Prospects for metrication progress under the new government

The makeup of the new coalition government and its policy programme are now broadly clear.  How will it affect the prospects for progress on completing metrication?

Firstly, the Prime Minister himself – David Cameron.  MetricViews is not aware of any public statement he has made on the subject.  Certainly, he has given no indication that he is personally committed to resolving the “very British mess”.  Equally, he has not associated himself with the wilder actions or comments made by some of his party MPs.  When he was responsible for the Conservative manifesto in 2005, he did not include an earlier proposal from a party think-tank that would have legalised imperial weighing.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is also not known to have expressed a view on completing metrication.  However, his former rival for the Liberal Democrat leadership, Chris Huhne, is a longstanding supporter of metrication. Unfortunately, his portfolio – Energy and Climate Change – affords little opportunity for progress on metrication, but we may hope that he may speak up for the cause in Cabinet if the opportunity arises.

Committed opponents in the new Cabinet include the former Conservative leader, William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, who once wrote an article in the News of the World denouncing UKMA!

The key post of Transport Secretary (responsible of course for road signs and speed limits) has gone to Philip Hammond (Conservative).  Nothing is known about his views on metrication.  He will no doubt have difficulty in defending his departmental budget in the forthcoming spending review.

The other key post that could have real influence on the progress or otherwise of metrication is that of Business Secretary, and this post has gone to the Liberal Democrats’ former Treasury spokesperson, Vince Cable.  Like Chris Huhne (see above) he abstained in 2001 on a motion to revoke the W&M (Metrication Amendments) Regs 2001 (SI 2001, No 85). His background is the social democratic rather than the civil libertarian wing of the LibDems.  However, as it is thought that he has big disagreements with the new Chancellor (George Osborne) on economic policy and banking reform, he may not find time to champion metrication even if that were his inclination.

So, with no known commitment at the top, and divided sympathies (at best) within the new Cabinet, I don’t think we should hold our breath in the expectation of progress during the lifetime of the new Parliament.  We shall see.


30 thoughts on “Prospects for metrication progress under the new government”

  1. One would hope that the new government will pursue full metrication of the NHS and all medical facilities for the reasons that have been fully laid out by UKMA, in the House of Lords, and elsewhere.

    As for the budget of the DfT, one only has to look at the wasteful spending on those testing centers because of the mismatch between speed limits in the rest of the EU (in metric) and those in the UK (in Imperial).

    One might also hope that the new Business Secretary will see the value to British industry of full metrication in business-to-business transactions and by having a work force that is fully conversant with and comfortable with metric because they are consistently exposed to a metric environment both at work, at home, and elsewhere.

    There is further the issue of the ability of British motor car manufacturers to use the same cockpit instruments in all their cars no matter where they are sold (aside from the USA), which would be possible if all road signs were in metric. There would also be an advantage to the British consumer in being able to acquire Japanese vehicles that could be imported without any changes to their instrumentation.


  2. Totally agree with Ezra at #1 but let’s not forget it’s politics, not pragmatism, what is best for the nation or just plain common sense that we’re dealing with. If the conservative shire vote is important to the Tory party to maintain their position of power then they will tend to appease that section of society.


  3. As someone who doesn’t live in the UK, can someone who does summarize the election results in such a way as to inform us whether the recent election put more pro-metric people in power, more pro-imperial or is the status quo retained?

    Were there any changes in the DfT that would indicate that a pro-metric person is now running the organization? I would hope that the UKMA takes advantage of any positive changes resulting from the election to bring the metrication issue to the forefront and push for a completion.

    A push for an allowance of metric road signs and non-pint containers in pubs would be a good start.

    (Posted on 2010/05/12 at 23:04)


  4. According to the BBC web site at the new Secretary of State for Transport is Philip Hammond. As he is a committed euro sceptic I doubt whether he will favour further overt metrication since many supporters of his party (erroneously) will perceive it as euro meddling. Coupling this appointment with that of William Hague as Foreign Secretary suggests that, despite the appointment of Chris Huhne as Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, metrication will off limits for the foreseeable future and may in reality be reversed in some areas of activity simply as an act of appeasement.

    So much for a government that has an holistic view of what would be in best long term interests of the country.

    (Posted on 2010/05/13 at 09:26)


  5. Vince Cable is now Business Secretary – do we know where he stands on metric issues? I must admit that I can’t see a rush for the completion of metrication at present, with William Hague in the Cabinet – not a best friend of Chris Huhne by all accounts! However, I think that getting the country back on its feet is most important at present and no Government is going to want to go through unnessarily expensive projects (eg metricating road signs) at present. I do hope though that this style of Government is hear to stay as issues such as metrication will benefit from balanced debating rather than knee-jerk reactions.

    (Posted on 2010/05/13 at 10:52)


  6. These straitened times might provide an opportunity to push for a reform that would save money: revise the law that anti-metric campaigners have used to stop businesses and local authorities from using metric signs for pedestrians.

    Imperial zealots who deface signs on the pretext that they do not comply with the law cost businesses and local authorities money. A change in the law to make it clear that road signs regulations do not apply to signs for pedestrians would cut the ground from under this activity.

    It won’t metricate the road signs but it might discourage this form of vandalism. And that might just appeal to people of a more conservative bent.

    (Posted on 2010/05/08 at 16:58)


  7. According to the DfT “Theresa Villiers confirmed as Minister of State for Transport“. This is bad news as it was she who appeared on the BBC Question Time programme in 2006, endorsing the general view of that panel that road signs should remain imperial. Whether she is capable of changing her mind when confronted with evidence – we do not know.


  8. The ministerial team at the DfT is completed by Norman Baker (LD) and Mike Penning (C), Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State for Transport.

    Hammond and Baker both wrote to BWMA in 1997 expressing sympathy with its views, and signed a House of Commons Early Day Motion in January 1998 supporting the continued use of “customary UK measures” and opposing further metrication. They also voted for revocation of SI 2001 no. 85 following a debate in the HoC (see sixth para in the article above). It would be useful to hear of any recent indications of their views.

    Villiers’ answer on “Question Time” in February 2006 can be viewed on (look in the “Governments, Parliaments & politics” play list). A few months earlier, she had written to BWMA criticising “misguided modernisers”, so her comments on “Question time” should not have come as a surprise.

    Nor is it a surprise to hear that on 11 April 1989 William Haig voted in favour of a House of Commons motion “That this House notes EC Document 4102/89 on units of measurement” – this was, of course, a long time ago. His first visit as Foreign Secretary has been to the US, but wherever else he goes he will surely notice that all the road signs are metric.

    Incidentally, the debates in 1989 and 2001 disprove the statement that metrication has never been considered by Parliament.


  9. My local MP (one David Cameron) wrote a letter to me stating that he was a supporter of “whichever units the British People favoured based on their history and traditions” while acknowledging that further metrication was dependent on “consensus of the public and business”.

    (First posted 2010/01/20)


  10. All in all, the news sounds pretty grim for further metrication in the UK. The best shot you folks would seem to have now to finish metrication would need to come from us here in the States making fresh moves in that direction, which would clearly give fresh impetus on your side of the Pond. But we can’t even seem to get our own FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act) amended to allow purely voluntary metric-only labels!

    Perhaps the most fruitful source of pressure to finish metrication might come from business people if enough of the influential ones are sufficiently enlightened to see the wisdom and the utility of ending the metric muddle once and for all.


  11. It is highly unlikely that metrication will be on the aganda in Britain with so many pressing economic matters. Furthermore it is hard enough to keep that coalition alive without introducing another divisive “measure”.


  12. ‘All in all, the news sounds pretty grim for further metrication in the UK. …Perhaps the most fruitful source of pressure to finish metrication might come from business people if enough of the influential ones are sufficiently enlightened to see the wisdom and the utility of ending the metric muddle once and for all’

    I think that the most important thing for the next 5 years is to make sure that there is no REVERSE of metrication in the UK. I have already noticed that in John Lewis (Britains favourite retailer), where I work, some china and glass merchandise has started appearing on sale with their size referred to in ‘oz’! I have written to our head office about this to point out this retrograde step which I suspect is linked to goods being packaged for the US market. ‘Thermos’ products are also guilty of this for similar reasons I guess.

    On a more positive note, I am encouraged by greater use of metric measurements on the BBC in factual reportage. Apart from deg C, they are using metres and grams more consistently. As far as road transport goes, I am pleased to see that most major routes now have their ‘blue boards’ in place denoting the distance in kilometres along the road since its start. To me, that clearly indicates that for most measurements the yard is dead! I also note that commercial property is now advertised with its space in square metres.

    If I could make one change it would be to get people comfortable with their personal height and weight in metric measures. In school up until year 6, kids have their height measured in metric and seem happy with that. Its when they start reading magazines and newspapers that refer to their favourite celebrities or diet plans when they start getting confused and encounter imperial. I always refer to my own weight in kgs and height in metres, and its a bit of a talking point!

    That said, I don’t think any industries would actively campaign for the reinstatement of any metric products. I don’t think a wholesale scrapping is on the cards at all. But we do need to be aware of, and actively campaign against, the creeping return of imperial measures in daily life in areas where they had been quite rightly replaced.


  13. I believe that the way forward is not to look where change is impossible at this time, but consider where change could be achieved. As the Government is strapped for cash, think of changes that would save money. Here are a few:

    * Hospitals should be using metric measures. Make sure they do and raise a ruckus if you find any examples of non-compliance. This is an area where failure to use metric measures could cost lives.

    * Pedestrian signs should not be bound to use yards and miles just to conform to the road signs. Push for the law to be changed to make it clear that signs for pedestrians can display metric units.

    * Push for milk to be available only in litres and parts of litres. It is confusing for it to be sold in both pints and litres.

    * As commercial property is now being advertised in square metres, push for this change to be used for all real estate – to protect consumers. It is confusing for real estate to be sold in the older measures.

    * The law looks foolish in its insistence on serving beer in pints in a Bavarian themed pub. Recommend that this anomaly be corrected, and pubs be allowed to serve beer in pints or in metric sized glasses. That change won’t cost much and might save on compliance costs.

    These and other changes are worth fighting for, and they may be easier to achieve at this time than changing the road signs.


  14. PS – In the last paragraph of my last message I meant to say ‘I don’t think any industries would actively campaign for the reinstatment of any imperial measurements’


  15. Nick Clegg’s speech today ( see ) may provide much comfort for rogue traders who argue they should be free to confuse the public with their array of non-standard units of measure. But from the UKMA’s point of view, it does set a tone where it is difficult to argue for government intervention to “enforce” metric units and “prohibit” use of obsolete units.
    I think the pro-metric campaign needs to respond by changing tack somewhat. We need to get the public behind a call for metrication. We need to promote metric units as new, sexy, cosmopolitan, intelligent and sophisticated. Obsolete non-metric units would then seem unattractive by comparison. Of course contributors to this blog already think that way, but we need to take the public with us. That is where the campaign needs to go now, or it won’t go anywhere.


  16. Michael Glass made some comments regarding the use of metric units on pedestrian signs. The EU directive permits the use of imperial units in road signs, but does not define what constitutes a road. However, the OECD does have such a definition – see This raises the question as to whether the UK should be using its own definition or whether it should using the OECD or some other definition. [The UK’s legislation relates to “highways”, which have been defined in Common Law as “land over which the citizen has the right to pass and repass”. This therefore excludes private roads but includes public footpaths. I don’t think the OECD is relevant. – Editor]


  17. “It is highly unlikely that metrication will be on the aganda in Britain with so many pressing economic matters.”

    And this is one very good reason to Metricate, to alleviate the problems. Metrication obviously won’t solve the problems but will help them in the long term. People need to realise that the real world and the measurement system are not mutually exclusive. Until Metrication takes place, there will always be continual problems arising, whether it is mix ups or incompatibilities.


  18. I too had spotted the problem that the Deputy Prime Minister’s populist gesture might invite calls from market traders to be permitted to weigh and price in imperial units. I think this may prove to be an embarrassment to the coalition government for all the reasons given in our earlier article It might also split the cabinet since there are divided views within it.

    However, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered, it could be an opportunity as well as a threat, since any ensuing debate would offer a chance to explain why a single system of weights and measures is necessary and should be properly enforced.

    (A slightly off-topic comment, but I think Mr Clegg may have opened up a can of worms, which he may come to regret.)


  19. Nick Clegg’s wife is Spanish, and his children have (I believe) Spanish names. He is of course very pro-EU, and even was pushing for the UK to enter the Euro zone. In view of Greece’s current troubles, he has backed off from that, but his pro-Europe sentiments cannot be far below the surface.

    The rolling back of unneccessary laws need not mean a return to a free-for-all in how we measure things, especially in commerce. Societies since the dawn of civilisation have tried to standardize measurements used in commerce, especially retail commerce, in order to protect consumers. If it can be pointed out that ONE measurement system used in commerce is a necesary consumer protection measure that will, in the long run, save money, then I do not see the withdrawal of the state’s role in many other areas as being a reason to abandon control of measurements used in commerce.


  20. The “freedom to choose” rhetoric from rebel market traders is likely to appeal to the Liberal elements of the coalition and the anti-EU sentiment coming from their political supporters will appeal to the its right wing elements.

    Let us hope that Chris Huhne and others will caution the rest of the cabinet not to be fooled by it.


  21. If the ‘Express’ story is true, then it suggests that the Transport Secretary believes that it is sensible to have only one measurement system, not two. Indeed, with a huge hole in the public finances, two systems are probably a luxury that his department and the UK can no longer afford. As we know, all roads and the vehicles on them are built to metric standards, as are new rail vehicles, signalling systems, ports and airports, ships, many new aircraft, and almost anything else constructed or manufactured today outside the USA. So I fear his reported decision would make life more difficult for him, add to costs, and maintain the isolation of the DfT from the rest of government and from most of the rest of the world.

    Now if he has gone the other way…..


  22. This story is also reported in the Daily Wail, with gleeful reports of the ‘end of the road for the Labour kilometre’. As if to remind us of the truly British heritage of the mile, the Mail explains that the mile is Roman in origin and relates to a 1,000 strides of a Centurion.


  23. So, does this mean all communications about measurements that are originally in metric will have to be translated to Imperial? How will engineering work and published specifications be affected? What does the UKMA see as the likely consequences (especially the unintended ones)?


  24. One also has to wonder what will become of the plan to require metric height and width restrictions alongside Imperial to reduce the risk of bridge strikes. Will this be scrapped as a result of the Minister’s attitude towards metric?

    One of the links off of the DfT’s web site discusses motorcycle safety and the use of helmets. This sublink shows you how to fit the helmet properly by measuring your head correctly:

    Note that a table is displayed after the initial animation with head circumferences given only in centimeters. Will this site have to dump the metric measurements and give them only in Imperial?

    How far will this intransigence go, one has to wonder?


  25. My understanding of the reports I read was that the Minister has called for statistics that had been set to refer to incidents per km were to be ‘updated’ to refer to miles. The argument appears to be that they are irrelevant when the mile is still the standard measure of distance within the UK. Examples of such statistics quoted in the Daily Mail were accidents per kilometre on the major road routes, air kilometres flown by aircraft etc. I have to admit that I can see his point – it is tedious to have figures quoted in one unit when that doesn’t relate to the ‘norm’ for that particular KPI. However, it’s such a shame that he didn’t grasp the nettle and decide that it was time to give the mile the elbow instead of the km.


  26. As I pondered the latest metric news from the UK and the government’s statements about imperialization, I wondered: what about the Chunnel?

    In one sense, Great Britain is no longer an island. There is a ground connection between it and continental Europe. Since the opening of that remarkable tunnel across the channel, hasn’t there been increased pressure on the UK to complete highway metrication, that pressure being in the form of a flow of motorists and other transport from Spain, France, Germany, et al.?


  27. Paul

    I would suggest that the “Chunnel” hasn’t really made much difference in this regard. The trains actually work in exactly the same way as the previous (and current) ferry services in that you drive on, sit around for a while, then drive off on the opposite side of the road.

    When you drive away from any ferryport, the authorities are more concerned with ensuring that everyone remembers to drive on the correct side of the road. As previous posters have suggested, the Northern Ireland/Eire border may be more fruitful grounds for introducing metric measure as the primary measure on UK roads.


  28. With a little bit of political will it is quite feasible for the UK to finish metrication in short order.

    This point was brought home to me again today when I was listening to a call-in program on NPR (National Public Radio). While most of the callers are residents of the USA, this particular caller was from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The host was a bit surprised to be hearing from a Canadian and remarked that Halifax is reputed to have relatively mild winters compared to rest of Canada (Note from Ezra: aside from the Vancouver, British Columbia area), and then asked her what the current temperature was. When she told him it was -5 and the host responded “That’s not mild at all!”, she explained that she was using degrees Celsius. The host told her that that was about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, to which she replied “Well, that doesn’t mean anything to me.”

    I have talked to other Canadians who are actually working down here in the States and who confess that they still have trouble understanding Fahrenheit even though they have been living down here for some time. If Canada, with its own continuing muddle due to a previous Conservative government putting the brakes on metrication mid-stream and with its proximity to the USA, can raise a generation that understands only degrees Celsius (because the media never uses Fahrenheit) and kilometers (since all the road signs use km and km/h), then surely the UK could finish metrication in short order if it encouraged the media to stick to metric and converted all the remaining road signs to metric as well.

    Sadly, this government shows little or no inclination to finish the job. Thus is muddle madness maintained.


  29. This might be relevant:

    DTI advice published in 1997 (yes, under a Conservative administration) states quite clearly:

    “From 1 October 1995 information given to or requested from the general public and private sector organisations which includes expressions of quantity should be given/requested in metric units (eg public procurement tender specifications, planning application dimensions, volumes of sales, etc). The only exceptions to this general rule are imperial units that may continue to be used as the primary system of measurement in the circumstances outlined in Appendix 1 to this Note.”

    Appendix 1 states:

    “Imperial units of measurement to be used without time limit … ii. mile, yard, foot and inch for road traffic signs and for related distance and speed measurements”

    Does this not only exempt mi/yd/ft/in for communications pertaining to road traffic signs (which are after all imperial), not general information about the road network?


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