Sunday 24th May will be the 50th anniversary of the announcement by the British Government that the UK was to “go metric” within 10 years. However, 50 years later we are still little more than half way there. Why has it taken so long? and when will it end?
Why has it taken so long?
The process was bungled from the start. A low key announcement to Parliament was made by the President of the Board of Trade, Douglas Jay MP, in response to a private notice question (see this link and scroll to Appendix B for the full text). From this statement it is clear that the issue was seen as primarily a response to the request by British industry to adopt the world system in order to facilitate international trade. No thought appears to have been given to the major cultural implications of the change, to the extension of “metrication” (as it was called) to retailing, road signs, education or the health service. Serious planning did not begin until the establishment in 1968 of the (advisory) Metrication Board, and little attempt was made to justify the change to the general public – or to counter the predictable hostility from traditionalists, especially (though not exclusively) in the Opposition Conservative Party.
Following their election victory in 1970, the new Conservative government conducted a review of the whole process. The conversion of road signs (planned for 1975) was cancelled, and the 1972 White Paper insisted that the general changeover should be voluntary, with no question of a co-ordinated target for completion. However, the teaching of metric measures in science and maths lessons became mandatory in state schools from 1974.
It should be noted that accession to the then European Economic Community in 1973 was largely irrelevant since by then the changeover had already begun , and in any case the UK and Ireland had negotiated derogations allowing them to postpone completion indefinitely except where it concerned cross-border trade. These derogations have now been made permanent.
Modest progress was made in the later 1970s but the ensuing Labour Government lacked a secure Parliamentary majority, and following the Conservative victory at the 1979 election the Metrication Board was abolished with its work unfinished. However, during the 1980s more and more goods began to be sold in metric measures (notably petrol), and from 1995 packages were required to be marked in metric units.
Meanwhile, other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, which had started the metrication process long after the UK, had substantially completed their conversion by 1980.
Increasingly during the 1990s and 2000s metrication came to be identified with “Europe”. Although the EU had always agreed to derogations requested by successive British governments, attempts to implement UK domestic legislation were invariably portrayed by the media as a “Brussels diktat”, and it was difficult to hold a sensible conversation about the merits of the issue. Politicians were complicit in this travesty, often blaming Brussels rather than trying to justify their decisions. Thus, in 2001/2, we had the so-called “metric martyrs” – a public relations disaster for metrication in which the prosecutions of various small shopkeepers and market traders were gleefully portrayed by the tabloid media as Brussels bureaucrats trampling on British values.
Apart from the deletion of the acre from official usage in 2009, there has been no further progress, and it can be said that metrication has ground to a halt. Even the modest attempt to require dual metric/imperial units on vehicle height and width restriction signs was reversed by the Coalition Government in 2010.
The current muddle
So we have arrived at a situation where many aspects of British life are metric, but many remain imperial – at least on the surface. Examples are listed below:
- Most British industry (for internal operations)
- Public sector (including the armed services, NHS, police and councils)
- Package labelling
- Sale of “loose goods” in supermarkets
- Fuel, energy
- Building and construction (including road design)
- School teaching of maths and science
- Building regulations
- Planning permissions
- Ordnance Survey maps
- Met Office
- Rugby, athletics, swimming
- Interface between industry, NHS – and the public
- Many street markets and independent small shops
- Road signs (distance, speed limits)
- Tabloid media
- Estate agents
- Holiday brochures
- School teaching outside maths and science
- Commercial road atlases
- Commentators on football, cricket, golf
- “Top Gear”
When will it end?
The official Government view is that metrication is now complete, and that no further measures are planned. This view is based on the assumption that, as younger, metric-educated people progress through the age cohorts and eventually replace imperial-educated people, metric units will become the default for the whole population. Thus the problem will solve itself.
A recent survey by YouGov for the UK Metric Association showed that this assumption is false. Although there are some exceptions, in most fields (such as measuring personal height and weight, food preparation, estimating fuel consumption) little progress has been made since the abolition of the Metrication Board in 1980. It is clear that the voluntary/gradual approach has failed and will not succeed in the future. Without specific government action (such as converting road signs) the present “two systems” muddle will continue indefinitely.
So what are the prospects for “specific government action”? In order to succeed, any such action would need to have the sustained support of the prime minister of the day (since without such support individual ministers can easily be undermined by opponents, including their own civil servants – always assuming they last long enough in the job). Given the unguarded response of David Cameron to a recent interviewer’s question (that he prefers imperial), there is little chance of such support from the current prime minister.
Looking further ahead, who knows? We can only hope that towards the end of the decade a candidate for party leadership may come forward who is primarily metric-educated, preferably has some understanding of science or engineering, a commitment to ending the current muddle and the management ability and political courage to push it through. In the meantime it behoves the rest of us to continue making the case for “a single, rational system of measurement”.