Which is preferable: a swift metric transition or a leisurely one? UKMA would have preferred the former. Successive UK governments have opted for the latter, believing that it carries less risk to their popularity. Ronnie Cohen assesses progress.
Despite the level of resistance to the use of metric measures by anti-metric groups and by many eurosceptics and their supporters in the press, the use of the metric system continues to advance in the UK.
Just look at the supermarket chains that dominate food retailing. They are almost exclusively metric. In many supermarkets, the only place where you will find pounds and ounces in the fresh fruit and vegetables section is on the dual scales. Some counters in supermarkets show imperial as well as metric quantities whereas others do not. Most shelf and product labels show metric only. This even applies to products still sold in imperial quantities. On many of these products, the label only displays the metric quantity (e.g. 454 g, 568 ml) despite the fact that they are based on old imperial package sizes. That said, rational metric sizes have become the norm, rather than the exception.
ASDA’s publicity stunt with punnets of strawberries last year proved to be short-lived. Its plans to return to imperial pack sizes were soon abandoned. You can still find punnets of strawberries in ASDA, but sold in rational metric sizes without equivalent imperial weights shown on the labels.
The sale of milk in litre sizes is now commonplace, despite the long-standing British affection for their ‘pinta’. The pint however, as an endangered species, enjoys legal protection for dispensing draught beer in pubs. Its survival elsewhere is far from assured. Litres have replaced imperial gallons in news reports, sensationalist or otherwise, about fuel prices.
Metric-only supplies are appearing in the big stores, for example metric-only maths sets, metric-only rulers, although dual measuring equipment is still commonplace, for example tapes and thermometers.
Published recipes are now mostly metric. The use of Fahrenheit in weather and media reports has almost disappeared, and centimetres are replacing inches for rainfall and snowfall (with help from news reports on snow conditions at continental ski resorts). When ‘ton’ is heard it is likely to mean ‘tonne’, not ‘imperial long ton’ or ‘American short ton’. Running the mile is now a matter only of historical interest, and London 2012 should ensure that the focus remains on metric events, including the 1500 metres that replaced the mile.
Even on road signs, the position is becoming clearer. The recent adoption of new traffic signs regulations forced the Transport Minister and the Department for Transport to put their cards on the table. Retention of imperial signs is now seen to be a political decision: the arguments in favour of changes with long term benefits are outweighed by the risk of short term unpopularity. Costs or potential savings are disregarded, and the impact on other parts of the UK economy, on the single market and on Britain’s reputation abroad appears to have little influence on decisions.
What is surprising about the continued advance of the metric system in most areas is that it is happening with very little government support, and despite opposition from several national newspapers. Recent governments thought that if this issue were ignored it might eventually resolve itself. This view may be gaining credibility and the transition may now have a momentum of its own. Whether this is enough to complete the job, how long it will take, and how much damage will be done to the UK economy on the way is far from clear.