Metric euromyths peddled by British national newspapers

Ronnie Cohen takes a look at eight myths involving the EU and the metric system.

Myths about the EU peddled by British national newspapers are so common that the European Commission has a section on its website devoted to countering them. It covers stories that have appeared in British newspapers between October 1992 to July 2016. There are over 500 euromyths on the “Euromyths A-Z index” webpage. Eight of these relate to metrication in the UK. They and their rebuttal are described here.

The European Commission is not the only source of information about EU myths that have appeared in British newspapers. This issue has also been covered by BBC News, CNN.com, voxeurop and The Independent newspaper (see sources at the bottom of this MV article). This is not an exhaustive list. You can find more sources with a quick search online.

Euromyth 1: Brussels drives to rob the UK of its identity

This myth appeared in the The Sun on 7 June 2010 in an article entitled “Miles better”. This article blamed “Brussels” (i.e. the EU) for a “drive to rob our country of her identity”. In fact, the British government started its own metrication programme in 1965 as the behest of British industry, eight years before the UK joined the EU. This was in line with global moves to the metric system and did not occur as a result of EU membership.

Euromyth 2: EU imposes metric measurements on the UK

Stories about EU imposition of metric measures appeared in the Daily Star on 17 January 2001 and in the Daily Telegraph on 20 August 2001. Metrication in the UK did not start with EU membership. It started several years before the UK joined the EU. Ireland and all Commonwealth countries have adopted the metric system. However, the transition to the metric system has been gradual. After a period of rapid metrication progress between 1965 and 1980, further progress has been slow and erratic since 1980. In the words of the European Commission:

“Metric units of measurement are now used for most transactions regulated by the Weights and Measures Act 1985. From 1 January 2000, goods sold loose by weight (mainly fresh foods) are required to be sold in grams and kilograms. It is not a criminal offence to sell goods in imperial. Traders are allowed to display weights and prices in both imperial and metric but not in imperial only. Consumers can continue to express the quantity they wish to buy in pounds and ounces. The directive was agreed by the UK Government of the day and the implementing legislation was approved by Parliament in Westminster.” (Source: http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ECintheUK/eu-imposes-metric-measurements-on-uk/)

Euromyth 3: The pint and the standard loaf are under threat

Several British newspapers ran stories about the EU banning the use of pints. The stories can be found in the following newspapers on the dates given here:

  • Daily Mail, 30 January 2006
  • The Sun, 30 January 2006
  • Daily Express, 30 January 2006
  • Sunday Times, 29 January 2006
  • Daily Mirror, 2 February
  • Birmingham Post, 3 February
  • Yorkshire Post, 3 February

In fact, the EU has let national governments decide how to package products such as milk and bread. As the European Commission says, “The confusion arose when the European Parliament wanted to introduce standard sizes for milk packaging. However, an amendment allows for the use of both metric and imperial measurements. Bread packaging will continue to be governed by national law.” (Source: http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ECintheUK/pinta-and-loaf-under-threat-2/) The EU has continued to allow the use of the pint for draught beer and cider and for doorstep milk. These derogations for the UK remain in force.

Euromyth 4: Acres have been outlawed by Brussels

The story about the demise of the acre in the UK has appeared in several newspapers. It has generated the following interesting headlines in British newspapers:

  • Rolling acres are outlawed by Brussels (The Daily Telegraph, 21 July 2008)
  • Acre shaker – EU meddlers sneak in a ban on our historic land measure (The Sun, 21 July 2008)
  • Now the EU is to ban the acre (Daily Express, 21 July 2008)
  • After 800 years, the acre is history (Daily Mail, 22 July 2008)
  • Brussels, stay off our little patch of land (The Times, 22 July 2008)

Contrary to all the sensational headlines about the abolition of the acre, the UK government has agreed to remove the derogation for the use of the acre for land registry to reflect current UK practice. The hectare has been used exclusively by the Land Registry since 1995 and the UK government had officially used hectares in its dealings with farmers for two decades when it agreed to drop the exemption for the acre.

Euromyth 5: Brussels bans pints of shandy

There was a claim that it will be a criminal offence for a pub to sell mixed drinks such as shandy in a pint from 1 October 1995. This claim appear in The Publican on 21 November 1994 and in the Sunday Telegraph on 27 November 1994.

Contrary to reports about the use of the pint, the UK government successfully got a derogation for the use of the pint for serving draught beer and cider. Soft drinks are however sold in metric quantities, not only in the EU but elsewhere in the world including the USA. This muddle leaves publicans with a problem. How it is resolved is a matter for British authorities.

Euromyth 6 : Delicacies must be sold in quantities over one and a quarter ounces

On 13 January 1995, The Times published a letter that claimed that nobody can buy delicacies weighing less then one and a quarter ounces and that any retailers trying to sell delicacies weighing less than this can be prosecuted for breaking the law.

The European Commission responded that it has little to do with the EU. The EU measure that the letter refers to relates to the use of non-automatic weighing instruments mainly for pharmaceuticals and precious metals. The Commission says that, “In implementing the Directive, the Department of Trade and Industry supplemented it to deal with certain conditions of use, one of which disallowed the weighing of items on machines below their minimum capacity. Extended it to the retail sector, this measure is shortly to be repealed, but will still apply to precious metals and pharmaceuticals. It should be noticed that this supplementary measure was purely national and was not catered for by the original EU Directive.” (Source: http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ECintheUK/delicacies-must-be-sold-in-quantities-over-one-and-a-quarter-pounds/)

Euromyth 7: Wine must be served in government-stamped glasses by standard quantities

On 20 December 1994, the Financial Times claimed that wine must be served in marked glasses in quantities of 125 ml or 175 ml, or multiples thereof. Wrong. The actual legislation that regulates quantities of wine served on business premises is the Weights and Measures (Various Foods) (Amendment) Order 1990, which came into effect on 1 January 1995. The Financial Times seems to have confused this measure with the EU legislation on units of measurement that was introduced in 1994.

Euromyth 8: By retaining imperial measures, the UK is resisting the EU

On 30 May 2011, the Daily Express ran a story that claimed that ASDA supermarket has started selling strawberries by the pound in an EU snub. It claimed that, “The supermarket has ­become the first major UK retailer to ignore a 1995 EU directive ordering shopkeepers to sell fruit and vegetables in metric grams and kilos or face the threat of prosecution.”.

The supermarket decided to sell punnets of strawberries in imperial-based sizes but they were still labelled in metric units. Several years before this Daily Express story appeared, the the UK government had abolished most controls on quantities of packaged food and drink, including fresh strawberries. The EU has consistently extended derogations on measurement for particular purposes at the behest of the UK government. In 2007, the European Commission shelved plans to end both supplementary indications and derogations on imperial units for road signs for speed and distance, draught beer and cider, doorstep milk and precious metals.

Metrication euromyths and rational debate on metrication

The metrication issue has become politicised and wrongly associated with the EU. Successive government ministers are to blame for hiding behind EU directives instead of explaining to the general public why the adoption of the metric system is a good idea. In the BBC News website’s “Guide to the best euromyths”, the first one on its list is under of heading “Decimal Diktat”. One widely believed myth is that “Brussels is forcing Britain to give up its beloved imperial measurements”. BBC News says that, “The UK committed itself to gradually going metric in a white paper in 1972, a year before it joined the European Community. But once in, its obligation to make the switch was formalised.” (Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6481969.stm). The European Commission had said that it has no desire to force the pace of change.

On the back page of The New European newspaper (edition: 15-21 July 2016), there was a list of 48 myths dispelled. One of these was a myth about the EU and the metric system (Myth Number 18). The whole paragraph about this issue said:

“Pounds and ounces aren’t coming back. Brexit doesn’t mean a return to the imperial system. Britain decided to go metric in 1965, eight years before joining the EEC, and of our major trade partners only America still shuns metrication. Plus everyone under 25 probably thinks feet and inches are an EDM DJ duo.”

After Brexit, we need to move on from these EU myths and have a rational debate about the merits of completing the transition to the international measurement system for all official, legal, trade and administrative purposes. Surely, the past may be an interesting place to visit, but it is no place to live.

General euromyth sources:

Metrication euromyth sources:

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10 Responses to Metric euromyths peddled by British national newspapers

  1. Lee kelly says:

    I stopped reading papers years ago so no matter what they print it doesn't bother me, besides who reads papers anyway?

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  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Another metric myth was the report in the Daily Mail and in the Daily Express that the EU is jeopardising safety by forcing HS2 to use metric units.

    The reality is that historically most countries have had their own railway signalling system. At the behest of the EU, the railway industry across Europe worked together to develop a joint railway signalling system known as ERTMS which would allow high speed trains to cross borders seamlessly. Initially the system allowed for both miles per hour and kilometres per hour to be used on driver displays, but later specifications removed the miles-per-hour requirement as the British railway industry were of the opinion that it was cost-effective for the UK to convert its railways to metric units rather than have the added expense of developing and testing units that could work with both mph and km/h. The underlying reason was that metrication was a one-off cost while developing and testing dual-unit systems was an on-going expense. In addition, it was quite possible that not all manufacturers would support mph thereby limiting the number of manufacturers from whom the UK railway industry could buy their equipment.
    Only once the specifications were mature did the EU publish a directive requiring that ERTMS be used on all new high speed lines in Europe and the directive reflected the advice of the railway industry.
    For the record, the British section of the Channel Tunnel Railway line uses metric units throughout as do most British light railway systems.

    Daily Mail news article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2925013/Safety-fear-EU-make-railways-metric-forcing-staff-calculate-speeds-distances-miles-kilometres-change-over.html

    Daily Express news articles: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/554253/Safety-fears-EU-demands-rail-network-UK-go-metric

    Railway News news article: https://www.railnews.co.uk/news/2013/10/01-end-of-the-line-for.html

    Croydon tramway 30 km/h speed limit sign: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@51.3745802,-0.0940236,3a,30y,244.88h,88.72t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sZiC7yn9ZE-eCAzJ7BbWhZg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Some conservative and nationalist Britons may believe that Imperial is an important part of British culture and national identity. However, Hard Brexit could very well increase the pressure on the UK to metricate in order to compete and trade successfully under WTO rules. And specific bilateral trade agreements (such as with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada) will also most likely include requirements to specify traded goods and services in metric units.

    The final blow to Imperial will come when the USA converts, which it inevitably will. Does that means Britain and all things British will then disappear? I hardly think so! 😉

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  4. Stan says:

    We seem to be living in a society that has deluded itself into thinking that we are democracy.
    Somehow it has become acceptable for communicators to tell lies in order to manipulate peoples behaviour. Anything from buying a newspaper to casting a vote on a piece of paper.
    A true democratic society does not deprive its people of the opportunity to make informed decisions.
    The benefits of a single rational system of measurement is one of many victims.

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  5. Charlie P says:

    @Martin Vlietstra

    The only myths that those press articles have busted are the ones perpetuated on these pages; that the UK does not use the metric system for engineering and that "kilo" is not used as an abbreviation for "kilogram". The Railnews item states "Metres, kilos and litres have been standard for some time in such areas as civil engineering and rolling stock construction and maintenance". Otherwise, the articles rightly report that there is concern among some railway workers that the switch-over of railway running units could have safety implications. That certainly isn't a myth, and it would be negligent of the industry not to admit that fact.

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  6. Gary Sear says:

    The whole anti metrication attitude from our media is becoming extremely tiresome to be quite frank. What is also annoying is their arrogance in that they seem to believe they speak for the whole country, well they don't speak for me and they never will.

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  7. John Frewen-Lord says:

    @Charlie P:

    As has has been shown (and personally experienced) many times in the past, changing over a transportation system from one set of measures to another (imperial to metric) is not dangerous, as long of course as it is done properly, which those countries who have made such a change (Australia, Canada, etc) have well shown can be done.

    If the people running our railways cannot manage this, then I would suggest that there are safety implications anyway in the running of our railways, and that the people involved need to be properly trained, whether they are changing the measurement units or simply operating the railways.

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  8. Mark Williams says:

    @Martin Vlietstra:

    Not so much `at the behest', more `under the auspices'. GB's Network Rail and its suppliers were and are eager participants because of the economies of scale involved, plus they get the [rated to 500 km/h] GSM-R for `free' instead of having to develop another bespoke proprietary replacement for their life-expired and increasingly difficult to maintain radio network(s).

    @Charlie P:

    Sigh, the latest airing of a subset of your multi-layered straw-men :-(. We could do with a CharlieFibs web site just to keep track of them! Where are myths perpetuated on `these pages'? What makes you so sure `kilo' is referring to mass in that article? It is not `some workers', it is one `old dinosaur' suggesting an alternative (with the editor responding that another generation of dinosaurs would follow in due course if they went the dual units route) and one union (which automatically objects to any signal modernisation because it typically accompanies a reduction in the number of signalling staff required).

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  9. jackthesmilingblack says:

    It's the imperial/metric mishmash that gets me.
    And have you noticed how some publications insist on using kph rather than km/h. As example take AutoExpress. I would swear publication have a style guide that lists these errors. Aka, the Dictionary of Fools.

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  10. jackthesmilingblack says:

    Here's a gem for you:
    "From just 10mph the winter tyre stopped in 6.4 metres, while the summer tyre needed more than twice the distance to stop at over 14 metres. Imagine the difference from 30 mph."

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