrication project.  This contrasts somewhat with the view of the then Director of the Metrication Board, whose account (also available on the UKMA website at this link) suggests that it was simply a tactical postponement by the Trade Secretary (Roy Hattersley) pending the expected general election, and that the draft Orders would have been re-introduced after the election if they had won it (which of course they didn’t).

An alternative interpretation of these events is that it was actually the postponement (effectively cancellation) of the road sign conversion in 1970 that really undermined the whole metrication project (since these very prominent signs advertised the fact that imperial units were here to stay); and that it was the (erroneous) association of metrication with an increasingly unpopular “Europe” that made it politically difficult for ministers (of either party) to carry the project through.

Returning to Hyttel’s general argument (that Victorian notions of voluntary action and “progress through freedom” were responsible for the failure (so far) to complete the metrication project), I think this overstates the case.  The Brits are not the only nation that claims to believe in voluntary action and “progress through freedom” – and this belief has not stopped other countries from adopting the metric system. Nor have these principles prevented British Governments from imposing compulsory measures if they deemed them justified and politically acceptable (cf. the smoking ban, the Hunting with Dogs Act, gun control laws, compulsory seat belts and crash helmets, the switch-off of analogue television transmission, etc etc).

Victorian notions of “freedom” may be prayed in aid by the Luddites who oppose metrication, but the real reasons are more to do with political opportunism, exploiting unwillingness to change, fear of the unfamiliar, and a misplaced concept of “Britishness”.

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5 Responses to Did “Victorian values” block metrication?

  1. Michael Glass says:

    Hyttel's theory is interesting, and may well have a grain of truth to it. However, the fact remains that of English-speaking countries, only United States and to a lesser extent, Britain, have resisted metrication so fiercely.

    I believe that it is partly a "big country" syndrome, the idea that countries like the USA and Britain have everything to teach and little to learn from the rest of the world, that others must conform to them but they don't have to take any notice of anyone else. Australia adopted the metric system because it was seen as essential, and though it was introduced during a decade of enormous political upheaval, metrication had the support of both major parties, and it was a non-political change. Compared with the USA and Britain, Australia sees itself as vulnerable, and needing to accommodate itself to the rest of the world.

    Therefore it is quite understandable that the greatest power in the world would be most resistant to metrication, and the previous greatest power should be almost as resistant. (The same refusal to change also stymies any form of spelling reform.)

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  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Looks like even Sudan is outpacing the UK when it comes to going metric:

    http://allafrica.com/stories/201101130960.html

    Somebody ought to tap the prime minister on the shoulder and remind about the importance of global competitiveness!

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  3. U.S. nationalism is indeed an aspect of resistance to metrication. It is my job as P.R. Director for metric in America to remind my fellow citizens that we have embraced the decimal system of numeration unflaggingly. It was the U.S. that pioneered decimal currency, and I never leave that fact unmentioned when arguing for metrication. My country's Congress also decided in 1866 that metric could not be excluded from use in any of its courts. Later, in 1988, despite the smouldering antipathy toward metric among the people, that same Congress declared the metric system to be the preferred system for U.S. trade and commerce. In the background, almost every state has allowed metric units to stand alone if it is within its purview (only New York and Alabama have yet to adopt the UPLR model regulation) . It is my cherished hope that the U.S. will adopt the metric system as its going national measurement standard without believing that it represents a yielding to world pressure to do so--on the contrary, I see America metricate BECAUSE it is a patriotic step forward in our society. We are such a standards-loving nation that I don't think we will pass this one up.

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  4. Michael Glass says:

    Paul, is there any particular reason why Alabama and New York State have not yet adopted the UPLR model regulation, and why this model regulation has not yet been taken up nationally?

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  5. John Steele says:

    Michael,
    I think the answer to both questions is that those who really care aren't politically connected, and those who are politically connected don't really care.

    The UPLR is a model law recommended by NIST and the National Council on Weights & Measures. It is suggested or recommended to the States for some uniformity in their regulation of net contents of things not subject to Federal regulation (those are covered under FPLA). It is up to the States whether to adopt it in full, in part, or to ignore it and write their own. Since 1999, the UPLR has allowed permissive-metric-only (dropping of Customary net contents), but only if:
    *The item is subject to State regulation, not Federal
    *The State has adopted that particular provision (48 have)

    If all 50 adopted it, that action would make an important point, but frankly the list of things regulated under UPLR isn't that impressive. The real issue is the Federal legislation, the FPLA, which regulates more things and more important things. Since the legislation specifically requires dual net contents, it would exceed the authority of a rule-making Federal agency to allow permissive metric only (FDA writes the detailed implementation rules). Only Congress can amend its intent.

    NIST has had a proposal for amendment since 2002. However, it has been opposed by the Food Marketing Institute. The amendment has either never been presented to Congress or never been brought to the floor for serious debate. NIST has changed a word here or there. In my opinion, it is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but perhaps some magic word will overcome the opposition and get it moving. I don't see it as a high priority to anyone in Congress, and it can probably only move forward as a minor technical amendment with no opposition. Once the basic concept is approved by Congress, the FDA (with NIST help) could write detailed implementation rules. (They have to keep their rules within the bounds established by Congressional legislation.)

    If the FPLA were amended, I am quite sure the two "hold out" States would adopt the UPLR provision. However, some are focused on Alabama and New York in hopes that if they passed it, it would be easier to get the FPLA amended. It is probably best to push on both in hopes one path or the other bears fruit.

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