Straight bananas and the metric system – the EU legacy?

With Brexit still dominating the news, Ronnie Cohen looks at one of the biggest obstacles to completing our transition to the metric system: its perceived link to the European Union.

Opposition to metrication has become an article of faith among almost all Eurosceptics and their supporters in europhobic and frequently foreign-owned national newspapers. Metrication has become associated with the EU and, given the reluctance of any public figures to make the case for a single, simple, logical and universal measurement system, opposition to metrication has become well-organised and deep-rooted.

It seems that the declining popularity of the EU has affected the acceptance of the metric system in the UK. This week we aim to show that:

“The EU has not imposed the metric system on the UK.”

Given the headlines in the popular press about EU involvement in measurement matters, the opposite of this claim is widely believed. Ministers have not helped to encourage public acceptance of metric by failing to challenge these untruths and by hinting that the EU is the cause of many of the country’s problems.

In fact, the transition of the UK to the metric system is not related to its membership of the EU. The 1862 Report by the Select Committee on Weights and Measures recommended the adoption of the metric system. In 1895, just 33 years after the 1862 Report, another Select Committee came to the same conclusion that the time has come to adopt the metric system. Just two years later, the 1897 Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act permitted the use of the metric system for all purposes in the UK.

All these events happened half a century before the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the forerunner of the European Economic Community and the European Union. In fact, the UK Metrication Programme started in 1965 in response to demands from British industry to move to metric units.

In 1965, the President of the Federation of British Industries (now the CBI) told Ministers that the majority of its members are in favour of the adoption of metric as the primary measurement system. As a result, the UK started its own Metrication Programme in 1965, 8 years before it joined the Common Market, as the European Union was commonly known at the time. At the time, the Government announced that they “… consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole …” and that “the Government hope that within ten years the greater part of the country’s industry will have affected the change.” In 1969, the government set up the UK Metrication Board to oversee the metric transition.

In a debate on the use of metric measures in 1970, Sir John Eden, the Minister for Industry, said, “About 20 years ago, the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures took extensive evidence, noted the steady advance of the metric system in the world although half the world’s trade was still in the Imperial system, and recorded the unanimous view that the change from Imperial to metric in this country was sooner or later inevitable and should proceed to finality in due course under Government guidance.” 1 He raised the issue about the prospect of losing out in world markets if the UK fails to join the metric world, saying,

“A lot of progress has already been made—notably in the preparation of new textbooks. The market for these textbooks is throughout the English-speaking world. In India, for example, before they were able to write their own metric textbooks they had first to translate French and German books into English. Soviet books were being published in English. At the same time, British textbooks and technical works had to be excluded because they did not use metric weights and measures or a decimalised currency.

With the wide international use of the English language it would be the worst of ironies if we clung too long to the Imperial system of measurement, which today is a barrier to trade and communication, and if we thereby reduced our influence in the world and the value to us of our own language.” 1

In 1971, the UK underwent the decimalisation of its currency for the same reason as metrication: simplicity and ease of use. In 1972, the government published a White Paper on Metrication (Cmnd. 4880) to confirm that metric units should become the primary system of measurement in the UK, and says that the changeover should take place in a well-ordered and regulated manner. The Building Regulations were re-issued in metric units to match metrication progress in the building and construction industries.

By the time the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, the UK agreed to move to the metric system as part of its conditions of membership but this was already official government policy before the start of negotiations.

In a House of Lords debate about the second reading of the Weights and Measures Bill in October 1976, John Fraser, the Minister of State for the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, said, “Both Labour and Conservative Governments have accepted time and again that we should adopt the metric system. Progress towards it is well advanced in industry, commerce and agriculture and it is frequently used in retail sales of packed goods. Teaching is overwhelmingly metric, and we have a generation of children and young adults who have learned no other system. Parliament itself has approved many Orders facilitating a change to metric.”.2

The creation of the European Single Market in 1992, strongly supported by the UK Government, required the use of a common measurement system in all member states. Any common market requires a common measurement system. Hence, the efforts of national governments to ensure uniformity of weights and measures (e.g. 1824 Weights and Measures Act in the UK for standard imperial measures, French adoption of the metric system in 1795 to implement common measurement standards, Fair Packaging and Labeling Act in the US, etc.). Given that only the UK and Ireland used imperial measures and all other EU member states used the metric system, it was a no-brainer to standardise on the metric system.

The EU Directives that relate to units of measurements were agreed with Ministers of HM Government. In response to requests from the UK, the EU postponed the cut-off date for supplementary indications several times and granted the UK derogations to continue using imperial units for specific purposes. In 2009, the EU has allowed supplementary indications to be used indefinitely. Market traders can still display prices in pounds and ounces as long as they also display prices in metric units as well. Consumers can still ask for products in pounds and ounces so it is only traders that are affected.

The Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001 implemented EU directive 1999/103/EC. In a debate about these regulations, Lord Sainsbury of Turville said, “I remind the House that since 1965 all governments have supported the change to the metric system on a gradual basis and for an ever increasing range of uses because of the global move to metric.” and that “If we are to play the cards of libertarianism and British history, I remind the House that in Magna Carta for the first time the people of Britain established the case and the need for a single form of measurement in the country.”.3

As a result of EU directive 2009/3/EC, the use of supplementary indications has been permitted indefinitely, as well as the use of six imperial units for specific purposes only:

  • the mile, yard, foot and inch for road traffic signs, distance and speed,
  • the pint for draught beer and cider, and doorstep milk, and
  • the troy ounce for trading in precious metals.

The EU also withdrew the requirement for UK to “fix a date” to convert road signs to metric units. The European Commission has no desire to speed up the change to metric in the UK. In response to these changes, Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation minister, reflected government thinking  by saying that, “As we enter a new decade it’s good to know that traditional imperial measurements like the pint and mile will remain. But importantly this also means that businesses will avoid the unnecessary cost of changing labels. This indefinite exemption leaves these important decisions in our own hands, removing worry and uncertainty from businesses.” 4

Günter Verheugen, a former Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, had said previously,

“Neither the European Commission nor any faceless ‘Eurocrat’ has or will ever be responsible for banning the great British pint, the mile, and weight measures in pounds and the ounces.
….
Some sections of the British media have regularly jumped on the bogus bandwagon that maintained with varying degrees of hysteria, that the EU was “banning” the pint and that this was part of a wider plot against Britishness.

Well, we at the EU have decided the time has come to nail these myths once and for all by setting out in black and white what has always been our view: that Britain should continue to use imperial measures for as long as it likes.

Much as it may dismay those who have peddled the metric myth for far too long, we have now proposed legislation enshrining Britain’s right to retain pints of milk and beer, miles on road signs and dual indications of weights and measures from now ’till Kingdom come!”. 5

Lord Kinnock, another former Commissioner, has said:

“It is widely believed – largely because of distortive press coverage – that weights and measures policy is primarily a European issue. It is not. In the ten years that I was a European Commissioner (including five years with the Transport portfolio), I know that there was no pressure from the Commission on any British Government to convert UK road signs. Indeed, the EU agreed many years ago that the United Kingdom and Ireland should set their own timetables for phasing out the remaining imperial measures. The issue is therefore entirely a matter for the British Government and Parliament.” 6

Ireland completed its transition to the metric system in 2005 with the conversion of its speed limit signs, leaving the UK as the only member state that is holding out for the continued use of imperial measures. The UK government wrongly believes that the use of imperial units for transport and product descriptions can be isolated from the rest of the economy despite their impact on the wider use of measurement within society.

Who now complains about decimal currency today? Today, we do not find anyone wanting to go back to the old pre-decimal currency of pounds, shillings and pence, guineas, half-crowns and farthings. Instead, we now take the benefits of decimal currency for granted. Unfortunately, metrication has wrongly become associated with the EU and opposition to metrication has become politicised. There is a lot of resistance to further progress of metrication as a result. So we have ended up in a position of stalemate in the stalled metrication programme and ended up with an awful muddle (imperial-only in some areas, metric-only in other areas, a combination of both in other areas, etc.). Ministers refuse to tell the general public that metric is the global norm and is not an unnatural imposition from Brussels.

A summary of the 1862 Report can be read at:
http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/met1862.pdf

The full 1862 Report can be downloaded as a free e-book from: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Report_from_the_Select_committee_on_weig.html?id=wI7nAAAAMAAJ

The Metric Views articles about the 1862 Select Committee report can be read at: http://metricviews.org.uk/2013/03/1862-report-from-the-select-committee-for-weights-and-measures/ and http://metricviews.org.uk/2012/07/the-report-that-led-the-uk-from-one-muddle-to-another/

The Metric Views article about the 1895 Select Committee report can be read at: http://metricviews.org.uk/2013/03/the-1895-select-committee-on-weights-and-measures/

Let’s get one thing straight from the off. Neither the European Commission nor any faceless “Eurocrat” has or will ever be responsible for banning the great British pint, the mile, and weight measures in pounds and the ounces.

_______________________________________________________________

1 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1970/oct/27/metrication#S5CV0805P0_19701027_HOC_379

2 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1976/oct/18/weights-and-measures-c-no-2-bill-lords

3 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/2001/mar/20/weights-and-measures-metrication#S5LV0623P0_20010320_HOL_293

4 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/6916567/Pint-and-mile-measures-preserved-for-British-businesses.html

5 http://www.richardcorbett.org.uk/blog/labels/metric.html

6 Foreward section of UKMA publication Metric Signs Ahead, http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/MSA.pdf

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15 Responses to Straight bananas and the metric system – the EU legacy?

  1. Rob says:

    One of the references to the six imperial measurements for specific purposes refers to the pint for doorstep milk.
    Why are supermarkets and shops also able to sell milk in pint containers?

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  2. Daniel Jackson says:

    Here is part of the problem, the Sun promoting conversion factors instead of promoting using one single system to measure and communicate information in.

    https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/3934453/imperial-to-metric-conversion-explained/#comments

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  3. Alex Bailey says:

    @Rob I often think that when I buy soft drinks which pubs still sell by the pint and many fast food outlets (both the major brand names and the locally owned ones) continue to sell in FL OZ (quite often US FL OZ too!)

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  4. Leo says:

    If Brexit does indeed happen (I am less certain of that now than I was a few months ago) I can image that the EU would remove the provision to allow the use of supplementary indications and the six imperial units. After all, no EU member uses them.

    Considering the UK will remain in the EU sphere of influence due to trade and being surrounded by EU airspace and EU seas on three sides, I can imagine it might actually become harder for British products to use other measures than metric. Unless a UK based manufacturer wants to create different packaging for its domestic products and its export products.

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  5. Ronnie Cohen says:

    @Rob

    Milk container sizes are not regulated and do not have to be sold in rational metric sizes. They can be sold legally in pint-based sizes as long as the metric size is shown on the label, which is mandatory. The imperial size shown on these pint-based milk containers is optional and is known as a supplementary indication. In other words, milk can be sold in containers of any size as long as the the metric size is shown on the packaging.

    I am just explaining the legal position. Despite the fact that most drink container sizes are unregulated, the vast majority of all other types of drinks sold in supermarkets and shops are sold in rational metric sizes. Milk is an anomaly in this regard.

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  6. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @Leo:

    I think you are right about the UK having to drop Imperial on products sold into the EU once the UK leaves the European Union.

    Ironic, eh? The claim behind Brexit (besides immigrants) was to get out from under the thumb of bureaucrats in Brussels. Talk about unintended consequences if Imperial has to disappear from packaging as a result of Brexit. And I doubt most companies will want to pay extra for packages that include Imperial just for the UK market.

    After that, we just need to get metric signs legal (even if not changed over at first) so that it is a crime to deface or remove metric signs and which gives local authorities and entities to put up metric only signs on private or public property. In addition, the rules could be changed require metric only width, height, and length restriction signs. Also, it would be easy with overlays to convert "yards" to "m" for meters on warning road signs. One could also change distance signs over time, saving the hardest bit (speed limit signs) for the very last.

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  7. Daniel Jackson says:

    @Alex

    It is understandable if pubs sell in a 570 mL glass that they call a pint, as that is the probably the only glassware they stock. In cases like this, they are just selling you a glass of whatever beverage they have. If the soft drink comes in a bottle or can and is not dispensed from a machine to fill the 570 mL glass, then you are only getting the contents of the can or bottle that is the amount of millilitres in the can or bottle.

    I can't speak for the UK, but in the US, the cups are often filled with a lot of ice and the amount of soft drink you get is much less. If in the UK they serve the drink with ice, you may be getting 500 mL of drink and 70 mL of ice or maybe even 330 mL of drink and 240 mL of ice.

    Do the other establishments sell openly in fluid ounces or are they selling in a standardised cup that they offer as large, medium and small? In the US the actual cup size varies with the establishment and the ounces are often hidden. If you ask the person behind the counter what the size of the cup is they often don't know and have to ask a manager, who also may have no idea.

    In cases like this, they are selling you a cup and not by any unit.

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  8. Alex Bailey says:

    @Daniel Jackson I’m fully aware of the “technicalities” of how products are priced and served.

    By the time you factor in the ice, the self serve soft drinks in some restaurants, the slow introduction of free refills at some outlets and the inconsistency of fill levels you’re never actually paying for a specific quantity when you’re at a public place anyway. There are still places that price their drinks in “oz” rather than “ml” but in all honesty these are seen as nothing more than alternatives for “small” “medium” and “large”. So long as traders don’t actually state their prices as “£x per oz” they’re within the letter of the law.

    My real frustration is that the letter of the law doesn’t match the spirit of the law and it perpetuates the continuing use of imperial measures. That and the fact, in common with road signs, the use of metric units is actually illegal for draught beer and doorstep milk in bottles!!!

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  9. Daniel Jackson says:

    @Ezra

    To the best of my knowledge, most UK prepackage foods and other items do not carry a supplemental imperial declaration. UK shoppers who post here can verify this statement or provide an approximate percentage of packages found that are 100 % metric only. Thus with this in mind, the majority of products would not be affected by any change in EU rules.

    As for Brexit, there were those who voted for Brexit on the dream that the UK would return to imperial:

    https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/the-nitty-gritty-of-brexit-negotiations-1.3126778

    I've been stating for some time now that the focus must be on getting metric signs to be legal. Removing the illegality would be a big boost for the metrication of signs and also to prevent their damage. I'm glad to see I have support on this.

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  10. Cliff says:

    I believe that the right-wing British press are implementing a regime of purging or "ethnically cleaning" measurements that their editors deem to be non-English in the same way that the German Nazis purged non-Aryan words and things in the 1930s and 40s. I glanced at the MailOnline today ( I know it's a filthy habit, the truly awful "journalism" and the insane readers comments never cease to astound me, but I'm drawn to it like a ghoul to a train wreck) and right after an article on temperatures given only in Fahrenheit was an article on baggage allowance that gave baggage weights in stones, pounds and ounces. Is there an airline in the world that still uses imperial measurements? Or perhaps it was for the benefit of Elizabethan time-travellers.

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  11. Lee Kelly says:

    The good thing I see about brexit is once we start trading with other countries we will see that metrication is used globally unless the world is a member of the EU? Im sure our eurosceptic newspapers will say that (tongue in cheek)

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  12. Ezra Steinberg says:

    "Stones" for baggage weight? No English-speaking country outside the UK (and Ireland?) uses stones for anything let alone baggage weight.

    Truly, a gift to Elizabethan time travelers! 🙂

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  13. Mark Williams says:

    @Ronnie Cohen:

    One of the bolder claims from a quitter was the one about being able to sell Champagne by the imperial pint again, citing it as Winston Churchill's favourite quantity at lunchtime. Even leaving aside the reason for this ‘restraint’ was to leave room for the fifth of an imperial gallon of whisky in the afternoon and who-knows-how-many imperial bushels of wine in the evening (why no return for them?), it suggests deep ignorance about their own merchandise. Good luck persuading the regulators not to opt for a rounded metric alternative instead!

    @Ezra Steinberg:

    I think all UK exports to EU, including that proportion kept back for the local market have been metric-only packaging for quite some time. It wouldn't even surprise me to find that some pre­packaged EU exports to USA are the same—possibly having to be over-labelled on arrival or sold under the counter as not strictly FPLA compliant. Examples of factory-special labels for export to USA are British Waste By-Product #1 and possibly British Waste By-Product #2.

    Perhaps Leo was referring to the somewhat academic derogation which seems to be little used in practice. No doubt the {insert epithet here} UK bureaucrats who secured this theoretical ‘concession’ were tremendously proud of their Pyrrhic victory, as were DFT mandarins regarding road signs. But are UK or other EU businesses equally grateful and would they notice, yet alone mourn, its passing?

    @Daniel Jackson:

    For food shopping and a non-exhaustive sample containing UHT milk exclusively, it is at or close to 100 % that are metric-only—as long as one avoids the tiny number of imperial martyrs, which >99 % of shoppers do. Yes Ezra, that's how far behind USA is and it cannot catch up while standing still!

    I fully support you both in making metric road signs legal—just not the halfway house of normalising dual units, open-ended opt-in for metric or indeterminate grandfathering of imperial. Another salutary lesson in how not to do it from USA…

    @Ezra Steinberg:

    Do not ask Elizabethan time travellers how heavy their baggage is, in any UNIT, if you enjoy staying attached to your head &#x1F609!

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  14. John Steele says:

    @ Mark Williams

    Oddly, your Marmite example has US-compliant net content and nutrition labels, but is being sold in South Africa. It must have been manufactured in the UK as I'm sure the US doesn't have enough Marmite market to warrant a plant here. The website seems to imply it was imported from the US whether or not it originated in the UK.

    The Golden Syrup label is not FPLA compliant for two reasons, the 1 LB is not declared, and it is fluid enough that it should be sold by volume anyway. Comments in the reviews indicate people are currently receiving tins marked 11 (US fl) oz, 325 ml, but given the density of Golden Syrup (per Wikipedia) this is still 1 LB | 454 g. It is also sold in a similar size glass jar:
    http://www.worldharvestfoods.com/files/LYLES%20SYRUP,%20GOLDEN%20JAR%2011%20OZ%20UNITED%20KINGDOM.jpg
    That photo is from a US source, but I found the same product offered in the Netherlands. It looks like UK businesses export specially labeled product to the US, but if they make too much, they dispose of it elsewhere.

    Obviously, in both cases, there are also many photos of the products with metric-only contents declaration.

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  15. David Fang says:

    @Ezra Steinberg:

    I do not know if I should comment this, but one coincidence is that there were also a unit sharing name with "stone" in China, and the name was "shi". It was 4 "jun" each of 30 "jin" as defined in Qin dynasty, about 30 kg (later increased to about 60~70 kg for various reasons). In agricultural trade since about 7th century, 10 "dou" (70~100 L) of crops approximately having that weight, so it became a volume unit as well (having a different pronunciation as "dan"). For some times in the 20th century, the character was used to translate "quintal" and "hectolitre" when metric system was first introduced.

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