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”.