On the eve of a showdown Cabinet meeting on Brexit, one of our frequent contributors, Ronnie Cohen, asks if British attitudes both to the EU and to this country’s metric changeover are part of the same mindset.
Recently, we have passed the second anniversary of the European Union (EU) membership referendum when a majority of those who voted chose to leave. This article suggests parallels between our attitude to the EU and our choice of measurement units.
For most of the its time as a member of the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), the UK has sought to rewrite rules to suit itself. This can be seen from the days when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher secured a budget rebate for the UK and also by the number of opt-outs it has from EU rules. Whilst the UK is not the only country to have opt-outs, a table on the “Multi-speed Europe” Wikipedia page shows that the UK has eleven opt-outs, more than any other member state. As well as these, the UK has also sought and obtained various derogations from directives, including those that mandate the use of metric units for most purposes.
Here is a list of opt-outs that the UK has or had from the EU:
- Schengen I (absence of passport controls at borders)
- Economic and Monetary Union (EMU)
- Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)
- Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ)
- Charter of Fundamental Rights
- Social Chapter (this opt-out was later dropped)
- European Stability Mechanism
- Fiscal Stability Treaty
- Single Resolution Mechanism
- Euro-Plus Pact
- Prüm Convention on cross-border co-operation
- Enhanced Co-operation in other areas
- Symbols of Europe
In addition to the opt-outs, former Prime Minister David Cameron sought further concessions for the UK just before the referendum on continued EU membership. In his negotiations, Cameron asked for the UK to be excluded from any commitment to “ever closer union” (which he received), an end to payment of in-work benefits to EU migrants coming to the UK and of child benefits for EU migrants’ children who live abroad and of unemployment benefit for EU jobseekers. He also sought new rules to protect non-members of the eurozone from regulations made by eurozone members. With these changes ‘under his belt’, Cameron campaigned in the referendum to stay in the EU. He was opposed by a group of eurosceptic MPs who believed that the UK Parliament should be able to overrule EU law – a unrealistic demand, incompatible with membership of the EU. Other eurosceptic demands included control of regional policy, social and employment law, and fisheries.
In negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the British have aimed to keep as many benefits of EU membership as possible without the obligations that go with them. They have done this by trying to keep all their trading privileges and joint projects (e.g. Galileo, European Arrest Warrant and security co-operation) and, at the same time, seeking to end free movement of EU citizens to the UK, to end contributions to the EU budget and to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Even though the Prime Minister is committed to leaving the European single market and customs union, she has tried to replicate all the benefits of both by replacing them with other arrangements such as a proposed Customs Partnership and a Maximum Facilitation (a.k.a. maxfac) scheme.
Unsurprisingly, the British have faced strong resistance from other European leaders over their proposals in the negotiations. The Europeans accuse the British of “cherry-picking” and of trying “to have their cake and eat it”.
We can see the same isolationist mindset over the UK’s reluctant adoption of the metric system for all trade, administrative, legal and official purposes. The UK’s changeover to metric measures began with high hopes in 1965, and the EEC’s requirement, echoing Magna Carta, that “there be one measure” was not seen as a problem when the UK joined the EEC in 1973. But after progress stalled in 1978 and the planned metric changeover was abandoned in 1980, British politicians began to seek derogations from EU directives to permit the continued use of imperial units for specific purposes. In consequence, progress since 1980 compares unfavourably with many countries that formerly used Imperial measures, including those that became members of the EU, namely Cyprus, Malta and the Republic of Ireland. An example of the UK’s Imperial mindset came in 2008 when the minister for (would you believe?) Science & Innovations announced that “the government had saved the pint and the mile”.
Let us examine further the unfinished business of metrication. There are only six imperial units that remain in official use. They are miles, yards, feet and inches for road signs, the Imperial pint for draught beer and cider and for doorstep milk and troy ounces for precious metals. However, there is plenty of unofficial usage of imperial units in British society. Imperial units are still widely use by estate agents, in product descriptions and advertising, by small shops and market traders, in supplementary indications, in measuring devices on sale, in commercial maps and in cab and taxi mile-based charges. This usage relates to trade and commerce alone and is not a comprehensive list.
Over the years, EU moves towards common measurements based on the SI, the modern version of the metric system, have often been met with resistance in the UK. On the one hand, the British want the benefits that a common measurement system brings to multi-national manufacturing, cross-border trade and mutual recognition of standards, while on the other hand we retain non-standard measurement units. This makes no sense. Is it part of a wider isolationist British mindset, or is it just that we prefer to follow rules that we ourselves have written, as in the days of Empire? Metric Views will be interested to hear what readers have to say.
UKMA takes the view that completing the metric changeover is in the public’s interest whether or not the UK remains a member of the EU. In or out, over 90% of our trade will be with metric countries. Large sections of the UK economy have made the switch to metric measures, including the supermarkets that supply over 75% of our groceries, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, aerospace, defence, science, education, medicine and athletics, and even DIY superstores. If we are to prosper in a largely metric world then we need a SINGLE, simple and rational system of measurement that all understand and are familiar with.