With Brexit still dominating the news, Ronnie Cohen looks at one of the biggest obstacles to completing our transition to the metric system: its perceived link to the European Union.
Opposition to metrication has become an article of faith among almost all Eurosceptics and their supporters in europhobic and frequently foreign-owned national newspapers. Metrication has become associated with the EU and, given the reluctance of any public figures to make the case for a single, simple, logical and universal measurement system, opposition to metrication has become well-organised and deep-rooted.
It seems that the declining popularity of the EU has affected the acceptance of the metric system in the UK. This week we aim to show that:
“The EU has not imposed the metric system on the UK.”
Given the headlines in the popular press about EU involvement in measurement matters, the opposite of this claim is widely believed. Ministers have not helped to encourage public acceptance of metric by failing to challenge these untruths and by hinting that the EU is the cause of many of the country’s problems.
In fact, the transition of the UK to the metric system is not related to its membership of the EU. The 1862 Report by the Select Committee on Weights and Measures recommended the adoption of the metric system. In 1895, just 33 years after the 1862 Report, another Select Committee came to the same conclusion that the time has come to adopt the metric system. Just two years later, the 1897 Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act permitted the use of the metric system for all purposes in the UK.
All these events happened half a century before the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, the forerunner of the European Economic Community and the European Union. In fact, the UK Metrication Programme started in 1965 in response to demands from British industry to move to metric units.
In 1965, the President of the Federation of British Industries (now the CBI) told Ministers that the majority of its members are in favour of the adoption of metric as the primary measurement system. As a result, the UK started its own Metrication Programme in 1965, 8 years before it joined the Common Market, as the European Union was commonly known at the time. At the time, the Government announced that they “… consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole …” and that “the Government hope that within ten years the greater part of the country’s industry will have affected the change.” In 1969, the government set up the UK Metrication Board to oversee the metric transition.
In a debate on the use of metric measures in 1970, Sir John Eden, the Minister for Industry, said, “About 20 years ago, the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures took extensive evidence, noted the steady advance of the metric system in the world although half the world’s trade was still in the Imperial system, and recorded the unanimous view that the change from Imperial to metric in this country was sooner or later inevitable and should proceed to finality in due course under Government guidance.” 1 He raised the issue about the prospect of losing out in world markets if the UK fails to join the metric world, saying,
“A lot of progress has already been made—notably in the preparation of new textbooks. The market for these textbooks is throughout the English-speaking world. In India, for example, before they were able to write their own metric textbooks they had first to translate French and German books into English. Soviet books were being published in English. At the same time, British textbooks and technical works had to be excluded because they did not use metric weights and measures or a decimalised currency.
With the wide international use of the English language it would be the worst of ironies if we clung too long to the Imperial system of measurement, which today is a barrier to trade and communication, and if we thereby reduced our influence in the world and the value to us of our own language.” 1
In 1971, the UK underwent the decimalisation of its currency for the same reason as metrication: simplicity and ease of use. In 1972, the government published a White Paper on Metrication (Cmnd. 4880) to confirm that metric units should become the primary system of measurement in the UK, and says that the changeover should take place in a well-ordered and regulated manner. The Building Regulations were re-issued in metric units to match metrication progress in the building and construction industries.
By the time the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, the UK agreed to move to the metric system as part of its conditions of membership but this was already official government policy before the start of negotiations.
In a House of Lords debate about the second reading of the Weights and Measures Bill in October 1976, John Fraser, the Minister of State for the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection, said, “Both Labour and Conservative Governments have accepted time and again that we should adopt the metric system. Progress towards it is well advanced in industry, commerce and agriculture and it is frequently used in retail sales of packed goods. Teaching is overwhelmingly metric, and we have a generation of children and young adults who have learned no other system. Parliament itself has approved many Orders facilitating a change to metric.”.2
The creation of the European Single Market in 1992, strongly supported by the UK Government, required the use of a common measurement system in all member states. Any common market requires a common measurement system. Hence, the efforts of national governments to ensure uniformity of weights and measures (e.g. 1824 Weights and Measures Act in the UK for standard imperial measures, French adoption of the metric system in 1795 to implement common measurement standards, Fair Packaging and Labeling Act in the US, etc.). Given that only the UK and Ireland used imperial measures and all other EU member states used the metric system, it was a no-brainer to standardise on the metric system.
The EU Directives that relate to units of measurements were agreed with Ministers of HM Government. In response to requests from the UK, the EU postponed the cut-off date for supplementary indications several times and granted the UK derogations to continue using imperial units for specific purposes. In 2009, the EU has allowed supplementary indications to be used indefinitely. Market traders can still display prices in pounds and ounces as long as they also display prices in metric units as well. Consumers can still ask for products in pounds and ounces so it is only traders that are affected.
The Weights and Measures (Metrication Amendments) Regulations 2001 implemented EU directive 1999/103/EC. In a debate about these regulations, Lord Sainsbury of Turville said, “I remind the House that since 1965 all governments have supported the change to the metric system on a gradual basis and for an ever increasing range of uses because of the global move to metric.” and that “If we are to play the cards of libertarianism and British history, I remind the House that in Magna Carta for the first time the people of Britain established the case and the need for a single form of measurement in the country.”.3
As a result of EU directive 2009/3/EC, the use of supplementary indications has been permitted indefinitely, as well as the use of six imperial units for specific purposes only:
- the mile, yard, foot and inch for road traffic signs, distance and speed,
- the pint for draught beer and cider, and doorstep milk, and
- the troy ounce for trading in precious metals.
The EU also withdrew the requirement for UK to “fix a date” to convert road signs to metric units. The European Commission has no desire to speed up the change to metric in the UK. In response to these changes, Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation minister, reflected government thinking by saying that, “As we enter a new decade it’s good to know that traditional imperial measurements like the pint and mile will remain. But importantly this also means that businesses will avoid the unnecessary cost of changing labels. This indefinite exemption leaves these important decisions in our own hands, removing worry and uncertainty from businesses.” 4
Günter Verheugen, a former Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, had said previously,
“Neither the European Commission nor any faceless ‘Eurocrat’ has or will ever be responsible for banning the great British pint, the mile, and weight measures in pounds and the ounces.
Some sections of the British media have regularly jumped on the bogus bandwagon that maintained with varying degrees of hysteria, that the EU was “banning” the pint and that this was part of a wider plot against Britishness.
Well, we at the EU have decided the time has come to nail these myths once and for all by setting out in black and white what has always been our view: that Britain should continue to use imperial measures for as long as it likes.
Much as it may dismay those who have peddled the metric myth for far too long, we have now proposed legislation enshrining Britain’s right to retain pints of milk and beer, miles on road signs and dual indications of weights and measures from now ’till Kingdom come!”. 5
Lord Kinnock, another former Commissioner, has said:
“It is widely believed – largely because of distortive press coverage – that weights and measures policy is primarily a European issue. It is not. In the ten years that I was a European Commissioner (including five years with the Transport portfolio), I know that there was no pressure from the Commission on any British Government to convert UK road signs. Indeed, the EU agreed many years ago that the United Kingdom and Ireland should set their own timetables for phasing out the remaining imperial measures. The issue is therefore entirely a matter for the British Government and Parliament.” 6
Ireland completed its transition to the metric system in 2005 with the conversion of its speed limit signs, leaving the UK as the only member state that is holding out for the continued use of imperial measures. The UK government wrongly believes that the use of imperial units for transport and product descriptions can be isolated from the rest of the economy despite their impact on the wider use of measurement within society.
Who now complains about decimal currency today? Today, we do not find anyone wanting to go back to the old pre-decimal currency of pounds, shillings and pence, guineas, half-crowns and farthings. Instead, we now take the benefits of decimal currency for granted. Unfortunately, metrication has wrongly become associated with the EU and opposition to metrication has become politicised. There is a lot of resistance to further progress of metrication as a result. So we have ended up in a position of stalemate in the stalled metrication programme and ended up with an awful muddle (imperial-only in some areas, metric-only in other areas, a combination of both in other areas, etc.). Ministers refuse to tell the general public that metric is the global norm and is not an unnatural imposition from Brussels.
A summary of the 1862 Report can be read at:
The full 1862 Report can be downloaded as a free e-book from: http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Report_from_the_Select_committee_on_weig.html?id=wI7nAAAAMAAJ
The Metric Views articles about the 1862 Select Committee report can be read at: https://metricviews.org.uk/2013/03/1862-report-from-the-select-committee-for-weights-and-measures/ and https://metricviews.org.uk/2012/07/the-report-that-led-the-uk-from-one-muddle-to-another/
The Metric Views article about the 1895 Select Committee report can be read at: https://metricviews.org.uk/2013/03/the-1895-select-committee-on-weights-and-measures/
6 Foreward section of UKMA publication Metric Signs Ahead, http://www.ukma.org.uk/sites/default/files/MSA.pdf