Hansard provides many insights about the ideals of and the prevailing attitudes to metrication. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see where the actual course of events has fallen short of those ideals and the mistakes that got us into the current measurement muddle.
In 1862, a Select Committee of Parliament published a report unanimously recommending that the use of the metric system should be made legal but that “no compulsory measures should be resorted to until they are sanctioned by the general conviction of the public.” This led to The Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act of 1864 which permitted the use of metric measures for ‘contracts and dealings’. It had little practical impact and it would be a century before practical steps were taken to promote the changeover to metric measures for most purposes in the UK.
The earliest debate on “metrication” recorded by Hansard took place on 26 July 1968. Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn (a.k.a. Tony Benn), Minister of Technology, started the debate with a statement about metrication. Some extracts are reproduced here. One ideal expressed in the statement was:
“The Report [by the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication] makes three main recommendations. First, that manufacturing industry can make the change efficiently and economically only if the economy as a whole moves in the same direction on a broadly similar time-scale, and in an orderly way. Second, that a Metrication Board should be established to guide, stimulate and co-ordinate the planning for the transition for the various sectors of the economy. Third, that any legal barriers to the use of the metric system for all purposes within the United Kingdom should be removed.” (Hansard Volume 769, 26 July 1968)
The actual transition to the metric system fell short of these ideals. Metrication in the retail sector lagged behind industry and was slower and less well organised. This was not completed until 2000. Tony Benn said that the Metrication Board will be advisory. This rendered it toothless. The legal use of the metric system for all purposes within the UK has still not been realised, notably for road signs. Here is another excerpt from Tony Benn’s statement:
“No compulsory powers will be sought. There can be no question of compensation; the costs of adopting metric weights and measures must lie where they fall.”
The Department for Transport has never accepted its costs for adopting metric units on traffic signs. Despite stating that no compulsory powers will be sought, Tony Benn acknowledged that “The Government accept that legislation will be needed to remove obstacles to the adoption of metric units and to define the units to be used.”.
In a debate on the metrication of speed limits and road signs on 14 July 1969, Mr Costain asked Mr Richard Marsh, Minister of Transport, “Does the Minister appreciate that there is some public feeling against the cost of changing the signs? If his mind is made up over land miles, will he be certain that he does not introduce a system of metric nautical chart, which will further add to the cost and confusion?” (Hansard Volume 787, 14 July 1969). The Minister replied “I am almost certain that the question of nautical miles will not be within my responsibility. The problem with road signs is that, given the background of the decision to go metric, it would be almost impossible to have one set of measurements in imperial measure.”.
In a debate on metrication on 8 July 1970, Mr John Page said “It would cost the taxpayer or ratepayer £1½ million to £2 million merely to change the speed limit signs. Sign-posts would be done later, which seems pretty inconvenient, and we are told that this would cost another £30 million or so.” (Hansard Volume 803, 8 July 1970). In another metrication debate on 27 October 1970, Sir John Eden, Minister for Industry, said “Another cost which has attracted attention concerns road signs. The cost of metricating road signs, which the Government are examining, may also eventually have to be considered by local authorities.” (Hansard Volume 805, 27 October 1970). In the same debate, Mr Robert Redmond said “The Minister mentioned road signs. I do not see why we have to change them. We have heard about the possible cost, but I do not see why we should incur any cost.”. In this debate, John Page said “I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he replies to the debate, will be clear about the activities of the Ministry for Transport Industries whereby by 1973—certainly under the previous Government—signposts, speed limits and height limits were to be changed at a total cost to the unsuspecting tax and ratepayer of about £33 million. For what reason? We cannot possibly export miles of road in Knutsford, Harrow, or Bournemouth.” Mr John Osborne said “We must certainly look again at the matter of road signs. There may be good reason to hold up those matters which are not unconnected with Britain’s entry into the E.E.C.”.
Objections to metricating road signs were also raised by Mr Angus Maude and Mr Peter Mills on cost grounds. MPs also objected to changing signs again after the recent changes of signposts to the Worboys system and recent installation of other new signs. In response to opposition from MPs, on 9 December 1970 the Minister for Transport Industries announced that the metric conversion of speed limits would be postponed indefinitely. About half a century later, they are still almost exclusively imperial.
On the issue of education, Mr Marcus Fox spoke in a metrication debate on 22 March 1971. He said:
“I come to the crux of the matter, because what gives me most concern is the situation in examinations. We find that examination papers are being presented completely in metric units at the moment. It does not need a genius to realise that obviously all teaching is geared towards examinations and, if examination papers are in metric units, how far we have gone in the teaching in our schools. I can tell hon. Members that, in O and A levels, S.I. units will be used exclusively between 1972 and 1973. In the case of the certificate of secondary education, it will be a year later. However, I can give many instances where papers in metric units are to be set a good deal earlier. In physics in the G.C.E. O and A levels in London, for example, the date is 1972. Wales is two years ahead, because there the physics papers were set in metric in 1970. In the case of O and A levels in science and maths in Hampshire, the year is 1972. In the C.S.E. examinations in my own county of Yorkshire, the technical drawing and physics with chemistry papers were set in metric units in 1970, and the same will apply in 1971 to the maths papers.” (Hansard Volume 814, 22 March 1971)
Do the arguments about road signs sound familiar? Various British politicians argued that changing them was a waste of money and were unrelated to international trade. The problem is that it has a huge influence on the use of imperial units in the rest of British society and perpetuates the current measurement muddle.
The prevailing view in Parliament was that metrication should be voluntary. When they tried the voluntary approach to metrication of the retail trade in the 1970’s, they came unstuck when a major carpet retailer found an enormous commercial advantage by going back to selling carpets by the square yard. Consumers wrongly perceived those carpets to be cheaper even though they cost about the same as the ones priced in square metres. So they bought these apparently cheaper carpets in huge quantities. In response to this development, rival flooring and carpet retailers followed suit and the metrication of the retail trade in floor coverings went into full-scale reverse. Most politicians realized that they had to legislate a cut-off date for imperial units in the retail trade. As a result of a loss of nerve by the Secretary of State for Trade, the draft Order with the cut-off date was not put to a vote and the stage was set for another 20 years of muddle before the completion of the metric changeover in retailing.
The problem with the failure to convert road signs and the voluntary approach is that the metric education school pupils receive is wasted. They learn the metric system in school but see imperial units everywhere outside the school gates. Metric usage by industry is hidden from public view and school pupils do not see any of it.
What we have had is a lack of joined-up thinking by politicians. As a result, we still have a measurement muddle with no end in sight to the mess that they created. And this month the Government will have spent more on its “Eat out to help out” scheme than it would have cost, on any reasonable estimate, to convert all of the UK’s road traffic signs.
You can find all the Hansard debates on metrication at https://hansard.parliament.uk/.