A correspondent asks whether countries that carried out their metrication programme quickly fared better or worse than countries that have tried to do the job gradually and voluntarily.
Our correspondent wrote:
“I wonder if anyone has the time and resources to write an article for Metric Views on [whether] the policy of gradual metrication been a success compared with other country’s policies of doing it in less than a decade. Could we put together any objective measures by which you might measure the success of such a policy – cost, public acceptance, lack of resistance from stakeholders etc.? Just a thought.”
The first thing to be said is that the original intention, when the policy of metrication was announced in 1965, was that the job would be completed in 10 years – that is, by 1975. However, although behind-the-scenes preparations were well advanced by 1970, including a target date for converting road signs in 1973, little had actually been achieved in practical terms by the time of the general election. Edward Heath unexpectedly won the election, and although famous for taking the UK into the EEC, he did little to encourage metrication. Indeed he allowed his Transport Minister to postpone indefinitely the conversion of road signs, and the 1972 White Paper announced that conversion would in future be voluntary and gradual: “There will be no “M-day” for metrication.” (paragraph 12), No Government since then has had the commitment or political courage to set a new target date. Instead they have diverted criticism on to the EU.
This policy of “voluntary gradualism” was reaffirmed by Tony Blair in a letter to Lord Howe in 2004, and even more recently by Lord Drayson (Minister for Science) in a letter to the Chairman of UKMA last December, in which he said:
“The Government’s longstanding policy in relation to units of measurement is to move towards full metrication in time, but at a pace that recognizes that a significant proportion of consumers are still more comfortable with using imperial units. Metric units are used for the majority of transactions regulated by the Weights and Measures Act 1985. The United Kingdom is already substantially metric …… We recognise that a single system of units of measurement as a reference point is vital for fair trade and consumer protection. However, we also believe it is important that imperial units can continue to be used alongside metric ones whilst they remain more familiar for some consumers.”
The sad result of this policy, as we know to our cost, is that the UK has got half way through metrication and got stuck, with little prospect of resolution without decisive intervention by the Government. So we have the “very British mess” of two systems described on UKMA’s website at this link. I think it can fairly be said that the UK’s approach has failed.
Other countries which commenced conversion in the late 1960s or early 1970s have tried different approaches. Australia and South Africa are examples of countries that largely completed their changeover within the 10 year timetable, whereas the USA has been even slower than the UK – albeit there is considerable unseen progress (e.g. in the American car industry). Canada has converted its road signs but encountered resistance to the changeover in retailing, putting it further ahead than the UK in some ways but further behind in others (the American influence is of course very strong). The Irish Republic is an interesting case. Initially slow like the UK, it succeeded in converting its road signs and speed limits in 2005 and has now largely completed its programme – albeit pints (imperial) linger on in pubs. One may speculate that one of the reasons why the Irish overtook the Brits is that by leaving the sterling area and later adopting the Euro, and then completing the metric changeover, they were demonstrating their independence from their former colonial masters.
Can any lessons be drawn from all this? Can we in fact, as our correspondent asked, develop any objective measures?
I think this is actually an impossible task. As far as costs are concerned, most of the costs were incurred so long ago that, even if they had been identified at the time, there are no surviving records of them. Ditto the benefits. What we can say, however, is that the UK has failed to reap the benefits of its investments in new machine tools, retraining programmes, school textbooks etc precisely because a large proportion of the population still uses obsolete units of measurement. The “voluntary/gradual” approach means you get all the costs but not all the benefits.
The second criterion suggested by our correspondent was public acceptability.
Clearly, the UK has had a problem here – but arguably a problem that is self inflicted. Whereas in, for example, Australia, the government was careful to explain the reasons and the programme for metrication (see this link for extracts from the official report), and then implemented the changeover relatively quickly, the UK Government tried to do it by stealth and without explaining the reasons to the general public. They also tried to do the easy bits first (pharmaceuticals, building and construction) while hoping that the difficult bits (esp retailing) would be addressed later long after the current politicians and civil servants had left office.
It is probably also true that Britain has a larger proportion of traditionalists who reject all change, especially if it appears to affect imagined icons of Britishness. Then of course came the incorrect identification of the issue with the EU, and so opposition to metrication became a metaphor for Euroscepticism. If only the thing had been done quickly, before the anti-European campaign had been cranked up, it could all have been history by the end of the 1970s.
The third suggested criterion, resistance from stakeholders, requires a little examination. The primary stakeholders (manufacturing and building industries, local authority trading standards officers, major retailers, consumer representatives) have generally supported (or at least acquiesced in) metrication. The main resistance has come from independent shopkeepers and market traders, supported or exploited by right wing political groups. In economic terms these are not all that significant, but by dint of political stunts (the so-called “metric martyrs”) they have captured the interest of the media and thereby won some sympathy amongst the general public. Again it has been the failure of politicians to explain the changeover, take responsibility for their own policy and carry it through in a reasonable timescale that has allowed grievances to fester and grow.
So my response to our correspondent’s question – whether countries that converted quickly to metric units fared better or worse than countries that have tried to do the job voluntarily and gradually – is that the question really answers itself. “Voluntary gradualism” merely prolongs the agony and does not work. Unfortunately, successive UK governments have refused to learn from the experience of more successful countries such as Australia (or even Ireland in respect of road signs) and, despite all warnings, have deliberately followed those policies that are least likely to succeed.