‘Rebalancing of the UK economy’ postponed?

Metric Views has learned that the coalition government may drop the proposed amendments to road traffic sign regulations, which would have required dual signage of height and width restrictions within four years and which would have achieved savings and improvements in efficiency for the UK economy in the long term.

We reported on these proposals on 10 October 2009:


We are now awaiting further information about the government’s intentions, and we will report fully when details become available.

Before the general election, both coalition parties spoke of ‘rebalancing the economy’, away from the provision of services (in particular financial services) and towards manufacture, with an emphasis on quality, value added and innovation – areas where the UK can’t be undercut, and on innovative products that others can not make. There would however need to be a focus on creating an efficient economy, with a numerate workforce, able to compete with the best in the world. Are we already seeing signs that this long term objective is being downgraded in favour of short term popularity?

A reader of Metric Views has recently written to Phillip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport, on this matter. A copy of his letter appears below.

“Dear Mr Hammond:

I have just learned that you are proposing to avoid when possible metric measurements on our road transportation system.  What a simply brilliant move!  We’ve had far too much of this foreign metric nonsense.  I must say, your proposal has already excited my friends and colleagues in Canada, Australia and South Africa, all of whom have emailed me and asked me to confirm that this is true.  As you may know, all these three countries (and I believe about 188 other countries) use the metric system on their road signs.  How silly is that?  But then they’re all foreigners, and as you and I both know, foreigners are ignorant.  We should have made Canada, Australia and South Africa and all the countries we once owned stick to their imperial road signs – let them know that it is us Brits who know what’s best for them. Cheeky upstarts, the lot of them.  I will admit that my Canadian, Australian and South African friends and colleagues wondered whether this was a good thing, given Britain’s precarious foreign trade situation and all that – one even suggested that this could hurt our exports!  Sends the wrong message to the rest of the world, they said.  What rot!  These people need to understand that the world NEEDS British imperial-designed things – far superior to all that metric designed foreign rubbish.

Now, having decided that our entire road system will, quite rightly, remain in imperial units, we should do the same with the vehicles on those roads.  I mean, it doesn’t make sense to have metric cars, buses and lorries on imperial roads, does it?  So I believe you should take the next logical step, and allow only imperial designed and manufactured vehicles on British roads.  THAT would stop all those nasty foreign vehicles cluttering up our roads – and rejuvenate our car manufacturing industry at the same time.  Now I admit this will be a bit of a challenge – every car manufactured anywhere today, including in the USA, is designed in metric.  Even our British manufacturers of the day agreed to go metric – how unpatriotic is that?  So there might be a few problems here and there (all the bits that go in these cars – things like tyres, light bulbs, minor things like that – are all currently made to metric standards).  But nothing that, I’m sure, a good old bit of British knowhow and ingenuity can’t overcome.  Show Johnny foreigner a thing or two, I’ll wager.

Of course, with our imperial-only roads and the imperial-only vehicles on them we will have to educate the rest of the world in imperial units – if they want to sell their nasty German, American, Japanese, Korean, French, Spanish and Italian tin boxes here, that is.  What a golden opportunity for our universities!  We all know British education is the best in the world – this will REALLY prove it to all those ignorant foreigners who don’t know the difference between a stone and a furlong.  Hundreds of thousands of foreign engineers, designers, professionals of every kind, who all now need to know how many inches in a mile and how many yards in a foot.  Did you know Mr Hammond that there are 5.7 billion metric-only foreigners in the world, many of whom now might need to learn imperial measurements?  I bet they can’t wait to get started!  And there are 300 million other foreigners that also need to be taught our proper British imperial system, and will need re-educating.  Currently they use their own system called US Customary – but they’ve got it all wrong!  (Just as they did when they argued with us over some stupid tea.)  Their gallons and bushels and tons and fluid ounces are all different from ours!  Don’t these people understand that our British imperial system is the best?  It’s unique in the whole world – NO-ONE ELSE USES IT!  How cool is that?

Finally, as you are obviously firmly convinced – and the entire rest of the world will agree with you – that we British should revert to the 19th century imperial measuring system for our entire transportation infrastructure, we should bring back some of the 19th century traffic laws as well.  The worst thing we did was repeal the red flag act in 1896 – the one, you may recall, that required a man with a red flag to walk in front of every motor vehicle.  Do you know what the repeal of that law did to the flag industry in this country?  It decimated (sorry, wrong word) – it all but destroyed it!  Factories up and down the country making red flags had to shut down.  Now, if we brought back that law, all those foreign countries that never had a red flag act would see how wonderful it would be (especially in terms of traffic deaths – we all know that speed kills, don’t we?  I see signs everywhere telling me so).  All those 191 silly metric countries will now enact their own red flag laws, following our superior British imperial lead – and will be beating down our doors wanting to buy our superior, imperial red flags.  What a golden day for British industry that will be.

Mr Hammond, your proposal to revert to imperial-only represents a truly brilliant piece of strategic thinking – the kind of forward-looking thinking that we British are noted for.  It sends a clear message to the rest of that horrible metric world out there – and will certainly make the rest of the world sit up and take notice!  We’ll show ’em!  It makes you proud to be British!

Well done, sir, and a jolly good show!

Yours sincerely”

24 thoughts on “‘Rebalancing of the UK economy’ postponed?”

  1. If your politicians are as dense as ours (US), I’d be concerned whether they understand the piece is satire. You MIGHT just find it implemented.

    Although I must defend our Customary gallon and bushel. It would get you back to your real roots, 1707, to be precise. It is my understanding that the definitions of our gallon and bushel were actually defined then by British Parliament as a change from cylindrical to cubic measure.
    (Please do not inform the Friends of Customary of this. They keep asserting “We don’t need no foreign ruler” and would be horrified to know where these definitions came from.)


  2. How in the world does this retrograde development square with Hammond’s recently announced policy of making British roads safer with respect to Heavy Goods Vehicles? See:


    If he and DfT are serious about road safety, they must surely implement the amendments to the traffic and signs regulations so that dual Imperial/metric height and width restriction signs are required everywhere.


  3. The writer of the letter to Phillip Hammond failed to point out that the UK is the ONLY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD WHERE METRIC UNITS ON ROAD SIGNS FOR DISTANCE AND SPEED ARE NOT PERMITTED! Even in the USA that is not illegal, and in fact in some northern states adjoining the Canadian border and some southern states adjoing the Mexican border, you will see dual marked signs, both speed and distance. That would not be permitted in Britain – a country that is geographically, as well as politically and economically (for good or bad), an integral part of Europe. Utterly bizarre, and really quite untenable in today’s world.


  4. John’s comment makes an interesting point.

    If the UK is a signatory to all of the relevant treaties, directives, etc. that pertain to the legal status of the SI, how could it legal for DfT to expressly *forbid* the use of SI on road signs (provided they conform to design standards for such signs). I didn’t think a country that was a signatory to all those instruments could then turn around and make the use of SI illegal.

    Thus, its seems that Northern Ireland, for instance, could erect metric distance signs *in addition to* the existing Imperial-only signs near the border with the Republic of Ireland. I specify distance signs because there are no legal ramifications associated with speed limit laws and the like, so this would seem to be a perfect test case for the claim that DfT cannot flat out outlaw such signs.

    Is there any basis for pushing back on DfT in this way? (And if such were the case, then a fortiori metric signs posted for pedestrians, private roads, etc. should clearly be legal and DfT should make that explicit.)


  5. I enjoyed the satire. The trouble is, satire is all too readily taken literally and therefore missing the point entirely. Far better to communicate straightforwardly and let Mr Hammond know that delay on metric height and width road signs is false economy, and likely to cost the Government more in repairs to bridge strikes.

    For Mr Hammond, going ahead with dual markings for heights and widths on roads will take the pressure off him, as he will no longer have to defend the indefensible.


  6. As I understand it some UK road signs are technically illegal. The use of ‘ and ” to denote feet and inches is not permitted under and treaty or by the EU directive that gives us an opt of regarding metrification of our road signs.

    All international legislation and the EU directive as adopted into UK law states the the correct signs should show 12 ft 9 in (as they continue to do in Eire) and not 12’ 9″ – the ‘ and ” are internationally recognised symbols for minutes and seconds.

    In a similar vein weight restrictions signs showing T instead of t are also illegal and I’m gussing the use of m to denote miles is too. Would anyone care to support or knock down these assumptions ?


  7. The debate heats up. How can a group of supposedly intelligent and well-educated Government ministers honestly stand up and make complete ass-holes of themselves in this day and age, and not send all tourists to the UK into gasps of horror?

    This is now getting past a joke, and someone in Britain should care what the average tourist sees when driving down a British road, instead of making dumb statements such as “Well if they don’t like it here, then they can always go home”.

    Desperate for the last vote, politicians making anti-metric statements is as about as low as you can go, and not caring one jot for the betterment of the poor old UK.

    I suggest you read my letter in the Express at:- http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/179560/This-U-turn-on-metric-is-miles-better down the bottom of the page, and you’ll see that Secretary Philip is taking us all for a damn good laugh at the UK’s expense.



  8. I agree with Mr. Glass that supporters of metrication should avoid satirizing their own goal. Making fun of the process has been a tactic of those who oppose the changeover, and the more that we read or hear of light being made of it, the less the stakeholders of the country will take it seriously.

    We at the U.S. Metric Association (USMA) believe that half-measures will avail us nothing. We support a full U.S. transition to the SI metric system as the Nation’s primary, everyday measurement standard, just as Australia has done.

    As the country that gave birth to decimalized currency, the U.S. ought to feel comfortable in embracing decimal measurement. We should also “follow the money”—in the early 2000s,U.S. stock exchanges abandoned the centuries-old “pieces of eight” reporting of stock prices in favor of decimal quotations.


  9. I agree with Michael Glass, adding that whilst the sentiment of the reader of Metric Views may be readily appreciated, I fear that resorting to flippancy when corresponding with ministers of state only serves to guarantee that the issue is never brought to the attention of the minister, instead being treated with disdain by one of his civil service minions.

    I’d be interested to learn if the author of the letter received a reply and of its contents.


  10. Paul Trusten mentions us (USA) as the country that paved the way for decimal currency around the world. DfT and the rest of the UK government should take a page out of the UK’s own book for successfully transitioning from pounds-shillings-pence to decimal currency and apply it to completing metrication of the UK.

    Let’s finally say “good riddance” to the metric muddle!


  11. Many conservatives and Eurosceptics are touting how the government is “saving the mile and the pint for Britain”. Let them imagine how it would look today if decimalization of the pound sterling had just been started under the previous Labour government and the new government came in and killed the idea, proudly proclaiming that they were “saving the shilling for Britain”. Perhaps that would help them see the folly of their anti-metric ways.


  12. Ezra suggests above that conservatives and Eurosceptics may be convinced as to the merits of metrication by referring to the UK’s decimalisation process.

    In response, I would suggest that the road to decimalisation of the pound sterling was a lot more complicated than the transition from one government to another, and that this particular group may still hanker for a return to £sd.

    In the UK, the first attempt at decimalisation was rejected by parliament in 1824. This was followed by a Royal Commission again rejecting the idea in 1859.

    The first establishment support for decimalisation was expressed by the 1862 Select Committee on Weights & Measures (which also supported metrication). No action was taken. Another inconclusive Royal Commission was split on the matter in 1920. On this occasion, a minority supported decimalisation.

    Finally, in 1963, the Halsbury Commission recommended the adoption of the system we use today, which came into force on 15th February 1971, nearly 150 years after the first parliamentary bill.

    Even today though, nearly 40 years later, there is still some support for a return to £sd, usually amongst the supporters of various anti-metrication groups, who often (but not exclusively!) tend to be conservative eurosceptics.

    In addition, 10p and 50p coins are still occasionally referred to as the “two-bob bit” & “ten-bob bit” and one of the most popular styles of beer in Scotland is known as “80/-“(eighty-shilling)

    By contrast, however, I am unaware of any support for a return to imperial measurement in any country that has successfully completed a full transition to metric measurement. Perhaps the UK would be better to look outward rather than inward for inspiration to complete the metrication process.

    Finally, I note that Paul & Ezra suggest that the USA was the first country to adopt a decimal currency. My understanding was that the Russian Rouble was first, having decimalised in 1704.


  13. We do have in the UK at present an excellent opportunity to draw our cause to the attention of the government – it is the ‘your freedom’ website, where you get a chance to comment and vote on many issues. I have already established a thread on the use of metres in place of yards on UK roads signs, and there are threads on bridge heights, completion of metrication, metric reversal and many more.

    I would urge all UKMA members in the UK to go and vote if you haven’t already. So far many of the pro-metric threads have got positive scores, but it would great be to get the overall numbers of voters up! Hundreds or thousands would look more impressive than 52!

    I believe that there is an article being prepared for the UKMA blog, but in the meantime head over to http://yourfreedom.hmg.gov.uk/@@search?text=metric to take part!!


  14. Ezra,

    The people who make such decisions are rarely persuaded by logic. They are usually financially well off and don’t care if their decisions damage the economy or the personal finances of the middle class. In their mind they will always do well.

    Claiming to speak for the majority as an excuse for maintaining old practices is a common gimmick used. Silencing the voice of reason is also quite common.

    The pro-metric people need to speak out or have someone prominent speak for them and point out the folly of clinging to obsolete units and the cost it has on personal wealth and its destructive effect on the economy of the working middle class. The harm it is doing to the national economy needs to be brought into the open.

    When people realize that without a pro-metric attitude to show the world, the pro-imperial/unique culture attitude is what scares potential customers into the arms of your competitors. Thus they get the jobs and the wealth at the expense of the UK.

    Günter Verheugen (former European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry) empowered the anti-metric cause in the UK by claiming he had no problem with the UK using non-metric units. Being German and loyal to German issues, it isn’t a surprise that he would do or say something that would harm the UK economy directly and indirectly promote German industries. What better way to increase business in the home country at the expense of business in a competitor’s country then to promote measurement units that will scare customers away from the competitors industries into the home industries.

    One has to wonder whose side the anti-metric groups are really on. Whose economy are they really supporting?


  15. The previous administration had stated that the use of metric signs would actually save money by reducing bridge strikes… this one says that not bothering with metric will save money. Clearly somebody has to be wrong.

    Part of the problem is that the focus is always on the cost of metricating – any story in the tabloid press will always focus on the billions it will cost to do the work but they never put this in perspective by either comparing this to the overall budget of the DfT (or other departments.)

    The other thing that seems to be missing from the argument is an estimate of what it is actually costing Britain to not metricate and how much money would actually be saved it if did!


  16. Further to Alex’s comment, a proper assessmet would entail what is known as ‘cost-benefit analysis’.

    Critics of metrication only highlight the cost and ignore the benefit. Politicians are not interested because there is no political reward for long term savings (the pay-off happens after they have left office) and the media don’t want to know because it deprives them of a good story.


  17. That letter was a good read. I hope Mr Hammond actually reads it and spends some time thinking over it.

    Will the UKMA lay some pressure on the government? Or should supporters of Metrication start writing letters to MPs to inform them of the mess?

    I can see the problem perpetuating indefinitely until some action is taken.


  18. At this point I suspect only prominent or influential leaders in the economic sector in Britain could prevail upon the government to convert road signs and do all the other things to finish metrication and firmly establish it in daily British life and do it for the sake of the economy.


  19. Thank you so much for retaining your speed limit signs in MPH.
    My argument is not that imperial is a better form of measurement, neither are really superior, it’s because Miles are already posted and why mess with a good thing? Furthermore, yes, the rest of the world should have to adapt. I don’t feel dismayed by this at all, glad to hear it!!!


  20. To answer Erik Doole’s question “why mess with a good thing?” I suggest he take time to read some of the articles and comments elsewhere on this site or visit the UK metric association web site http://metric.org.uk where he will find plenty of argument backed by evidence as to why things are so unsatisfactory in the UK.

    In consideration of this why he is so glad that the rest of the world are being asked to adapt to an inferior regime of road signage when travelling in the UK? Furthermore it isn’t just the rest of the world that are being asked to “adapt” but it’s own young citizens when they leave school after a primarily metric education.


  21. It is common for local hostility to develop when an upgrade of waste disposal facilities is proposed. Dan Cooke, external affairs manager of The Viridor Joint Venture, which is running such a project in Manchester costing £3.8 billion, said last week:

    “We delivered all 26 (planning permissions) within a two-year period. It is possible with the right local political leadership. The plan had clear political support so when the applications came forward there was plenty of scrutiny, but the authority showed leadership and helped to deliver. It is ensuring delivery rather than stepping back at the last minute and allowing short term politicking to get in the way.”

    DfT and its political masters please note.


  22. You read it here first.

    Story in the London Evening Standard on Thursday 16 January 2014:
    “Rebalancing will take time, Cable admits.
    Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted the Government’s strategy to rebalance the economy away from its dependence on on financial services might need more than a decade to “take root”.

    The same paper had a front page story about London being the World’s top tourist city in 2013.

    No wonder the powers-that-be, based in London, are not interested in the measurement muddle. London’s top earners, financial services and tourism, are not directly affected by it. Indeed the medieval measurements used on UK roads may be what tourists expect, alongside Beefeaters, Changing of the Guard and Black Rod in knee breeches.


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