Fifty years ago, the Government made a low-key announcement of a change in policy in relation to the use of metric units by industry. We consider how a speech by the Leader of the Opposition two years earlier had signalled the possibility of progress in this area.
Britain was fortunate during the Second World War that the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, understood the importance of science. His Nobel Prize winning account of WW2 provides many examples of the value he placed on scientific advice. And he appointed a close friend and eminent scientist, F Lindemann, as the British government’s leading scientific adviser. Lindemann attended meetings of the War Cabinet and accompanied Churchill on conferences abroad. He saw the PM almost daily for the duration of the war and wielded more influence than any other civilian adviser.
Following VE Day, the focus for politicians switched to peacetime reconstruction, and science moved from centre stage. It is fair to say that the four Prime Ministers who succeeded Churchill did not feel the need to give science the priority that it had achieved during WW2.
However, in October 1963 it appeared that the situation might be about to change when the newly-elected leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, made his first speech to the Party’s Annual Conference, held that year in Scarborough. Although he began by reflecting on the pace of technological change and its implications for industry, it was not until the closing moments of his speech that he said the lines for which it would be remembered, warning his audience that if the country was to prosper, a “new Britain” would need to be forged in the “white heat” of a “scientific revolution”.
Commentators have subsequently suggested that the importance of this speech was more to do with overcoming divisions within the Labour Party and providing a favourable comparison with the governing Conservatives. Regular readers of Metric Views may think otherwise. A year later Wilson was Prime Minister, albeit with a small majority.
It is often said that for a UK government to affect a change, that change needs a supportive Prime Minister and a committed departmental minister willing to do the spade work. In the war time government, Churchill was both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, thereby reducing obstacles to benefiting from scientific advice. But how would science and, in particular, long-standing proposals for the adoption of metric weights and measures fare under the Wilson government?
In 1962, the British Standards Institution (BSI) had issued a statement, “Change to the metric system?” setting out the main issues, and this was widely circulated in industry for comment. A year later, in October 1963, BSI published “British industry and the metric system”, summarising the results of its consultation with industry. This showed that a large majority was firmly in favour of starting a change to the metric system without delay and without waiting for the rest of the Commonwealth and the United States. The report concluded that there was a unanimous desire for decision and that indecision was “acting as a curb to industrial progress”.
This report landed on the desk of Douglas Jay, the newly-appointed President of the Board of Trade and the minister responsible for industrial policy in Wilson’s government. Fortunately he was willing to do some spade work.