What impact would Scottish independence (if it were to happen) have on weights and measures? Martin Vlietstra supplies an answer.
All parties are agreed that if Scotland votes “Yes” in the forthcoming referendum, there will be a cost in establishing an independent Scottish state. A small part of this cost will involve setting up an independent infrastructure to regulate weights and measures. In this article Metric Views looks at some of the “behind-the-scenes” actions that need to be considered. Whether these actions represent “value-for-money” is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide – Metric Views holds no views in that respect.
Since time immemorial rulers have taken it upon themselves to regulate weights and measures, thereby ensuring a level playing field in respect of trade. In the last two centuries this control has been extended to cover other aspects of life including health, safety and technology. The need for expanding trade regional and world trade has resulted in a growing centralisation of the regulation of weights and measures. In 1707, Scotland’s weights and measures were replaced by England’s weights and measures and their control fell under the remit of the parliament of the United Kingdom, thereby facilitating trade between the various parts of the kingdom. In 1965 the British Government announced the adoption of the metric system to facilitate trade with the rest of the world. In 1972 the EEC passed directive 71/354/EEC which required the six original members to covert to SI rather than retaining CGS and associated units. The EEC directive was consistent with the British metrication plans at the time (the UK joined the EEC in 1973), though in 1979 the directive was amended by Directive 80/181/EEC which allowed both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to complete the adoption of the metric system at a slower pace.
Where would this leave an independent Scotland? If Scotland joins the EU or becomes a member of EFTA (European Free Trade Association), she will be obliged to adopt directive 80/181/EEC, this directive being one of the EU directives that EFTA members are required to adopt as a condition of the free trade agreement with the EU. The only unanswered question is whether or not Scotland would be permitted by the EU to retain the effective “opt-outs” currently enjoyed by the United Kingdom.
Although the actual units of measure in use have a much higher profile in the public eye than the means of regulating them, the means by which units of measure are defined and regulated is at least as important as the units themselves. Two international conventions set up the framework to oversee the definition units of measure (1875) and the application of units of measure (1955).
The Treaty of the Metre (1875) set up the General Council for Weights and Measures (CGPM). The CGPM has custody of the international prototype kilogram and, until 1960 when it was replaced by a definition based on the wavelength light generated in a specified manner, the international prototype metre. Member states are entitled to their own national copies of the international prototypes and the right to have them calibrated against the international copy at regular intervals. Member states are also required to have a national laboratory where the national prototypes are stored and where they can be used locally. The United Kingdom signed the Convention of the Metre in 1883 and today all units of measure in the United Kingdom, including the yard and the pound avoirdupois) are traceable to the standards maintained by the CGPM. The yard is defined as being exactly 0.9144 metres and the pound as being exactly 0.45359237 kilograms – there is no artefact that serves as a reference copy of either the yard or the pound.In 1955 the International Organization of Legal Metrology was set up to promote harmonisation of the legal aspects of metrology. This covered questions such as the maximum permitted variation of specified pieces of equipment, for example when can I call a piece of metal a “one kilogram weight”. (Answer = According to OIML recommendation R111, a 1 kg Class E1 weight is allowed a maximum deviation of 0.00005% and a class M3 weight a maximum deviation of 0.05%. Recommendation R111 also defines procedures to make these calibrations). The scope of the OIML’s recommendations covers not only the calibration of weights, but also of taximeters, petrol pumps, automatic packaging devices, speedometers and a host of other devices.
The CIPM and the OIML work closely with each other – their respective headquarters are in the Paris region about 10 km apart. In particular, they have issued a standardised vocabulary of metrology and have also a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) process – a system whereby one country will recognise calibrations made in another country. The mechanism is that member states can licence private organisation to perform calibration services made in accordance with a procedure laid down by the OIML and that such will be recognised by other member states. The process is not too dissimilar to having a standard set of MoT tests for an MoT, having MoT centres licenced by EU member states and a MoT issued in one state being valid in other states. The OIML and CIPM have split their responsibilities – committees operating under the auspices of the OIML define how the standardisation is to be done while the CIPM maintains a register of organisations that are licenced to perform certain types of calibration. Membership of the OIML committees is restricted to full member states of the OIML.
Both the OIML and CGPM have “observer” members – the CGPM observer (or Associate) members may participate in MRA activities, but do not have a vote at the CGPM. Similarly, OIML observer (or participating) members are kept informed of OIML activates, but as with the CGPM, do not have a vote.
Initially it is unlikely that an independent Scotland will make any material changes to the regulatory regime. The “MoT model” described above was set up to conform to EU regulations. The issues facing a newly independent Scotland will be whether or not to join either or both the GCPM and OIML, and if so, on what basis. The CGPM has two different precedents for states that split – both Norway and Sweden are regarded as being founder members, the Kingdom of Norway and Sweden having signed the original treaty 1875 and the country having split in 1905. On the other hand, although the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also a founding member, today Austria is regarded as a founding member, but not Hungary (the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in the aftermath of the First World War). If Scotland decides to become a full member, she will either have to establish a national laboratory or come to an arrangement with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the National Measurement Office (NMO) to use their services. It will also have to negotiate with the remnant of the United Kingdom and the GCPM or OIML (as appropriate) whether or not she will “inherit” part of the United Kingdom’s original membership or whether her applications will be considered as new applications. As a guideline, all EU members apart from Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta are full members of both organisations. The six “small” nations are “participating members” of the OIML and, apart from Cyprus, “associate members” of the GCPM.