The media like nothing better than an anniversary, so it was predictable that the 40th anniversary of “decimal day” – 15 February, 1971, when the UK finally gave up its archaic and inconvenient coinage and currency – would get a good airing. Some commentators have even recalled that decimalisation was originally supposed to be complementary to metrication, with both operating to roughly the same timetable. So it is interesting to compare the slick and successful operation to decimalise our currency with the incompetent bungling of metrication.
The account below is based on UKMA’s webpage “Contrast Britain’s decimal currency and metric conversions”.
A quick comparison between Britain’s approach to adopting decimal currency and to adopting metric measurement helps show why we are in our current mess.
|Decimal currency conversion||Metric conversion|
|Change and date announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer on 1 March 1966||Change announced by President of the Board of Trade on 24 May 1965|
|Decimal currency board established December 1966||Metrication board established in 1968 but given very limited charter. The board was precluded from advocating metric units to the public and focused mainly on industry.|
|Rapid & compulsory changeover
(planned within 6 months of ‘D-day’).
In practice the conversion was completed within 2 months.
|For decades a gradual & voluntary changeover approach used. Tendency by governments to seek further delays and opt-outs. Compulsory changeover in retail sector accompanied with exceptions and 10-year period permitting dual labelling (now extended indefinitely).|
|Major focus on D-day event during which most changes would take place. ‘Clean break’ changeover philosophy.||The 1972 White Paper on Metrication proclaimed “there will be no ‘M-day’ for metrication”. While it would have been difficult for industry, transport, education and trade to completely synchronise conversion and retooling, it is significant that no guidelines or target dates were set.Indeed some changes that affected the public were deliberately introduced separately e.g. making measurement of packaged food compulsory in 1995 but loose food only from 2000.|
||Changes perceived to have been done by stealth. Limited number of leaflets produced (Hansard 4 April 2000):
Guides for public tested over 18 months to prove suitability.
|Piecemeal, stealth approach|
|Decimal Currency Board survey showed that 99% of businesses converted within 6 weeks!||After 46 years (and counting) since the original announcement, the completion of Britain’s metric conversion is not in sight!|
Other possible reasons for the contrasting performance:
- Political commitment: Whereas decimalisation was announced by Chancellor James Callaghan, effectively No 2 in the Government, metrication was slipped into a “Written Answer” by Douglas Jay (a middle-ranking minister and hardly a household name, even then).
- Detailed planning. As a result all the considerable power of the Treasury went into making decimalisation a success, whereas the Trade Department (later the Ministry of Technology, under Tony Benn) failed even to persuade other Departments, such as Transport, to start serious and effective plans until near the following General Election.
- Conservatism (small “c”) of the Civil Service. Without a strong political steer, it is natural for civil servants to maintain the status quo. Few at that time, especially in the upper echelons, would have had a scientific education or experience of measurement systems abroad – let alone the imagination to visualise a metric UK. Thus, research in the National Archives has revealed that as late as 1970 officials in the Transport Department seriously considered amending the urban speed limit from 30 mph to 48 km/h!
- Little public debate about the merits of metrication, which was treated as an internal industrial issue, contrasted with vigorous public debate about the principle and the details of decimalisation.
- Failure to legislate. Whereas decimalisation was enshrined in the Decimal Currency Acts of 1967 and 1969, which mandated the method and timetable of conversion, there was no corresponding legislation for metrication, and the task of the Metrication Board was primarily to co-ordinate voluntary action.
- Harold Wilson lost the General Election in June 1970. By then, decimalisation was too far advanced to cancel or amend, but the lack of progress in the Transport Department allowed the new Transport Minister (John Peyton), under pressure from right wing Tories, to postpone indefinitely the conversion of road signs. This is still probably the biggest obstacle to completing metrication in the UK.
- Political courage (lack of). Rebellion against decimalisation was never really possible. The banks confiscated all the old notes and coins that were no longer legal tender, and it was just not possible to continue to trade in “old money” (although “supplementary indications” of prices lasted for a few months). It was an easy win for the politicians. Metrication was a different matter. Even in 1970 there was some low level opposition to metrication (primarily on the political far Right), and to have forced it through would have expended political capital and risked political careers. Since their commitment was only lukewarm anyway, it was convenient to postpone the issue for the next set of politicians to deal with – and then the next, and then the next, and then the next …
- Europe. Although the original decision to go metric had nothing to do with the then European Economic Community, opponents of metrication later succeeded in confusing the two issues in the minds of the media and the general public.
For Britain there are clear lessons to be learned – both for how to make changes in public policy generally (cf. current planned changes in the NHS and Education), and for the unfinished task of completing metrication. Some people have said that Britons are incapable of accepting changes like the conversion to metric units. The history of decimalisation shows that this is not the case. Britain has coped well with change when it is well planned and rapid. Indeed psychologists have argued that people adapt to change more easily if it is swift, decisive and properly explained than if it is prolonged, uncertain, and unexplained.
It is obviously not possible now, 46 years later, to make the decisive “clean break” that was so successful in the case of decimalisation. But there are still decisive steps the Government could take that could bring metric completion nearer. For example:
- Convert the road signs. Give or take a little defacing of signs, there is little that opponents could do to sabotage the conversion. No doubt there would be hold-outs (Jeremy Clarkson comes to mind), but with distances on road signs in metres and kilometres and speed limits and speedometers in km/h, it is difficult to envisage resistance lasting more than a few months.
- Phase out imperial measures in all official usage (including in all publicly-funded bodies).
- Ban imperial units throughout the NHS and in schools (including the national curriculum and exam syllabuses).
Other measures could be as proposed in UKMA’s draft Weights and Measures (Completion of Metrication) Bill (scroll down to the 6th paragraph). Is there a public-spirited MP (or peer) willing to take this on?