Global Britain or Imperial isolation?

On 29 March, Sir Tim Barrow, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union, handed a signed six-page letter from the British Prime Minister to the President of the European Council, invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and confirming the UK’s intention to leave the EU. So where do we go from here?

This act starts the two-year countdown of negotiations with the 27 remaining members of the European Union over a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the rest of the EU. At the end of the two-year period, the UK automatically ceases to be a member of the EU, with or without an agreement.

During the exit negotiations, the UK must resist calls to reverse the metric progress that has been made since 1965 when the UK started its own metrication programme in response to demands from British industry and the adoption of the metric system by an increasing proportion of its export markets. Now the metric system has spread to every country in the world and is now the global standard for measurement. Some populist imperial nonsense has been espoused by Eurosceptic politicians and newspapers in the last few months. Unfortunately, many of these see the metric system as an imposition by the EU. This widespread myth has led to a lot of hostility to the metric system and demands to go back to imperial units in domestic trade and commerce.

British negotiators will try to get a free trade deal with the EU and seek free trade agreements and trade deals with the rest of the world. Common standards and rules are the basis for deals for free, frictionless trade and the removal of non-tariff barriers and the ones involving measurement are bound to be based on metric units. How would the manufacturing and construction industries cope without the international metric standards for screw threads and other common spare parts? All the UK’s main export markets except the USA are metric. You can read more about that at

It was not always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the world’s population, covered about a quarter of the world’s land mass and included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and various other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This was the Empire that gave the imperial system its name. During the Empire period, the imperial system was used for trade and commerce among the countries of the Empire. However much nostalgia and sentimentality there may be for the old measures, those days are gone for good and will never return.

Since the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, two main irreconcilable visions of Brexit have emerged. In the “Soft Brexit” vision, the British would remain part of the European single market and customs union, accept free movement of people from the EU, contribute to the EU budget and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In the “Hard Brexit” vision, the British would withdraw from the European single market and customs union, end free movement, stop EU budget contributions and would no longer be subject to ECJ rulings. There is clearly a trade-off between the trade benefits and the EU obligations that come with these trade benefits. One thing that leading EU politicians have made clear is that the EU will not allow the British to keep all the benefits of EU membership while avoiding all the obligations that come with it, especially now that they are leaving the EU. The EU does not want to boost support for strong populist anti-EU movements that exist in other EU countries lest they encourage other EU member states to follow the UK out of the EU. Will there be any backsliding over metrication as the UK leaves the EU?

Even though the Prime Minister has opted for a hard Brexit, her Article 50 letter has some encouraging words about continuity, certainty, free trade and minimal disruption. As she says in her letter, “The Government wants to approach our discussions with ambition, giving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union – and indeed from third countries around the world – as much certainty as possible, as early as possible.” and that “We also intend to bring forward several other pieces of legislation that address specific issues relating to our departure from the European Union, also with a view to ensuring continuity and certainty, in particular for businesses.”. In the field of measurement regulations, the best way to achieve that is to retain the EU measurement directives in British law and to ensure there is no reversal of the metrication progress made so far.

These days, British architects, manufacturers, builders and engineers work in metric units, ensuring that they can compete with a metric world. The metric system is fundamental for manufacturing and exports. Everything that is built and manufactured is measured. Contrary to what we see all around us in the UK, a lot of metric usage is hidden. Whatever happens with measurement policy, this hidden metric usage is bound to continue. Our cars, roads and buildings are now all designed and built in metric units. This is unlikely to change.

Among all European countries, whether inside or outside the EU, the UK is the only one that is still using some imperial units. If the British want free trade with the rest of Europe, this will involve accepting common rules and standards and the ones involving measurements are bound to be metric as all other European countries, including non-EU countries, use the metric system. For example, the British accepted the ETCS (European Train Control System), an essential component of the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) in 2014. When the British accepted this common European signalling standard for the railways, they had to accept the use of metric units on the railways as part of that standard (see

Will the Brexiteers accept that we live in a metric world and that we must use the same measurements as the rest of the world to succeed in manufacturing, trade and commerce? Will UK measurement policy support Theresa May’s vision of “Global Britain” or support imperial isolation? Only time will tell.

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13 Responses to Global Britain or Imperial isolation?

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    Global Britain. Don't think so. Most English people want a return to imperial - we are going back to the 19th century. Goodbye modern UK; hello Scottish independence and a reunited Ireland.

  2. Ramsden says:

    If the Imperial system was fit for purpose in the modern world, then why has every Commonwealth country, and there are around fifty of them, abandoned it over the past 60 years? It certainly has not been due to pressure from the EU. Cyprus and Malta adopted metric measures long before they joined the EU, and Ireland, formerly part of the British Empire but not a Commonwealth country, converted its road signs to metric in 2005 even though it could have retained Imperial ones if it wished (as the UK has done).

  3. Michael Glass says:

    Want to do something about ending the Imperial isolation? A good start would be to sign the petition to fully adopt the metric system in the UK.

    To get a response from the Government you need 10,000 UK citizens to sign . However, a worthy aim would be to get more than 161 signatures. That's the number that signed the petition to allow traders to choose to use Imperial or metric measures or both in the 6 months that the petition was open. Check it out at

  4. Daniel Jackson says:


    The media seems to be backing a return to imperial, but when you read the comments to the articles over 80 % of the respondents are posting pro-metric commentaries. It isn't "many English people want to return to imperial", it is just a few sad Luddites who make a lot of noise, one would think it is the majority, but in fact is an extreme minority.

    Read the article, then read the comments:

  5. BrianAC says:

    @ Michael Glass 2017-04-03 at 15:32

    This was one of Jill Seymour's petitions, the UKIP spokesperson for transport. Even with national media coverage it got only 161 votes, surely we can do better?
    As of today UKMA's petition has 67 of those 161, but Jill Seymours petition got a whopping 310 votes.

  6. Michael Glass says:


    Jill Seymour's petition was to stop dual height and width signs on the roads. It failed to deter the government.

    As for the UKMA's petition, it now has 76 signatures.

  7. Lee Kelly says:

    According to a recent poll only 48% of those asked wanted a return to imperial only so that means 52% of people prefer metric i hope that's a good sign since it would be hypocritical of the government to ignore those 52% but not the 52% who voted for brexit

  8. Daniel Jackson says:

    Our side is starting to fight back:

  9. eric burns says:

    There is a very simple explanation why Britain left the EU and it had very little to do with being only one nation among many, BUT EVERYTHING WITH THE SIMPLE FACT THAT IT IS A LOT MORE DIFFICULT TO UNLEARN SOMETHING, THAN LEARN SOMETHING NEW! Britain decided to go metric in 1965 but never enforced that clever step. Theresa May's plebiscite was a god sent opportunity for slightly more than half the Brits to avoid having to learn something new and better. Well, it is no loss to the EU, but it will definitely be to Britain! But hey, they still have one country they can form a union with, at least as far as medieval measurements are concerned, their equal measurement backward and mentally challenged US brothers and sisters.

  10. Bodrules says:

    @ Lee Kelly - from that datum one can assume that 52% were either against the proposal or indifferent to it, but yes it does indicate some progress! Is there a link to the poll? As I'd like to see how that splits with the various demographics.

  11. John Steele says:

    The 48% figure is among "Leave" voters. Only 30% among "all voters." Here is a link to a report on the survey results:

  12. Michael Glass says:

    The UKMA petition has now garnered 143 signatures. However, most of the extra signatures were added in one 24 hour period. I believe this coincided with a spate of people publicising the petition.

    I think that the only way to make the petition count is to publicise it to UK people who would be likely to support it and aim to go for 10,000 signatures in just over five months.

    Obviously, progressive politicians would be likely to support it. So would engineers and engineering firms. However, they need to be contacted and informed about it. It's a big ask and a big task.

    Have any people here got any ideas about who to contact and how it can be done?

  13. Cliff says:

    @Lee Kelly - The way I heard it was the poll found that 48% of Brexit supporters wanted to return to imperial measures and 52% of Brexit supporters didn't. The percentage of people who wanted to return to imperial measures in the remain camp was much lower.(something like 15 or 20%.) Quite a large number of Brexiters also want to bring back capital punishment, corporal punishment in schools and smoking in pubs.


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