The concluding article of this series looks at the ignominious end of the UK’s attempt, began fifty years ago, to make the transition to a single, simple and universal measurement system.
In the last article, we saw how in 1978 the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection put off setting a cut-off date for the transfer of the sale of ‘loose goods’ from Imperial to metric. This decision and the principle in Magna Carta that “there be one measure” would haunt his successors through the 1980’s as it became apparent that the muddle in retail business, from greengrocers to carpet warehouses, could not continue indefinitely.
Eventually it appeared there might be a solution: blame Brussels. Accordingly, in 1994 regulations were laid before Parliament relating the use of metric units for price marking purposes. A year later all imperial units ceased to be primary measures, except for eleven units when these were used for specific purposes. New UK regulations prescribed rational metric sizes for many pre-packed goods. In pubs, spirits came in new mL measures. And in 2000, weighing for retail sale using Imperial measures of either ‘loose goods’, for example fruit and vegetables, or ‘from bulk’, for example meat and cheese, was no longer permitted and metric prices had to be displayed. Most supermarkets, grocers, greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers,, corner shops and market traders had completed their preparations in time. Those that had not made a fuss. Brussels was held to be responsible.
There followed, as we know, a long period of conflict as recalcitrant traders trooped through the UK courts, ending in 2004, when one who had been convicted three years earlier lost his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Finally in 2006, the EU Trade Commissioner brought the blame game to an end by confirming the obvious: his primary concern was cross-border trade. British Ministers immediately trumpeted that they had “Saved the pint and the mile”.
Since then, there has been little progress. However, the financial crisis of 2007/8 underlined the risks to the UK economy from reliance on financial services rather than manufacturing. Talk by politicians of “ending boom and bust” changed to “re-balancing the economy”. If this will be possible while the measurement muddle persists remains to be seen.
The conversion of road traffic signs for distance and speed in the Ireland in 2005 at a cost per sign of around one tenth of DfT estimates for the UK should have raised questions but failed to do so, and in 2010 when the Secretary of State for Transport dropped, on grounds of cost, plans for dual height and width restriction signs that would actually have made significant savings there was again no challenge. Rational arguments, it seems, have little relevance for those opposing the completion of the switch to rational measures.
One positive feature of the past fifty years it is that the UK’s options have narrowed. Then there was a choice between metric and Imperial. Now, thanks to changes in the UK and in the wider world, the choice is between metric and muddle. Hitherto, ending the measurement muddle and completing the metric transition, in particular converting road signs, has not been seen by any governing party to be in its interest. One day this may change, perhaps when politicians realise that the current situation does the UK no credit and have the courage to do something about it.
The final word on the ‘blame Brussels’ tactic should go to Jim Humble, the last Director of the UK Metrication Board, who wrote this in 2004:
“Successive DTI Ministers did nothing to inform consumers or public opinion. They did nothing to refute the new “big lie”: namely, that Britain was being forced to change because of the European Commission. In fact, during the past 20 years most Commission officials, European politicians and businesses in continental Europe “couldn’t have given a damn” whether Britain changed to the metric system or not. They seemed to quite like the idea of Britain shooting itself in its economic foot by imposing upon itself the extra costs and waste of maintaining a dual system. For twenty years not one single British Minister has attempted to explain the advantages of metrication, been frank about the changes which had successfully taken place in the rest of the world or the fact that we had committed ourselves to become a metric nation long before we joined the European Community. Most tried to pretend or imply they were protecting our British culture from the European bully.
How sad, what a waste, what a pity.”