Following on from last week’s informative article about the UK’s introduction of decimal currency, we look at some of the features contributing to that success and draw comparisons with the changeover to metric measures.
The introduction of decimal currency saw an early acceptance of the need, initial hesitancy in implementation, then a century of dreaming up excuses for not proceeding. Finally, a decisive push showed conversion to be straight-forward, and in retrospect it is difficult to understand why it had been thought problematic for so long. A ten-minute film on decimalisation from 1970 featured someone who said, “We have been since 1828 getting to the introduction of a decimal coinage, and we shall be the last major country in the world to go over, although we were one of the first to start thinking about it.”
The introduction of decimal currency featured:
- Good contingency planning
- An intensive public information campaign for 2 years before D-Day
- Clear explanation of changes and benefits
- Plenty of information supplied to key stakeholders, including retailers, businesses, teachers and the general public
- Widespread publicity – use of different media, including television and radio, and distribution of a large number of booklets and leaflets
- Smooth and efficient changeover after years of co-ordinated and detailed planning
- Clear cut-off date
- Rapid and compulsory changeover
- Clean Break changeover philosophy
The changeovers to decimal currency and to metric measures share some features. For example, both bring the benefit of the simplicity of using decimals, rather than factors of 12 and 20 for currency or 12, 3 and 1760 for both length and distance. But whereas the change of currency affected only part of the UK economy, the full benefits of metrication will come when all sectors of the economy use a single, simple measurement system with which everyone is familiar. And with many sectors involved, there could be no ‘M-day’. Each would proceed at the pace it found most convenient and practical. For many, without a helping hand from government, that pace was very slow indeed. In 1965, perhaps 10% of the UK economy was metric, including science and the teaching of science in schools and universities. Today, that figure is probably around 90% – but it has taken 55 years to get there.
However, a key factor in both projects has been the support of government. For the currency changeover, government was totally committed, and supported all the features listed above. For the metric changeover, the Government was showing lack of interest as early as 1970 when the Transport Minister announced, “… the Government have however decided that speed limits will not be made metric in 1973 and have no alternative date in mind.” Thereafter, government involvement tended to be half-hearted, before ceasing completely.
The last word goes to Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who began this story. He is reported to have said that leading a political party is like driving a coach full of passengers. All the while you are going forward, everyone is fairly happy. As soon as you stop, many passengers will leave the coach and form groups to discuss where to go next, or wander off to admire the scenery. Perhaps this applies also to the currency and metric changeovers. With currency, the coach accelerated steadily and was travelling at its maximum speed on ‘D-day’, arriving at its destination shortly afterwards. For the metric changeover, the driver parked the coach in a lay-by shortly after setting off. All the passengers eventually left it, most walking to their destinations, some waiting by the roadside considering what to do next, and a few turning back. Then, many years later, the driver said the coach had run out of fuel and there was no money to buy more.