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The Great Metric Stitch-Up

There’s not a lot of joy in being right about something forty-odd years after the event. Nor is there any great profit in keeping banging on about how cross you feel about what you perceive to be a gross wrong or injustice when no-one else seems to pay it much attention any more. All that does is make you come across as a sort of obsessive. Besides, people tend not to be particularly keen on smart-Alecs who go around saying ‘I told you so!’

Nevertheless.

Through an extraordinary series of confidential letters, newly released under the Freedom of Information Act, it can now, finally, be revealed that what many suspected about Britain’s compulsory metrication laws was true all along.

It was all a stitch-up.

The metric system was imposed on Britain by law by a small group of senior Government officials by stealth and by subterfuge, in order to ensure admission to what is now the European Union.

In essence, the ministers lied to get what they wanted.

They lied to the public and they lied to Parliament. They lied and they lied again. They’ve been lying about it for forty-five years. And they’re still lying about it today.

Here’s what happened.

On 29th December 1970, the European Commission issued a memorandum about weights and measures. A pretty odd thing to issue a memorandum about, you might think. Given that all of the members of what was then known as the EEC used the metric system. But there was one country, Britain, which had a government that was desperate to join the club. And Britain had its own historic system of measurement. It had these measures despite various half-hearted voluntary metrication initiatives that both business and the public had largely ignored. The European Commission didn’t like that. It didn’t bode well for the European harmonisation and ‘ever-closer union’ that they dreamed of.

So they put out a memorandum said this: that all current and future member states would have to adopt the metric system by force of law. It said:

Member States will have 18 months after the adoption of the directive to make their national legislation conform to this.

Which is to say, if Britain wanted to join, it would have to make its people go metric – whether they liked it or not.

With a sceptical public still undecided about whether it even wanted to join the European club at all, British officials realised that this would be a difficult ‘sell.’

That was when the letters started going back and forth between them. Letters that they thought would never see the light of day. And which probably never would have, were it not for the relentless digging of a handful of diehard campaigners. Here’s an excerpt from one such letter, written to John Eden, the Minister of State for Industry:

The awkwardness of this draft from my point of view is in the policy change contained within it. Previously we have committed ourselves to metricate on a permissive and voluntary basis: now we are going to impose it.
In the DTI Press Notice of 2nd November there is a sentence which reads: It has never been the case that metrication in Britain was conditional upon our entry into the EEC, for the change to metric is a worldwide movement.
On political grounds it would be better to stick to that.

Letter from Francis Pym, MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury
22 November 1971.

So then the politicians and officials set out to lie, straight-faced and systematically, in order to get the law passed. And the lie was this: that there were to be new laws which were a natural extension of a worldwide change to metric, which was the result of long-standing and growing pressure from British business. And nothing to do with Europe.

They’ve not stopped lying since.

Twenty-five years later, in 1995, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs, wrote:

The Government first decided that the United Kingdom should convert to the international system of metric weights and measures in 1965, in response to lobbying from British business and well before we joined the EEC.

They were still at it in 2011:

The decision to adopt metric units was originally taken in 1965, and has been the policy of every Government since…I hope this clarifies the situation.
David Willetts MP
Minister for Universities and Science
21 November 2011

So there you have it.

As a result, whole areas of British life have since been forcibly metricated. There were prosecutions, too – the so-called ‘metric martyr’ trials, in which market-traders were hauled up before the courts for selling bananas by the pound. The result is that today, most food and drink in British shops is now sold in kilograms and litres.

Let me say what I think about this right now, and get it off of my chest. Let off a bit of steam, if you know what I mean. So that you know where I stand on this. And if you think me an obsessive, or a sore loser, or as someone who really should get out a bit more and get a life – well, then so be it.

I think that this thing, this wiping-out of our heritage by calculating, lying politicians, this destruction of our living link to the world of Shakespeare and Chaucer, is one of the most wicked and unforgivable acts of cultural vandalism I have ever seen in my life. I think that it is cause for lamentation and weeping. And I think that the next time someone tries to teach my children that they’re ‘forty centimetres tall,’ or four hundred, or whatever it is that they are in metric, or the next time someone talks to me about things weighing so many ‘kee-los,’ I’m going to… well, I don’t know what, exactly. Rage impotently inside, most likely.

There. I’ve said it.

And having said that, I’m also pleased to say that all is not lost.

Because one thing the politicians did not reckon on was the stubborn cussedness of the British people. What has happened is that in the areas where the law hasn’t reached, the British remain as wedded as ever to their customary units, and as utterly non-metric as ever they were. It began with Margaret Thatcher, who negotiated a number of exemptions from the European Commission, which mean that today, British road signs are still all in miles and yards, and beer and milk are sold in pints. Clothes are measured in inches. Meanwhile, even the very young think of their height in feet and their weight in stones – a peculiar British unit of 14lb. The prosecutions have dried up, too – as a result of which many street-market traders have quietly gone back to selling fruit and vegetables by the pound.

And with the official announcement, in May this year, of a new Royal baby weighing in at ‘eight pounds three ounces’ it looks as though things are set to stay that way for some time to come.

About Warwick Cairns

Profile photo of Warwick Cairns

Warwick is Press Officer of the British Weights & Measures Association and author of About The Size Of It: the Common-Sense Approach To Measuring Things (PanMacmillan) and How to Stop Living Dangerously (PanMacmillan). He has degrees from the University of Keele and Yale University. Born in Dagenham, Essex, he has lived many places, including in Africa and a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USA. He now resides with his family in Windsor, Berkshire, United Kingdom.

5 comments

  1. It seems that Warwick Cairns is taking credit for making a mess. Instead of having a relatively painless changeover to the metric system as in Australia and New Zealand, the UK is betwixt and between Imperial and metric measures. So instead of making things better, things are in some ways even worse.

    Apart from swindlers, it serves nobody’s interest to have milk sold in both pints and litres, to have fruit and vegetables sold by the pound in the markets and by the kilo in the stores, to have some things measured in feet and inches and others in metres and land described in both acres and hectares.

    The UK is caught between two systems of measurement The idea that the UK could revert to the Imperial measures is now a pipedresm. The metric system is now almost universal. it therefore makes sense to sort out the remaining inconsistencies in favour of what has become the predominant system of measurement in the world.

    • Dear Michael Glass

      I’m afraid that you are wrong. British weights and measures are very much alive and well in the UK (and elsewhere).

      We are not caught between two systems any more than a bilingual person is caught between two modes of speech. Rather, we have a fluency that gives us an advantage. It is like having two hands when most others have but one.

      Don’t be afraid of dual fluency, or even multi-fluency. We all share the same reality, but we can speak about it in many tongues, and measure it in many systems. (Yes, more than two!)

      I do not share your belief that humans are so dimwitted as to require global homogenisation.

      Regards

      James

  2. This article, and a British friend of mine, suggest that any country that has an historical measurement system would be compromising its national identity by metricating. Parts of the identity of my country, the United States, are growth and adaptation, and on the subject of real-world (not poetic) measurement, I believe that adaptation is essential for the long-term strength of. America. It is high time that we in the U.S. part ways with saccharine sentimentality, and join the accepted infrastructure of the 21st century.

    • Dear Paul Trusten

      Your use of the word ‘poetic’ as if it’s an insult rather than a thing of ingenuity and beauty combined is telling.

      You can rest assured that most of the worlds engineering marvels were created by various measuring systems, including the British (and consquently, the USAmerican) system, as well as systems created centuries and millennia ago, way before the current version of the metric system was brought into being. Some of those feats of engineering are even with us today – imagine that! Little do they know that their creators were using poetry to shape our physical world in such awe-inspiring ways.

      If only you had a time machine (created by metric, naturally, since any other system could not possibly create such a thing) in which you could travel back in time to inform your forebears of their flights of fancy before they made such obvious errors. You could do them a great advantage by dragging them into the real world before they do some real damage.

      I agree with you about your saccharine sentimentality: it’s blinding you to the ‘miracles’ of construction and technological achievement which are all around you and scattered across the globe, and how they came to be made.

      Regards

      Jim

  3. @Michael Glass It may be ‘a mess’ for those who seek to impose metric by force, but what of ‘the mess’ caused by seizing scales and prosecuting traders for selling by the pound?

    What of ‘the mess’ caused by freely mixing systems of measure, even unauthorised measures, on Britain’s roadways?

    How are Australia and New Zealand, both with miniscule populations, in any way comparable to the United Kingdom or United States?

    Indeed, you mention swindlers: Who has been the swindler, with post rates after decimal day, and with smaller package sizes, disguised in grammes, when Imperial size descriptions were no longer required by law? A triumph of metrication, stealing 20 or 30 grammes of product from an elderly pensioner! You speak of this mess of two systems. What would you call it, and what form of government would you be describing, where the system overwhelmingly favoured by the population is discarded, and discarded under threat of criminal penalty, by government for another, unwanted system?

    The metric system is almost universal, BUT FOR 320 millions west of us. Canada is also, hardly metricated. In many areas, they are more metric than the U.K.!

    Just as there exists more than one language, there exists room on this vast world we inhabit, for more than one system of measure. We find it truly laughable that those who would defend the Welsh language on the one hand, would form a clenched fist by which to punish those using the far-more-prevalent Imperial system with the other! Utter rubbish and hypocrisy! The Imperial system is a mathematical language, connecting us with the Roman Empire and that ancient history, a version of which conducted man to the Moon, defeated the Nazis and Japanese in WWII, and worthy of our respect, admiration, and protection.

    @Paul Trusten While we do not ascribe the same dubious tactics of our own adversaries to the U.S. Metric Association, you seem to think that metrication is advantageous. In fact, it puts the United States at a marked DISadvantage, requiring it to go through the same costly, unnecessary conversions the U.K. underwent. They did nothing to stem the tide of factory closures, and business moving elsewhere. If anything, they enabled foreign competition to operate more easily, instead of having to se British units to do business in Britain.

    Unlike metric groups, pro-Imperial groups do not seek an outright ban of metric, or seek to prohibit business and people from using metric units where it is advantageous, so long as a safety issue is not created (as with road signs) from a confusing mix. Indeed, the British Weights and Measures Association supported an Austrian restaurant that saw fit to serve beer in litres, as is traditional in that country. Likewise, we have it on good authority that there are pubs in FRANCE, home of the metric system, that are themed as English pubs and serve beer by our Imperial pint!

    What purpose does it serve to mandate grave plots be measured in metres, that we drink our draught beer and ale in pints, that are gardens be metric, that we announce the births of our children in kilos? That is hardly a barrier to growth and adaptation, is it?

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