The UK’s metric conversion – a comedy of errors?

Ronnie Cohen looks at the story of the UK’s metric changeover during the half century following the establishment of the Metrication Board in the late 1960s. If any other country needs a lesson in how not to do the job, this is it.

Ever since the British started their own metrication programme, our politicians have made a succession of errors and this is why we have ended up in a measurement mess today. They include the voluntary approach to metrication, encouraging imperial conversions, giving in too easily to opponents, failing to make the case for metric units and blaming EU directives when implementing legislation on metric measures, and a failure to provide information to the general public. Here, we take a look at major events that blighted the UK metric changeover during the past half century.

There was a major setback when the Conservatives won the 1970 election. The plan to metricate speed limits in 1973 was promptly dropped by the new government. On 9 December 1970, the Minister for Transport Industries announced this in Parliament and added that the Government had no alternative date in mind. It has never been reinstated. Half a century later, British road traffic signs for speed and distance are exclusively imperial; little progress has been made to convert other traffic signs to metric units.

Late in 1975 there was a voluntary initiative for retailers to convert to the use of metric units. However, one market failure brought all voluntary initiatives to a halt: a major carpet retailer reverted to the use of square yards for selling carpets. It gained a huge commercial advantage because consumers refused to believe that a carpet sold for £10 per square yard and a carpet sold for £12 per square metre were almost the same price. So consumers bought the apparently cheaper ones and there was a complete reversal of the metrication of carpet sales. In response to this, business organisations called on the government to set a compulsory cut-off date for use of imperial units in the retail trade.

The Board of Trade drafted the necessary Order in 1978 for a cut-off date. This was supported by a large range of organisations representing many diverse interests and the vast majority of MPs. Then there was a loss of nerve of the Labour government, worried about the General Election expected in 1979. The Secretary of State for Trade, Roy Hattersley, hesitated for several weeks and did not put it to a vote in Parliament, hoping to implement a cut-off date after the election.

The Conservatives won the election. Sally Oppenheim, one of the few persistent critics of the metrication programme, was appointed junior Minister of Consumer Affairs at the Department for Trade and Industry, and metrication was added to her portfolio. She refused to compel the retail sector to use metric measures and saw to it in 1980 that the Metrication Board was abolished. The changeover lost momentum. As a result, it took another 20 years to complete the changeover in retailing.

In the early 1970s, before the UK joined, the European Union, then known as the European Economic Community, introduced directive 71/354/EEC to standardise units of measurement in member countries. After joining, the UK asked for derogations (i.e. opt-outs) to permit the continued use of imperial units for particular purposes, including supplementary indications (i.e. voluntary use of imperial units alongside the required metric units). These derogations were extended repeatedly until the European Union decided on an indefinite extension.

In 1989 the UK Government secured a derogation permitting the UK to “fix a date” for the conversion of “road traffic signs, distance and speed”, but there was no indication of what that date might be nor even of when the date would be fixed. Indeed, in response to the publication of “Metric signs ahead” in 2006, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) made it clear that it had no plans to fulfill the commitment, which a spokesperson described as “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.

In 2007, the DfT requested the European Commission to remove the obligation to fix a date for converting road signs to metric. The Commission duly obliged, partly on grounds of “subsidiarity”, and the resulting amendment to the Directive was finally agreed in 2009. Of course, signs that are not road traffic signs may use metric units. You can read about this at https://ukma.org.uk/road-signage/are-metric-signs-legal/ and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2002118.stm. Currently, the UK is the only major country in the world whose road sign regulations do not include metric units as options for distances and speed limits.

The option to use metric units alongside imperial ones on height, width and length restriction signs was introduced in the traffic sign regulations in 1981. For years, successive Transport Ministers and the DfT resisted making dual units (metric and imperial) mandatory even when consultations showed strong support from industry and studies indicated it would also be cost effective. Finally, dual units on new restriction signs became mandatory in 2016.

Compulsory metric labelling was introduced for pre-packaged goods between 1975 and 1995, but not until 2000 did price labelling and weighing or measuring of “loose goods” in metric units become a statutory requirement. When Ministers implemented EU directives on measurement, they failed to make the case for a single, simple and logical measurement system used for all purposes, and encouraged the belief that this was purely an EU matter. And in response to resistance by market traders (fruit and veg priced in imperial seem to be much cheaper than those priced in metric – just as with carpets but thirty years later), the Government encouraged relaxation of enforcement of weights and measures legislation.

Of course, where prices appeared to be less, as with the switch from gallons to litres for fuel in the 1980’s, there was little resistance to the changeover. Contrary to media claims, the use of pounds and ounces has little to do with tradition and everything to do with market advantage. But for almost fifty years, no UK Government has willingly made the case that a single measurement system is essential for consumer protection – a lesson learned many centuries ago and set out in Magna Carta in 1215.

At the beginning of this article, we suggested that if any country wished to see how not to carry out the metric changeover, it need look no further than the UK. Is it too much to hope that when a UK government has the courage to complete this job, began by one of its predecessors over fifty years ago, it will start by studying some of the many successful examples to be found around the world?

Sources and Further Reading:

9 thoughts on “The UK’s metric conversion – a comedy of errors?”

  1. One of subtle differences between the British and the South African metrication programs was that in Britain costs were absorbed where they fell while in South Africa the cost to small traders when their scales was borne by government. As a result the so called “Metric Martyrs” could claim an unnecessary expense whereas their South African counterparts were told quite politely “the government paid for your conversion, so shut up”.

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  2. There are people in the UK wanting to go back to completely Imperial units only and ban the use of the Metric system, of course that’s because British people lack the intellectual capacity to change on anything, still use any War we won in any argument on anything to make the country sound better, most support the commonwealth because they think it’s a form of Empire, the British love imperial because it makes them feel cosy, warm and safe, it brings the past alive and reminds us of a past long since dead.

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  3. Lee Kelly,
    Are you referring to the opinion expressed in this article? Good to see that the comments mostly favour the metric system.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A bit of good news: I just watched the Daily Climate Show on Sky News and everything was metric: temperature, area, mass, you name it. No Imperial anywhere!
    Is this just for the Daily Climate Show or is all of Sky News 100% metric?
    And if so, why can’t the BBC do likewise?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. @Daniel
    What’s weird is that the author of that opinion piece is blithely assuming that the USA will remain mostly “Imperial” in everyday life. Does he actually think the USA will never convert? Maybe not in my lifetime but I’ll bet before this century is out. And when that happens, what chance would England have to retain Imperial even if it did (regrettably) revert to Imperial for a time? (I say “England” because I suspect by then both Northern Ireland and Scotland will have converted to metric by joining Ireland [NI] and by joining the EU as a separate country [Scotland]).
    And Wales? Good question; no idea what will happen there, actually!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ezra said: “And if so, why can’t the BBC do likewise?”

    Because the BBC is not a sentient being that can make such a decision. Some reporter or editor or producer or whoever has made the decision to use imperial based entirely on personal preference.

    I wouldn’t worry to much about these Luddites moaning about old money and imperial. No one in the right places seriously wants to disrupt their production and return to imperial. Their view is let the Luddites moan, we will ignore them and in time their numbers will dwindle to zero.

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  7. Just had another eye-opening experience watching the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) show “MarketPlace” that exposes scams and rip-offs perpetrated on consumers. This show was on unnecessary car repairs at dealerships. What struck me was the consistent use of “kilometers” rather than “miles” throughout the show (often pronounced KILL-oh-meters, which I prefer). Just goes to show how their conversion of road signs to metric and car instruments that show metric speeds and distances back in the 70’s has completely converted them to metric all this time despite us here in the USA and right next door to them having none of that.
    I did also see in the report that an employee talked about a car’s “mileage” who then used “kilometers” when actually mentioning numbers. Personally, I am fine with metaphors that use Imperial like “mileage”, “footage” for video, expressions like “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile” because I treat those as a kind of jargon or folk usage. As long as real units are done in metric, the rest is no big deal in my opinion.
    So, UK, hope you follow soon in Canada’s footsteps! (As for the USA, I may sadly never live long enough to see our own conversion happen. Oh, well. C’est la vie, eh? 😦

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  8. @Ezra – the original quote was “give him an inch and he will take a ell”. For those who are unfamiliar with the ell, in the United Kingdom, prior to 1824, the ell (or rather the [double] ell[bow] was 45 inches. The unit was widely used on the Continent and, as with most units of measure, had different values in different cities. When the Dutch re-introduced the metric system, they adopted a few common names for units to make them for “user-friendly” – the word “ell” became a synonym for the metre.

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