Minister confirms business as usual

In response to letter from the British Weights and Measures Association (BWMA), the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, has confirmed that there is no change in Government policy on the units of measurement in use for trade.

A month after the last general election, BWMA’s Director , Mr Gardner, wrote to Mr Willetts at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, requesting a meeting with a view to promoting the use of imperial measures for trade. Mr Willetts’ reply to BWMA, dated 6 July 2010, is reproduced below. This letter has only recently come to the attention of MetricViews, and we regret that we were not able to share it with our readers sooner.

“Dear Mr Gardner

Thank you for your letter of 6 June about units of measurement in use for trade and your suggestion that units of measurement legislation be repealed.

The Government recognises that the enforced switch to metric units of the 1990s has been unpopular with many consumers and traders who prefer imperial units. We are committed to fair trade and want to see a system of measurement that is fair to everyone in the UK. We also recognise that for much of UK business and science the use of metric units is essential to ensure that they can continue to compete with the best in the world.

The UK is already substantially metric and so turning back the clock to a single system of imperial units is no longer an option. To do so would create a major disadvantage for UK plc in its dealings with the rest of the world, put us in breach of our European obligations, and impose additional costs on business and the public sector.

There are no further deadlines to end the remaining uses of imperial units. Imperial units remain as primary indications for a limited number of uses. They are still preferred by some consumers and they are used by many traders and manufacturers alongside metric units in dual labelling. We are committed to retaining the right to use imperial units in dual labelling and have no plans to introduce any further metrication.

However, it remains important for fair trade that there is a single set of units in use in trade. Returning to the use of imperial units even for a narrow range of goods would, at this stage, unfairly disadvantage the vast majority of businesses who have already switched over to metric units. It would also reduce consumer protection as buyers would no longer be able to compare prices, undermining consumer confidence in the marketplace and leading to a potential market failure.

In any case, the scope of Directive 80/181/EC (as amended) is very wide and is not restricted to cross border trade. Hence the importance of the continued derogations for imperial units for milk, draught beer and cider and road traffic, even though these usages do not have any impact on cross border trade. As you know, that Directive was amended just last year and is unlikely to be subject to review before 2019.

You have suggested a meeting and I can confirm that my officials would be happy to meet you to discuss these issues further …

Yours sincerely, David Willetts”

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40 Responses to Minister confirms business as usual

  1. Jake says:

    So the UK has officially reached a position of stalemate on metrication: the government realises it can't put the clock back but it doesn't seem to be prepared to finish the job off either.
    The UK government's position seems to be that the country does not need a proper, single system of measurement that everyone can understand and use. How is that going to serve the country's best long-term interests?

  2. Peter Griffin says:

    Milk is available in litre and 2-litre cartons, bottled beer and cider are normally in round metric values, and kilometres are used on motorways for Driver Location Signs.

    So why does the Science Minister think it is so important that we keep imperial units as primary units solely for milk, draught beer and cider and road traffic?

  3. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    Another reason to fly the Muppetland coop.

  4. michduncg says:

    OK, the good news here is that this is a concrete sign that the Government is committed to retaining all the current use of the metric system. I personally am very pleased with this response as I suspect that the BWMA thought that they could 'do business' with a Conservative government and maybe get 'lbs and ounces' back as a legal measure. I also like the way that the Government seems to brush off any further reviews until 2019.

    The only statement that causes me some concern is the use of the phrase 'at this stage' when referring to a potential return to Imperial Measurements 'for even a narrow range of goods'. I suspect the Government hopes that the whole problem will eventually sort itself out as we all default to metric. But this won't happen unless the whole of the population gets metric. Only today at work, a notice on our information board referred to congratulations to a colleague on the birth of a new born baby weighing 9lbs 2ozs.

    Maybe the UKMA should be using the next 8 years to get opinion behind getting rid of the remaining units at the next review date of 2019.

  5. Peter B says:

    "...milk, draught beer and cider and road traffic, even though these usages do not have any impact on cross border trade."
    I would have thought that bridge strikes were fairly costly, both for us and for the foreign haulage companies whose drivers are unfamiliar with feet and inches, and cause a disproportionate number of such incidents. But then if oil spills can be good for GNP, then maybe bridge strikes are too.

  6. The Glob says:

    I too think it's a good idea to try to get opinion behind scrapping all remaining imperial units by 2019. If the political climate in or before 2019 is very different to now, ideally with a cross-party consensus, then there should be a better chance of finishing metrication.

    Obviously it would be better if the next government was committed to completing metrication, or if there was a cross-party consensus at that point.

    I am not expecting anything from this government, but at least they recognise it would be a very bad idea to revert to the pre-1995 situation. Otherwise, it's the same failed policies on metrication, different government.

  7. Martin Clutterbuck says:

    Regarding David Willetts' statement about Directive 80/181/EC (as amended) - "As you know, that Directive was amended just last year and is unlikely to be subject to review before 2019".

    Why do we need to wait for any EU directive? We just need some political leadership in this country to get the job done.

    How about getting the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and others to persuade the Government? (only joking!!)

  8. Pat Naughtin says:

    It is amusing to see the BWMA supporting the Roman libras (lbs.) and onzes (oz.) and not supporting the English metric system. See

    When I wrote to the BWMA n this matter earlier in the year, they replied:

    Hi, Pat
    Happy New Year to you.
    When we refer to British Weights and Measures, we are referring to the imperial system, as defined in the early 1800s (thus differing from American units in so far as fluid measures are concerned)
    We do not take nationalities of individuals into account; so, we do not include metric units in our remit
    Best regards,


    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia

  9. Michael Glass says:

    Go for the low hanging fruit. The most obvious one is the selling of milk in pints and litres. The Minister said:

    "... it remains important for fair trade that there is a single set of units in use in trade. Returning to the use of imperial units even for a narrow range of goods would, at this stage, unfairly disadvantage the vast majority of businesses who have already switched over to metric units. It would also reduce consumer protection as buyers would no longer be able to compare prices, undermining consumer confidence in the marketplace and leading to a potential market failure."

    Use the Minister's arguments about the need for one system on trade to press him to abolish the exception for milk. Ask to meet him as a matter of urgency. Press him with just this one thing. You might find more support than you think you would get.

  10. John Harvey says:

    Michael Glass has made a very good point. How can a supermarket selling milk in pints (converted on the label to litres) claim to be at an advantage, or at a disadvantage, against other supermarkets using only litres?

  11. philh says:

    "The UK is already substantially metric and so turning back the clock to a single system of imperial units is no longer an option. To do so would create a major disadvantage for UK plc in its dealings with the rest of the world, put us in breach of our European obligations, and impose additional costs on business and the public sector."


    Not possible in any case. There are no imperial equivalents for the volt and ampere which are used for selling batteries and fuses. And what about light bulbs and electrical goods? horsepower?

    "However, it remains important for fair trade that there is a single set of units in use in trade. Returning to the use of imperial units even for a narrow range of goods would, at this stage, unfairly disadvantage the vast majority of businesses who have already switched over to metric units. It would also reduce consumer protection as buyers would no longer be able to compare prices, undermining consumer confidence in the marketplace and leading to a potential market failure."


    So why did it take over 100 years (1896 - 1999) to get rid of dual units for the sale of packaged and loose goods? Was consumer protection put on hold? (even then in 2001 Mr Willetts's party criticised the Labour government for not extending it for yet another 10 years!).

    Laudable though Mr Willetts's sentiment is for a single system, he is complacent if he thinks that is what we now have. Traders can still do as they like with measurement units when it comes to product description in advertising.

  12. Ari says:

    While I was living in Cyprus some decades ago all imperial units (including miles) were switched off and metric ones introduced in one swift go. The Cypriot people got used to the change in no time as they saw it as a logical and progressive move. Metric units are, after all, divisible by 10 - therefore very easy to add up and do all sorts of calculations.
    Why doesn't the UK do the same instead of pussyfooting around and dragging its feet? We are a very peculiar country in that way: our love for faceless units of measure such as the pound and the ounce is completely perplexing to me!
    I guess with old fogeys and geriatrics dying away over time our switch to 'metric only' will happen - it's inevitable - but in a much slower way. I hope it will be soon.

  13. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Since the Minister said that one his people would be glad to meet with representatives of the BWMA, does this mean the same holds true for meeting with representatives of the UKMA?

  14. Cliff Steele says:

    Mr Willetts' reply to Mr Gardner states that turning back the clock to a single system of imperial units would create a major disadvantage for UK plc in its dealings with the rest of the world. Retaining ANY imperial units is a disadvantage for UK plc because it shows the rest of the world that UK plc is incapable of conducting the changeover to metric properly and the efficiency of the metric system is compromised if it is not used in its entirety.
    The failure to finish the job of conversion reflects very badly on Britain's image abroad. Many people in Australia have told me that they never buy British manufactured goods because they have no faith in the workmanship of a country that doesn't even have a uniform system of measurement.
    If the present British government is serious about taking the country into the future they should show some leadership and do something proactive to educate those consumers and traders who prefer the imperial system rather than try to appease them as they do now. Various anti-smoking campaigns over the years by the government have worked to cut the rate of smoke-related deaths and illnesses. Something along the same lines could work to educate the public about the metric system.

  15. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Today's "Mail on Sunday" was a prime example of the mess we are in. The weather page gave prominence to metric units (at any rate to degrees Celsius), but a few pages later a news about the current heat wave gave prominence to Fahrenheit..

  16. Mike says:

    I'm glad Martin mentioned the weather above, as there was a cracker on the local news last night. The anchor said 'Temperatures almost hit the magic 70 over the weekend'. I'm sorry, what? The 'magic 70'? That was all he said, he didn't clarify with Fahrenheit and he certainly didn't say what this meant in Celsius.

  17. michduncg says:

    The weather thing is a constant irritation with me. Its like metric Celsius is only good enough when you talk about cold weather, but as soon as its warm they have to go Fahrenheit to make it sound better. When its snowing, they have started to talk in centimetres but always refer back to inches, rainfall is in millimetres but again some people feel the need to refer to inches.

    What I would urge you all to do is to contact your broadcaster by email or phone and tell them you prefer metric. I do this frequently with the BBC and C4 & C5, and in fact there is a noticable move on their part to quote metric measures as the default, with Imperial thrown in as the secondary measure. I also think that its polite to tell them when they are getting it right!

  18. Ed the Yank says:

    Very interesting article of information. Be happy that the Dairy industry in the UK has liter and 2 liter cartons, that is a major victory towards adopting the SI units. Here in the USA it is only lawful to have milk sold in pint, quart, half and full gallon containers with dual labeling indicating liters e.g. 1,89L!

  19. But what I don't get, you see, is what makes you tick.
    Most of the time when I disagree with people I understand why they hold the point of view they do, but with metric enthusiasts I just don't.
    The banker JP Morgan once said "A man makes a decision for two reasons: the good reason and the real reason."
    It's easy enough to find 'good reasons' for any point of view. If you want to argue the case for metric it will be things like 'price transparency' and the 'Vienna Convention on Road Signs'. But what's the real reason - what's the emotional driver behind the rational explanation? And that's what I don't get.
    For my lot, the pro-imperial side, it's an instinctive small-c conservatism. That's true whether we're High Tories or, like Gwyneth Dunwoody, whether we're Old Labour. For me personally it's the atavistic power of knowing that the measures I use have been passed down from hand to hand since Roman times and in some cases since long before. Sure, they've changed and evolved in use, but every living tradition does. But the sense of continuity with past generations is what does it for me - which is why I like the fact we still have a Royal Family, and why I'm rather proud that pretty much alone in the world, we still have hereditary peers in Parliament.
    For a substantial chunk of the population - probably the vast majority - weights and measures are a matter of utter indifference. They really, really don't give a damn, I think. For most people, being emotionally involved in the matter of measurements is rather like being the same about - I don't know, train tickets or something. And I understand that. too.
    But I really don't understand what makes people so desperate to erase the last traces of imperial measurement in a country where the metric system is already largely enforced in most areas by law. What makes people so desperate for us to go completely over to something that just is the unremarkable norm in most other countries? Why does it matter so much to you that milk should come in litre cartons rather than pint bottles? It's not exactly striving for the new Jerusalem, is it?
    Do you know what I'm saying? I don't want the rational reasons - I know all those already, and I'm not convinced by them, or not bothered by them.
    I want to know what sort of people you are.

  20. John Steele says:

    Well, I am engineer, and an American. I worked in a metric industry (automotive) and metric is simple and international. Provided he speaks English, I can speak to an engineer anywhere in the world (as long as he is not a rocket scientist, NASA and Boeing work in Customary). Customary (the US version of Imperial) is just an abomination with all the strange relationships between different units. With arbitrary unit conversion factors thrown in, I don't even recognize in Customary many standard engineering formulas I am used to working in metric.

    Given how much metric simplifies my professional life, it just seems a worthwhile change in my personal life too. One set of rational coherent units would suffice. Given what I consider to be the issue with Customary units, Imperial units are certainly no better, they are just more strange and unfamiliar units. While I sort of understand pounds, I don't understand stones at all.

    Oh, and in Customary/Imperial, you can't measure light or electricity or magnetism at all. These "systems" of units are so obsolete that no one ever bothered to invent electrical or light units for them (or have some hybrid unit like foot candles, candela from the metric system and feet (squared) from the Imperial system. Terrific.

    Much like the UK, the US is surrounded by metric neighbors. We have to understand metric well enough to get by when we visit there, so it is important to know two systems. What exactly is the advantage of continuing to insist on using an obsolete, irrational system, that almost no one else uses. What exactly is the benefit of knowing two systems when knowing the right one would suffice.

    I suppose as an American, I feel less of a sense of "heritage" towards these units. They are, after all, the very units of the very King we rebelled against, George III. Our liquid and dry volume measures are the units enforced by him, not the "improved" Imperial units of 1824. So I see only nuisance and inconvenience, no heritage at all. That is either what makes me tick, or what ticks me off.

    Obviously, I am a USMA member, and contribute occasionally here as well.

    I firmly believe both the US and UK are making metrication much harder by dragging it out. If they just got it over with, like Australia and South Africa, it would all be settled in a year or two and then it would no longer matter much. The present process is like being pecked to death by ducks.

  21. Cliff Steele says:

    Mr Cairns,
    You are a writer. Writers have been producing literary content in Britain since before Roman times. Writing is the tradition that has endured to this day, not the language it is written in or the means of putting the words on paper. English has replaced Latin and the computer has replaced the quill.
    Mensuration, the science of measurement, is also an ancient tradition. As written language has evolved, units of measurement have also evolved into an elegantly simple holistic system that can be understood universally. It's still the same science, but it is now easier to understand and manipulate.
    If you need to continue using a quill to write or prefer writing in Latin to keep your sense of continuity with past generations that's your choice, but please don't force me or others to understand, when there is a sensible alternative, units based on the stride of an ancient Roman soldier or the area an animal can plough in a day.

  22. Michael Glass says:

    Why get rid of the pint of milk? The answer is quite simple. In the UK milk is being sold in pints and litres. As a result is is difficult for consumers to compare prices. As the Minister wrote to the British Weights and Measures Association, "It [selling goods by both Imperial and metric measures] would also reduce consumer protection as buyers would no longer be able to compare prices, undermining consumer confidence in the marketplace and leading to a potential market failure." It is therefore clear that consumers are disadvantaged by the selling of milk by both the litre and the pint.

    I believe that the best solution to this problem is to phase out the selling of milk by the pint.

    Now some would scream that civilisation as we know it would come to an end if they could no longer buy a pint of milk. However, milk ceased to be sold by the pint half a lifetime ago in Australia. Australia survived this loss unscathed, so I can safely say that British civilisation is also strong enough to withstand both the loss of the pint and the screams of those who might object.

    This minuscule reform would not touch the pint of ale or the road signs in miles. It would, however, ensure that consumers could compare milk prices more easily.

  23. Ken Cooper says:

    I'm perhaps being a bit pedantic here, but the only way that milk is sold by the pint in the UK nowadays is by doorstep deliveries in returnable containers. This (of course) is a more expensive way to buy milk, as it includes a delivery charge. Fewer and fewer dairies are supplying this service - in my home town, I couldn't have milk delivered to my house in glass pint bottles even if I wanted to. Personally, I believe that the sale of milk by the pint is dying a natural death.

    In supermarkets, the so-called "pint" containers actually contain 568ml and, of course, are measured and packed in metric. To aid price comparison, the shelf-edge talkers display a unit price per litre.

    In my local supermarket, it is easy to compare the unit price of a 1 litre container with the unit price of a 1.136 litre container (currently, the 1 litre container is better value)

    As far as I recall, UKMA support unit pricing and the repeal of prescribed quantities for sales of draught beer. Surely it would appear be a bit two-faced to campaign for the reintroduction of prescribed quantities for supermarket milk?

    [UKMA does not campaign for the reintroduction of prescribed quantities (which in any case have been outlawed by the EU Directive) . However, we are concerned at the lack of public understanding of "unit pricing", and when PQs were abolished two years ago, we argued that with the removal of this form of consumer protection, it is essential that the Government or professional bodies organise a campaign of public information so that, like Ken, the majority of consumers could compare like with like. Unfortunately, our pleas went unheeded - Editor]

  24. Ken Cooper says:


    You claim to believe that the vast majority are apparently indifferent to the measurement system in use. Perhaps this seeming unconcern is due to the fact that the vast majority believe that the weights and measures in use in the UK are guaranteed fair and just by the government, by statute and by the Weights & Measures inspectorate?

    Government, statute and Inspectorate all favour the metric system as the primary system for trade use in the UK. Personally, I would be asking why you and the BWMA are attempting to introduce confusion and uncertainty to a system which you believe is of such unconcern to the majority.

    Like most BWMA supporters, you accuse metric supporters of wishing to "erase" imperial, and therefore sever links with the past. Personally, I believe that I'm in a minority on the UKMA site, as I see no harm in imperial secondary indications on milk bottles or jam-jars. However, at the supermarket tonight, goods were not dual-priced in £p and in £/s/d, yet I cannot see how this prevents me enjoying any literature that predates 1971 and refers to prices.

    As such, I cannot understand your contention that metrication is cultural vandalism or Vivian Linacre's assertion that metrication is equivalent to ethnic cleansing.

    Perhaps if you made an argument based upon facts rather than emotional rhetoric, I might understand your own viewpoint better?

  25. philh says:

    As Ken has raised it, I am taking the opportunity here to explain why UKMA are opposed to secondary non-metric indications.

    Whilst UKMA accept that dual indications are reasonable for a transitional period during a changeover, they should not be permanent. If people are going to adapt to metric they need to learn how to think in metric units without reference to imperial. Trying to learn and use metric by converting back all the time just makes it harder. There has to be a clean break and that will never be achieved if dual marking is allowed to persist.

    A clean break strategy was adopted for currency and the result was successful. The same needs to happen for measurement if we are achieve that single system goal.

  26. Keith Plumb says:

    I am a professional engineering and the engineering industry metricated in the early 1970s for the simple reason mentioned above, Imperial units are completely useless for engineering. At this time I was a reading a degree in chemical engineering. When presented with a problem in imperial units, I converted these to SI units did the calculation and then converted the answer back to imperial. Otherwise I was likely to get the answer wildly wrong.

    I have spent the rest of my life being bilingual in units. Professionally I only use metric units (mainly SI) and never ever imperial. In day to day life I use a mixture and for simple units can flip between the two with ease.

    I am currently working in Ireland where they made steady progress to metrication. Most things including distances, speed limits etc., are now metric about the only thing left is draught beer. They never use Fahrenheit for the weather forecast. One could come to the conclusion that the English (I am English) are far too stupid to understand the metric system.

    I believe the major reason for not changing is the mainstream newspapers are working on behalf of their readership who are now mainly 70 and over. The young are being taught metric at school but do not read newspapers so there is no point in supporting their view.

    Once the generations that were taught imperial at school have gone we will finally change. Until that day comes we will just have to grit our teeth and accept the fact the we need to be bilingual in units. Or maybe move to Ireland were the population is obviously much more intelligent.

  27. David Brown says:

    I think the “real reason” - that Mr Cairns demands - for wanting to complete the changeover to the international measurement system is not hard to understand, if you take a bit of time to empathise. I speak for myself, and not for the UKMA, when I say that I am deeply, deeply ashamed of my home country every time I have to communicate any kind of measurement.. No one here knows how to measure things! Do I really come from a country of such dim intellectual comprehension that they cannot understand the advantage in measuring distances, weights and volumes using modern units and international standards? Actually, no. The fact is that although we are nominally a metric country, individuals don’t actually know how to use that system. The reason that they don’t is that they have a choice, and they choose peer pressure over common sense. Every time someone asks me my journey distance to work, or the fuel economy of my car, or my height or weight or shoe size I cringe at their blank look when I tell them the answer. And most of my colleagues are the intellectual cream of this country. It is shameful that we not only persist with this complete nonsense of dual units, but we seem proud of our inability to embrace change and act responsibly. Until the last vestiges of the ugly old imperial system are extinguished from our streets, pubs, billboards, estate agents, markets, slimming clubs, maternity wards and, most of all, our news media, this nation will continue to be an embarrassing country who doesn’t know how to conduct herself in public; and I will continue to be deeply ashamed of her. Those are my emotional reasons.

  28. michduncg says:

    In reply to Warwick's question 'what makes me tick' - here is my reply:

    As a child growing up in the 70s, I recall being taught metric measurements with great enthusiasm by a succession of teachers who were relieved that children could now understand measurements without having to be great mathematicians. It didn't matter if your 8, 12, 14 or 16 times tables weren't that great! You didn't have to grapple with a variety of different archaic names with no logic to the units. At last, they believed, there was way of children really understanding about the world around them.

    Linked to this, was a changing view of Britain's place in the modern world. We had given up many of the colonies, we were the heart of the Commonwealth, and we were 'joining' the rest of Western Europe in a bigger way than ever before. Going Decimal, going metric, that was all part of the modernisation of our country. More and more international projects like the Jaguar and Tornado fighters, Puma Helicopter, the Channel Tunnel (the 70s version) and the giant Airbus all seemed to point the way forward for Britain.

    And to a large part, that is what has happened. Industry went metric or died. Ever wonder why BL Cars failed? Or BREL Trains no longer exist? Or British Shipbuilders? I'm no expert but I can't help think its because they didn't invest in new plant and equipment that could sell to a worldwide metric market. Yes, there are other factors, like the whole inability of British industry to manage large projects well (in civil aviation projects like the Brabazon, Britannia, Comet and Trident airliners were mismanaged by both manufacturers and customers to such an extent that we lost golden opportunities to maximise on the success of the few successful airliners such as the Vickers Viscount, HS748 and BAC1-11 but that is a different story!). I work in retail and can assure Warwick that industry has gone metric. The only fiddling imperial relics are American produced coffee cups and packaging!

    Of course, I recognise that there is a failure on a personal level for many people to go metric. That is despite the world around them being metric, their houses, furniture, carpet, food, petrol, utilities, etc. I think this all down to the growing realisation that Britain is not as important as we thought in the modern world. Most of our former colonies have gone metric, with promptitude and ease, maybe to break the last shackles of Empire. Germany and France have emerged as the lead nations in the enlarged Europe, so we turn to the US and prefer to align ourselves with our long distance cousins rather than our continental neighbours. The British nation itself is fragmented, and the question of what it means to be 'English' is a common one. The reaction seems to be to cling on any last remnants of Englishness, and the old measurements seem to be a totem for this.

    But the terrible danger in withdrawing from all of this is that the future world we should all be looking to is global. Be it China, India, Brazil, Russia or wherever, we need to be an outward looking country, not inward. We need to embrace this new world confidently, getting involved in international projects. To be able to walk the walk and the talk in the new world, we need to be capable of conversing in metric fluently.

    I am ashamed of Britain and its approach to metrication, and its people for failing to grasp the importance of this issue. I am depressed by the 'Little England' attitude of those who say they should be given the choice of measurements. In the privacy of your home yes, but the Magna Carta itself decreed that a single system of measurements must be observed. When it was written, the contemporary measures were used, and it took 600 years before the Imperial system was defined. In 1965 an elected Government made the logical decision to adopt the modern and widely used metric system. It's nothing short of disgraceful that such a simple task has been hijacked for political reasons by what the Aussies would call a bunch of 'whinging Poms'.

    My belief is that the majority of people really don't care which system we use, just as long as there is only one. The only logical choice is metric and the sooner a Government has the nerve to roll that snow ball down the hill to completion the better.

  29. philh says:

    Warwick Cairns boasts at being irrational as though it is some sort of virtue.

    As I write this we are less than 24 hours before people go to the polls to vote on the adoption of a new voting system (AV).

    Having read, seen and listened to the debate on the subject I wonder whether Britain is actually capable of rational argument. Warwick is in good company with many of the politicians rubbishing AV.

    For what it's worth I have tried to set out a logical argument for AV:

    I'm not hopeful that the Yes vote will win and if it doesn't it will have fallen victim to much that same type of non-sense that has bedevilled metrication. The parallels are quite striking.

  30. Ken Cooper says:


    I note that yesterday's Scotsman carried a letter from Vivian Linacre, the founder of the BWMA.

    He states "The Alternative Vote (AV) proposal is so fundamentally loathsome because it finally abandons the last vestige of any pretence that the electorate votes for individuals rather than for political parties.

    The British constitution always upheld the principle that Members of Parliament were elected as the representatives of their respective constituencies - to serve the interests of all its voters, no matter what their party allegiance. But now they are treated as merely delegates of the parties to which they, the members, owe allegiance, while the electorate are told that they are merely voting for a party label."

    Now, there are valid arguments that can be made against AV, but I certainally cannot follow this one! Personally, I feel it's less bad than FPTP, so I'll be voting in favour.

    As you suggest above, BWMA's method of debate would appear to be to throw as much nonsensical argument as possible at a topic and to hope that some of it sticks.

  31. David Brown says:

    I think the letter from Mr. Linaker that you refer us to is sounding off about a different issue. He seems to be confusing the AV system with a full-blown proportional representation system, which may have some of the drawbacks he describes. The AV system does not have these problems because it is not such a big change. Mr Linaker seems to have simply got his facts wrong.
    Perhaps this is why the BWMA are so emotional about the imperial system of measurements. They simply don't understand it! They don't seem to understand that system, or the metric system which should by now have superseded it. They don't understand the history of metrology, and they definitely don't seem to understand that we are talking about a way of measuring things and communicating those measurements; not some deep-rooted cultural or artistic pursuit.

  32. michduncg says:

    So - the popular Press and the Conservatives attacked AV for being a weird system, used only in a few countries. Well, I welcome the same organisations campaigning for the immediate implementation of the metric system. After all Imperial is weird and used in only 3 countries - anyone else up for a letter writing campaign?!

  33. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The minister (and the government) should start listening to these farmers that it is high time to ditch Imperial and finish the job of converting to metric.

    It's fascinating how the first article makes the point that the same phenomenon or physical entity can be described using Imperial in some circumstances or metric in others. Pretty much neutralizes the value of using a standard system of measurement, doesn't it?

  34. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Just listened to a program on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio where an ordinary citizen in Alberta quite naturally and casually used "kilometers" to describe the length of a network of either roads or rivers (couldn't make out which). I am quite certain Canadians regularly use "kilometers" instead of "miles" because all of their distance and speed limit road signs have used "kilometers" since the 1970's and all of the government documents produced there also use "kilometers" only.

    Yet another demonstration of how "business as usual" in the UK (and therefore no conversion of road signs and reversion in the Department of Transport to apparently using Imperial units in their documents whenever possible) will continue to mire the UK in the metric muddle it finds itself in.

  35. beware says:

    Warwick Cairns, you ask for the real reason why people support metric. For me, the real reason is I like reason, cooperation, and progress. I like being able to communicate with people from anywhere without being hampered by differences. We're all human beings on this planet. Supporting traditional measurements is a form of nationalism, and nationalism is being proud of being divided. People are wishing to go back to a past where people bashed the skull of passers by of a different tribe. See xkcd 588.

  36. David says:

    Warwick Cairns asks why we want the UK to hurry up and finally finish the process of switching to metric. Well, for me, it's partly a selfish matter: these are the units - the only units - that I learned at school. And having learned them, they made perfect sense, and so simple, too! At the time we were told that these were the units that the UK would be using by the time I left school, as part of the modern world (at least that's ended up partially true). And indeed, in the modern world as a whole, that is the case (the conclusion as to the UK's real position in the modern world is left unstated).

    As a fan of the imperial system, I presume that Warwick must have had to take time - a great deal of time - to learn and memorise all of the random and confusing conversions between imperial units. Either that, or perhaps he doesn't really use the imperial system to its fullest at all but only what little subset he can remember? (Which hardly makes for a great sales pitch for its usefulness.)

    Unlike some here, I'm not the greatest lover of mathematics for its own sake (although we'd all be lost without it), but I do still vividly recall the teaching of the metric system sparking my imagination at school with its self-evident elegance.

    "100 cm make 1 m", you learn at an early age, as you are learning the basics of counting. From there you can measure things on your desk, the desk itself, yourself (of course, and there's surely no primary school pupil unaware of the importance of "Who's tallest?"), the school playground, and so on. And then they teach you a new trick: "Take a metre, well, 1000 m make 1 km", and you have a new tool, to measure the distance between towns, or even around the whole world (By this stage, in imperial, you'd need to be juggling inches, feet, yards and miles, and struggling to remember the conversion factors between them).

    And there's more: "This is a kilogram, it weighs 1000 g. It's about the same as 10 small apples, or 1000 grains of rice (cue practical experimentation (and the eating of the apples) in the classroom). 1000s and powers of 10 are the only rules you'll ever need to remember in the metric system.". And of course, the kilogram has another trick up its sleeve: "Here's a plastic cube, 10 × 10 × 10 cm in size. This volume is 1000 cm³ also equal to 1000 millilitres, or 1 litre. And we fill our cubic container with water, and that litre of water weighs (near enough) 1 kg!".

    And from there, things proceeded likewise: every SI measure has a simple 'unitary' definition, making the whole universe of scientific calculations much simpler and with everything inter-related. Can the imperial system do that, and how long would it take the poor school pupil to try to learn and remember all of the random conversion factors?

    By all means, take pleasure in the knowledge of a collection of measures passed down since historic times, but be aware that they are not a coherent and consistent system: many regions or countries had their own definitions of a foot or a pound (or indeed, other completely different systems of measure altogether). What may have worked fine when the horizons of a person's world rarely extended beyond the nearest market town no longer works when a global world requires common standards.

    And when designing new standards, why not take the opportunity to put real thought into the design and ensure both simplicity and elegance? If the metric system is a sleek modern piece of solid well-made Scandinavian furniture, then the imperial system is a hodge-podge of pieces of random driftwood held together with rusty nails (and it still wobbles: ounces in a pound, pounds in a stone; quickly, quickly, how many in each other again?).

    It's long gone time to gently put the creaky old furniture onto the bonfire and treat yourself to something new.

  37. BrianAC says:

    @Warwick Cairns
    Here is my real reason. I am of the old brigade. At school I was taught (sic) feet, acres, inches, yards, links, chains, furlongs, miles, pounds, different pounds, shillings, pence, av. ounces, troy ounces, other ounces, grains, grams, gills, pints, quarts, gallons even legacy rods, poles and perches. Forgive my old brain if I have left most of them out. I hated every single one of them. My chosen career (from age 4 when I repaired a bicycle lighting system and our house got electricity) was electrical engineering, alas, I was not too good with maths. Electrical engineering (later electronics) and lack of maths don't go well together. When finally at school we got to the metric system (late 50's) what a breath of fresh air it was, the cgs/MKS systems (yes, not one system, more duplication) had arrived! I could (almost) just about handle the calculations involved. Now 60 years on I still hate every one of those abonimable units and would love to live long enough to see them dead and buried forever. THERE is the passion you want, I HATE them and all those that perversely force me to continue to be bombarded with them in every news article, every weather forcast, every nature programme, every road junction every supermarket, et al... I just want rid of them.

  38. Ronnie Cohen says:

    One thing that the anti-metric lobby will not accept is that we do not need two measurement systems for international trade. Most Commonwealth countries have already switched to the metric system and dropped imperial so there is not much of a market for imperial-based products. The reason for the switch is that the metric system is a much better system.

  39. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Now that I've learned of the fame of the East End Pakistani singing fishmonger, I'm forced to ask why he is hawking is fish in pounds instead of kilos. Anyone know?

    Here is the report from the BBC (in the video posted at the top of the article):

    (Editor: the pound refers to the price not the weight - another reason the drop Imperial?)

  40. John Frewen-Lord says:


    Agreed! Just two days ago, I was in our local supermarket, and they had (new year's eve) some whole fresh salmon half price, £8/kg instead of £16/kg, and suitable for freezing. I asked how much a typical fish weighed. The lady behind the counter said, "They work out to between eight and twelve pounds." Without thinking (and just a bit annoyed), I said, "No, in kilos, please." Reluctantly she placed one on the scales, while it then dawned on me that she had meant pounds money, not pounds weight. She then did give me the weight in grams, and yes, the one she weighed came to 1085 g, so she was right in what she said, just that I initially misunderstood her use of the word 'pounds'.


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