Positions of main parties and politicians on metrication

At the beginning of the General Election campaign, Ronnie Cohen looks at the current stance of the main political parties and the position taken in the past by some of their MPs.

On 18 April, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election that will take place on 8 June 2017. This was approved by Parliament on the following day by a huge majority of 522 to 13 votes. Here, it is worth looking at the positions on metrication of the main national parties and politicians and the prospects for further progress.

The UK Independence Party, better known as UKIP, believes that traders should be allowed to sell their wares in metric and/or imperial units and thinks that the current situation is illiberal and unfair. They say that “traders should be free to label their produce in whatever units of measurement they and/or their customers see fit.” You can read their full policy statement on this issue at http://metricviews.org.uk/2013/05/a-statement-from-ukip/.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has 56 MPs in the House of Commons and is the governing party in the Scottish Parliament. I could not find any information on where the SNP, their First Minister or any of their MPs stand on metrication.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonell signed Early Day Motion (EDM) 205 against compulsory metrication in 2001 (source: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2000-01/205). This EDM stated:

“That this House recognises the advantages of using common units of measurement in scientific, technological and professional activities, but believes that no such considerations apply to the sale and purchase of loose goods; does not believe the use of measures familiar to both traders and customers constitutes an intention to confuse the consumer; and believes that inappropriate and heavy-handed attempts to impose metrication by compulsion are counter productive.”

The EDM supported the failed voluntary approach to metrication that has been tried since 1895 and got us into the measurement mess in the first place.

The Lib Dems have just 9 MPs. One of their current MPs is Nick Clegg, who was the Deputy Prime Minister in the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition government between 2010 and 2015. During that time, there was no discernible progress on metrication. While I could not find much information about their MPs’ position on metrication, I noticed that 16 out of the 28 MPs who signed EDM 205 were Lib Dems, a proportion of signatories far greater than their share of MPs in the House of Commons at the time. These signatories included Norman Baker, Alan Beith, Vincent Cable, Edward Davey and Simon Hughes. Some of them held key ministerial posts in the coalition government.

The Conservative Party has, among its ranks, large numbers of eurosceptic MPs who support Brexit. Most of them tend to be anti-metric. Andrea Leadsom, a Brexiteer and former leadership candidate for the Conservative Party, suggested that traders could be allowed to use pounds and ounces after the UK leaves the EU. Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, blocked the proposal to make metric units mandatory on signs showing height and width restrictions when he was transport secretary. However, his successor, Patrick McLoughlin, approved the change. Apart from this, there has been little discernible progress on metrication since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010. Several prominent Brexiteers now hold key ministerial posts. They include Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade. None of them is known to support UKMA’s cause.

Given the preoccupation with Brexit among the political establishment and the continuing affection for the Imperial system among numerous key political figures and many of the popular national newspapers, there may be little desire to complete the metric changeover in the UK that began over a century ago, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming election. However, the world has moved on since then and it is possible that the Prime Minister’s wish to see a “global Britain” will mean that the option of continuing with the current muddle is no longer viable.

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8 Responses to Positions of main parties and politicians on metrication

  1. The Scottish Government white paper on independence published ahead of the 2014 vote said their position on weights and measurements was 'no change' ie the current dual system would continue post independence. That's the only clue to the SNP position on metrication I have seen.

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  2. Lee Kelly says:

    No political parties will be in favour of completing metrication because most of their voters are elderly and old people don't like change , although that to me is a insult because they're saying old people can't be educated. You can't hold back the tide forever

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  3. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @Neil Cuthbert

    The position of the SNP on weights and measures is probably a smart one to take prior to an actual vote. If Scotland actually does gain independence and is admitted into the EU, I strongly suspect they will decide at some point to complete metrication for all the obvious reasons. So, I'm not too worried that Scotland would perpetuate the metric muddle indefinitely as an independent country.

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  4. Lee Kelly says:

    Maybe their needs to be a pro-metric party. There are plenty of single issue parties plus it could educate people on the facts about metrication i.e it's more than about the EU. But we have known that since the 19th century when it was adopted by Parliament.

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  5. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Debating metrication should be done by governments, not politicians - after all governments (hopefully) take a country's long-term interests into consideration whereas politicians are only concerned with the next election or public opinion poll.

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  6. BrianAC says:

    I think this will come to a head very soon with the so called 'great repeal bill' under the leadership of an (apparently) anti metric Andrea Leadsom. Unpicking the EU laws on trading will be 'interesting' to put it one way.
    It will be interesting to see if she picks out the weights and measure laws for conversion back to, or biased toward allowing, imperial. It would seem we do have here the pathway to the future, go back, go forward or keep the same muddle.

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  7. Ezra Steinberg says:

    Seems to me that if Parliament tries to go back to (mostly) Imperial, both UK business and the EU negotiators will push back mightily and quash any such move.

    That could even provoke a backlash whereby the EU negotiators insist in any trade deal that there be only metric indications on products sold in the EU. In that case UK business will have to choose whether to produce a separate line just for the UK in Imperial (assuming they do not also sell those products to the USA) and another line for the rest of the world.

    This last point highlights the sad case of the USA not having amended its laws to allow metric-only labeling. Once we do so, no country will have the excuse of needing to print packaging and information with Imperial units in order to sell to the USA. Maybe after the 2020 elections when the Republicans (all anti-metric) hopefully get the boot!

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  8. Mark Williams says:

    @Lee Kelly:

    Or reboot the Metrication Board and don't let politicians anywhere near it. Should be much easier now as there are only two relatively minor industries—one currently public, one shrinking private—left to upgrade. Is there any situation in the real world where the answer is more ‘party’ politics?

    Alternatively, switch tactics to bottom-up rather than top-down. Has UKMA ever really benefited from allying itself with politicians?

    @BrianAC:

    The word ‘great’ has mysteriously vanished from the name of that bill. HM Queen—disrespected by being asked to do her main gig without the crown, furry robes and horse-drawn carriages—opened the parliament wearing a hat with a big EU flag on it! She shall probably have to go and do it again before 2019, here's hoping for a UKMA logo brooch next time!

    I suspect ‘events’ shall overtake the politicians attempting to revert to imperial and agree with you that now is a good opportunity for further metrication. We only managed to continue the ‘muddle’ in 2016, let's make some positive progress while the hanged parliament lasts! Does anyone know how many DFT metric-haters have been seconded to DFETEU? While the cat's away…

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