For the last twelve years of his life Geoffrey Howe was patron of the UK Metric Association. Robin Paice, who was Chair of the Association for most of this time, remembers him.
Most obituaries of Lord Howe of Aberavon have, understandably, concentrated on his famous resignation speech (that led to the fall of Margaret Thatcher), his 1981 budget, his agreement with Deng Xiao Ping for the handover of Hong Kong, and his consistent support for the European Union. It was probably the last of these causes that led him, in the last 12 years of his life, to identify with the campaign to complete metrication in the UK and to consent to be one of UKMA’s patrons.
I had the pleasure of meeting Geoffrey several times from 2004 onwards and worked closely with him on various projects, publications and articles. The depth of his commitment to the cause was quite astonishing, as was the amount of time that he was prepared to spend on an issue which, after his outstanding political career, might have seemed comparatively minor. He explained his role in a Foreword to “A very British mess” in 2004:
“So what am I doing here? Two or three years ago, I gladly accepted the invitation to serve as UKMA’s Patron. I did so because I felt ashamed of my role in allowing the present shambles to develop. Having been responsible for Britain’s metrication programme when I was Minister for Consumer Affairs, I didn’t challenge the decision to abolish the Metrication Board, when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer. I didn’t often run away from difficult decisions – but this is one that I did duck.”
[The “shambles” he was referring to was of course the muddle of incompatible metric and imperial measurements that still afflicts the UK]
However, although Geoffrey saw himself as doing penance for not supporting metrication at a point when his intervention could have been decisive, I think the real reason behind his belated enthusiasm was his belief in Europe. He actually had surprisingly little familiarity with the details of the International System of Units (the official name for the metric system): thus he believed that his body temperature was 98.4 degrees (Fahrenheit of course), and I am sure he only knew his weight in stones and pounds and his collar size in inches. As he was a classicist and a lawyer, the relationship between joules and watts would have been quite beyond him.
I once had a minor argument with him about time zones, as he also supported the “Lighter Evenings” campaign, which advocated adopting Central European Time instead of Greenwich Mean Time. I tried to point out that time zones depend on longitude, not politics, and that numerous countries cope successfully with having several time zones, but he took the view that solidarity with “Europe” meant adopting the same time as the key EU countries. I think he felt the same way about adopting the same measurement system as other European countries.
It may well be that his known enthusiasm for “Europe” was actually a handicap in the metrication campaign, as it enabled opponents, especially on the Right of the Conservative Party, to sidestep the rational case for resolving the muddle and simply dismiss his views as those of a misguided Europhile – or worse.
Whatever the reasons, Geoffrey spent an extraordinary amount of time on the campaign, sometimes telephoning several times in a day, leaving long messages on the answerphone, sending drafts of articles for comment, and attending the Annual Conference of UKMA (see picture). Because of his numerous political and other contacts he was able to lobby at many levels, and wrote numerous letters to the great and the good seeking their support (and donations to the cause). Published articles and letters appeared in “Trading Standards Today”, the “Expert”, and “Which?” , the magazine of the Consumers’ Association, of which he was President for many years. He also made interventions in the House of Lords, notably in 2012 in the Queen’s Speech debate, which can be viewed at this link.
Sadly, his campaigning had little tangible to show for it (though of course we can’t know what might have happened without it), and I often had the feeling that the targets of his lobbying were merely humouring him. Being slightly overawed by his eminence as an elder statesman, many did not wish to refuse him but were not prepared to risk damaging their own business or political careers by publicly supporting what was perceived as an esoteric and minority cause.
As befitted an Old Wykehamist (motto: “Manners makyth man”), Geoffrey was always unfailingly courteous. Everybody liked Geoffrey – even if they deplored his monetarist economic policies, his Enterprise Zones and his anti-trade union legislation.
With the passing of Geoffrey Howe, the UK Metric Association has lost one of the few politicians with the courage to challenge the conspiracy of silence that prevents the case for completing metrication from being heard. We shall miss him.