How decimalisation succeeded while metrication stalled

The media like nothing better than an anniversary, so it was predictable that the 40th anniversary of “decimal day” – 15 February 1971, when the UK finally gave up its archaic and inconvenient coinage and currency – would get a good airing.  Some commentators have even recalled that decimalisation was originally supposed to be complementary to metrication, with both operating to roughly the same timetable.  So, it is interesting to compare the slick and successful operation to decimalise our currency with the incompetent bungling of metrication.

The account below is based on UKMA’s webpage “Contrast Britain’s decimal currency and metric conversions”.

A quick comparison between Britain’s approach to adopting decimal currency and to adopting metric measurement helps show why we are in our current mess.

Decimal currency conversion Metric conversion
Change and date announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer on 1 March 1966 Change announced by President of the Board of Trade on 24 May 1965
Decimal currency board established December 1966 Metrication board established in 1968 but given very limited charter. The board was precluded from advocating metric units to the public and focused mainly on industry.
Rapid & compulsory changeover
(planned within 6 months of ‘D-day’).
In practice the conversion was completed within 2 months.
For decades a gradual & voluntary changeover approach used. Tendency by governments to seek further delays and opt-outs. Compulsory changeover in retail sector accompanied with exceptions and 10-year period permitting dual labelling (now extended indefinitely).
Major focus on D-day event during which most changes would take place. ‘Clean break’ changeover philosophy. The 1972 White Paper on Metrication proclaimed, “there will be no ‘M-day’ for metrication”. While it would have been difficult for industry, transport, education and trade to completely synchronise conversion and retooling, it is significant that no guidelines or target dates were set. Indeed, some changes that affected the public were deliberately introduced separately e.g., making measurement of packaged food compulsory in 1995 but loose food only from 2000.
Effective publicity:

  • 24 months before D-day booklets for retailers
    (2 000 000)
  • 21 months before D-day booklets for teachers
  • 18 months before D-day public campaign addressing business
  • 14 months before D-day leaflets for public in libraries
  • 12 months before D-day booklets for every household
  • Final months had TV and radio campaign
Changes perceived to have been done by stealth. Limited number of leaflets produced (Hansard 4 April 2000):

  • 275 000 leaflets for retailers
  • 860 000 leaflets for shoppers
  • 140 000 wallcharts

Comparison chart for leaflet distribution
However, leaflets focus on conversions to imperial rather than practical advice.

Effective planning

  • Long period of planning
  • Retailers and other stakeholders involved early
  • Frequent surveys on state of preparation

Guides for public tested over 18 months to prove suitability.

Piecemeal, stealth approach
Decimal Currency Board survey showed that 99% of businesses converted within 6 weeks! After 46 years (and counting) since the original announcement, the completion of Britain’s metric conversion is not in sight!

Other reasons

Other possible reasons for the contrasting performance:

  • Political commitment:  Whereas decimalisation was announced by Chancellor James Callaghan, effectively No 2 in the Government, metrication was slipped into a “Written Answer” by Douglas Jay (a middle-ranking minister and hardly a household name, even then).
  • Detailed planning. As a result, all the considerable power of the Treasury went into making decimalisation a success, whereas the Trade Department (later the Ministry of Technology, under Tony Benn) failed even to persuade other Departments, such as Transport, to start serious and effective plans until near the following General Election.
  • Conservatism (small “c”) of the Civil Service.  Without a strong political steer, it is natural for civil servants to maintain the status quo.  Few at that time, especially in the upper echelons, would have had a scientific education or experience of measurement systems abroad – let alone the imagination to visualise a metric UK.   Thus, research in the National Archives has revealed that as late as 1970 officials in the Transport Department seriously considered amending the urban speed limit from 30 mph to 48 km/h!
  • Little public debate about the merits of metrication, which was treated as an internal industrial issue, contrasted with vigorous public debate about the principle and the details of decimalisation.
  • Failure to legislate.  Whereas decimalisation was enshrined in the Decimal Currency Acts of 1967 and 1969, which mandated the method and timetable of conversion, there was no corresponding legislation for metrication, and the task of the Metrication Board was primarily to co-ordinate voluntary action.
  • Harold Wilson lost the General Election in June 1970.  By then, decimalisation was too far advanced to cancel or amend, but the lack of progress in the Transport Department allowed the new Transport Minister (John Peyton), under pressure from right wing Tories, to postpone indefinitely the conversion of road signs.  This is still probably the biggest obstacle to completing metrication in the UK.
  • Political courage (lack of). Rebellion against decimalisation was never really possible.  The banks confiscated all the old notes and coins that were no longer legal tender, and it was just not possible to continue to trade in “old money” (although “supplementary indications” of prices lasted for a few months).  It was an easy win for the politicians.  Metrication was a different matter.  Even in 1970 there was some low-level opposition to metrication (primarily on the political far Right), and to have forced it through would have expended political capital and risked political careers.  Since their commitment was only lukewarm anyway, it was convenient to postpone the issue for the next set of politicians to deal with – and then the next, and then the next, and then the next …
  • Europe.  Although the original decision to go metric had nothing to do with the then European Economic Community, opponents of metrication later succeeded in confusing the two issues in the minds of the media and the general public.


For Britain there are clear lessons to be learned – both for how to make changes in public policy generally (cf. current planned changes in the NHS and Education), and for the unfinished task of completing metrication. Some people have said that Britons are incapable of accepting changes like the conversion to metric units. The history of decimalisation shows that this is not the case. Britain has coped well with change when it is well planned and rapid.  Indeed, psychologists have argued that people adapt to change more easily if it is swift, decisive and properly explained than if it is prolonged, uncertain, and unexplained.

It is obviously not possible now, 46 years later, to make the decisive “clean break” that was so successful in the case of decimalisation.  But there are still decisive steps the Government could take that could bring metric completion nearer. For example:

  • Convert the road signs.  Give or take a little defacing of signs, there is little that opponents could do to sabotage the conversion.  No doubt there would be hold-outs (Jeremy Clarkson comes to mind), but with distances on road signs in metres and kilometres and speed limits and speedometers in km/h, it is difficult to envisage resistance lasting more than a few months.
  • Phase out imperial measures in all official usage (including in all publicly funded bodies).
  • Ban imperial units throughout the NHS and in schools (including the national curriculum and exam syllabuses).

Other measures could be as proposed in UKMA’s draft Weights and Measures (Completion of Metrication) Bill (scroll down to the 6th paragraph).  Is there a public-spirited MP (or peer) willing to take this on?

16 thoughts on “How decimalisation succeeded while metrication stalled”

  1. To carry through with the policy outlined you would need a large degree of political consensus. If you don’t have the numbers, you won’t get the policy through. The question, therefore, is to determine where it might be possible to get the numbers for the changes proposed. Here are areas where change might be possible:

    Bridge strikes will continue to affect overseas drivers on British roads while bridge heights are given in Imperial only. Every such report is an opportunity to drive home the message that metric road signs are a safety issue.

    Hospitals and other health concerns may drag the chain on enforcing the metric regulations. UKMA could take action to ensure that this does not go unnoticed or uncorrected.

    Confusing measures, such as having milk sold in both Imperial and metric amounts, should be remedied.

    The Northern Ireland Assembly might have the numbers to pass a motion in favour of metric road signs. It is worth investigating further.

    Westminster might not be willing to move on metricating the road signs, but they may be prepared to change the regulations to make it clear that private signs are not covered by the archaic transport regulations.

    These and other initiatives are no substitute for a well-considered metrication program, but they are better than nothing.


  2. Interesting BBC Radio 4 programme: “Archive on 4 – Decimal Day – What’s That in Old Money?”

    One child at the time asks, “Could someone point out the complications of decimals, because I don’t find any”.


  3. Decimalisation occurred just before I was due to learn about currency at school. I remember being immensely relieved at not having to learn the complicated relationships between the various notes and coins. My mother did try to explain pre-decimalisation currency to me before I would have needed to learn about it at school, but I could make neither head nor tail of it. In contrast like the child on the Radio 4 programme I found decimal coinage entirely straightforward and intuitive; it hardly needed to be taught at all. Learning the metric system was similarly straightforward, of course, though the large table of the bizarre relationships between imperial measures on the back cover of one of my mother’s old school books was considerably more entertaining.

    I remember the arguments at the time against decimalisation were as half-baked as those that one still hears against metrication. My favourite was “Why couldn’t they have done it when we were all young?”.


  4. D-Day occurred when I was 21 and I remember the grumbling about it during the preceding few years. I could not understand why people were so against it. It seemed to me to be an admirable thing to do.

    I have since learned that although many people are seemingly intelligent and articulate in most things they have a mental block when it comes to mathematics. They may be reasonably capable with basic arithmetic but they lack a proper understanding of number and the underlying concepts. Hence they did not appreciate the advantages of decimal coinage.

    I have also seen evidence that school children, even when they do well in mathematics lessons, are very weak at applying it. Teach them to do sums (or even more advanced topics such as trigonometry) and they will learn it and do the exercises, but ask them to formulate real world logical problems in mathematical terms and they are lost.

    I conclude from this that the swift changeover was less painful, not only because the incovenience of the transition period was minimized, but once people learned to count money in new pence without bothering about conversion, they could cope better, even if they could not compare the merits of the new scheme with the old.


  5. @ Philh

    My recollection is that there wasn’t huge opposition to the principle of decimalisation (except from those ultra-traditionalists who can’t accept any change to anything). The main debate was about whether to divide the pound into 100 pence or whether to adopt a new 10 shilling unit divided into 100 cents (the S African and Australian/NZ solution). This led to the “save our sixpence” campaign since the old “tanner” became virtually redundant under the 100 pence pound option (being worth an inconvenient 2.5 pence).

    The Callaghan solution (i.e. the 100 pence pound) was actually arithmetically much more difficult since 12d became 5p, and a “new penny” was worth 2.4 “old pence” – which was difficult for the arithmetically challenged. Indeed until the old coins were withdrawn I occasionally made the mistake of tendering a 2 shilling “florin” in payment for a 20p item.

    But we coped perfectly well – probably because we had to. If only a similar approach had been adopted to metrication …


  6. @Erithacus

    I did not mean to suggest that everyone was against decimalisation but I have to say that a lot of people around me seemed fearful of the change. The problem was that they tended to talk about it as though they would be burdened indefinitely with having to convert backward. Somehow, to them, the new penny was like a foreign currency that could only be valued by reference to the old familiar coinage it would replace. They seemed to lack vision of how much easier things would be once the old penny had disappeared.

    I am not really surpised that the we ended up with a 100 pence pound. The idea of a British dollar (worth 10 shillings) was probably too hard to sell (maybe even to Callaghan himself).


  7. One sometimes hears the argument that pre-decimal currency inspired dazzling feats of daily mental arithmetic.

    My recollection as a teenager working on Saturdays in a south London department store in pre-decimal currency days was of Ready Reckoners next to the tills so you could see how much, say, six pairs of socks at one shilling and eleven pence a pair would cost. Or the assistant at the till would ring up one shilling and eleven pence on the till six times and the till would tot up the total amount.

    There were no dazzling feats of mental arithmetic!


  8. @philh

    There seems to be the same issue with metrication, which is why the slow burn approach adopted by multiple British governments is disastrous. If one simply abandons the old system overnight and moves on it’s so much easier. The government policy of encouraging and even forcing people to convert from one system to another is awkward and confusing and just results in hostility towards the new system.


  9. I was in South Africa during their decimalisation and metrication programs. While there were a few rough edges on the South African decimalisation program such as too few new coins available on D-Day, the government had a good publicity program in six languages – English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Tswana. The government also imposed price controls which was simplified by setting the Rand at 10/-, making the shilling equal to 10c. Thus it was that all sectors of the population trusted the government in respect of decimalisation (although of course that government was not trusted in respect of race relations). In contrast the British Post Office was in the vanguard of organisations who sneaked in price rises under the guise of decimalisation, aided by the 10p being equal to 2/-, not 1/- as in South Africa and Australia.

    Thus, when ten years later, South Africa introduced her metrication program, the government had the support of all sectors of the population and the fast conversion was possible. One of the aspects of the South African conversion was the prohibition of the sale of any measuring instruments that were calibrated in imperial units. I believe that the same policy was adopted in Australia and in all the former British colonies in Africa including (in alphabetic order) Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rhodesia (under Smith’s UDI government) and Zimbabwe. In short, all the countries concerned believed that metrication was in their best interests of their own country. Unfortunately the British Government had lost the trust of the population over decimalisation. Wilson (majority in single figure and a sterling crisis) and Callaghan (no majority) were held to ransom over metrication by a few publicity-seeking MPs while Thatcher betrayed her scientific background by promoting a non-scientific system of measure.


  10. Proponents of Imperial measures are not slow to sing the praises of the USA. How different from the days of the decimal currency changeover when the USA scarcely received a mention from either side of the debate.

    However, twenty years earlier, George Mikes, a Hungarian settled in Britain, wrote this about the US and English monetary systems in his book “How to scrape skies”, first published in 1948:

    “English people will find the American monetary system irritating and confusing. The English have their own simple system: twelve pence make a shilling, twenty shillings a pound, two shillings and sixpence make half a crown, but a crown does not exist and two shillings make a florin but this expression is never used. You can explain the English system to a foreigner in five minutes and, if he is a person of extraordinary intelligence, after living two years in this country, he will know how much change he should get from half a crown if he has to pay one and eight.

    A dollar, on the other hand, consists of a hundred cents and that’s that. I explained to an American business man that the great advantage of the English system is hidden (and how well hidden it is!) in the fact that a pound may be divided into three equal parts – three times six and eight making a pound. This may be very comforting, he replied, but he hardly ever wanted to divide a dollar into three equal parts; on the other hand if he makes a business deal with an English firm, he continued, and makes a profit, let us say of ten per cent of £35. 17. 10 then he has to employ a specially trained book keeper for half a day to find out the exact amount of his earnings.”

    A problem for many English people today (I exclude the Welsh, Scots and Irish from this generalisation) is that they find the metric system irritating and confusing – all those tens, for a start. They believe that the English have their own simple measurement system, some of the details of which are familiar and others are lost in the mists of time, that you can explain this system to any foreigner, for example a visiting lorry driver or tourist, in five minutes, and that if he or she cares to live here for two years it will all become familiar.

    Let us hope that a few years from now this view will seem as amusing as George Mikes’ comments on the English and US monetary systems were in 1948.


  11. Notwithstanding the common denominator across political boundaries of a biased conservative Civil Service, which may still recruit to senior positions on the basis of “are they one of us?”, I see the stance of the media as having the greatest negative impact on getting the (metrication) job done. Even the BBC, for all its claims of neutrality, appears to pander more to the unenlightened introspective empire thinkers in our society than to adhering to its Charter requirement to “inform and educate” and thus broaden the boundaries of public thinking and awareness.


  12. One thing coming out of all this seems to be that people in UK (excluding all of us presumably) seem not to realise or understand the true benefits of the decimal system, let alone the metric system. Also speed, commitment and completeness are the key factors. Once the (Non)metrication board allowed beer and milk to continue to be sold in pints then the whole project was doomed. The very practice of using conversions and displaying equivalents makes the job so much harder, better to just change and get on with it, like when moving to a foreign country, just wake next morning and its like it’s been that way forever. Certainly until the mile goes (and with it defacto the mpg brigade) there can only ever be confusion as metres run into miles, and beer drinkers order pints in the pub but put litres into their tanks.


  13. Much like in the UK, the USA also has resistance to going Metric. They would also like to, because it’s more accurate. I’m in South Africa, and my father was an immigrant from Germany. I asked him once what did he think of the old system and changing to the familiar one. He liked the old system, as it made a person think. (It’s much like PCs in the early days, and before, Windows 3.1 when Basic programming was so common.) What my mother especially liked about Metric was on a long car journey when a sign says the destination and 20, it’s quick, quick being km. Whereas previously it was groans, being 20 Miles.
    Hollywood and other such films on DVD should have the option of Metric subtitles. That’s especially for those of us (like here) English speaking and familiar with Metric. One can only usually see that with foreign language subtitles.


  14. What a shame that our political leaders did not learn the lessons from the success of decimalisation. If they had, we would not be in such difficulties with metrication.

    Instead, they have pretended that the UK transition to metric could be voluntary and gradual. Needless to say, this approach has failed. They conveniently ignore the fact that the Crown has had to regulate weights and measures since medieval times (i.e. compulsion has always had to be used to regulate weights and measures and could not be left to market forces). For example, the Act of Union between England and Scotland included the agreement to use the weights and measures of England (thus Scottish measurements were discarded). Also, the British imperial system was introduced by the 1824 Weights and Measures Act. In both of these cases, the reforms were not and could not be voluntary but had to be implemented by the government.


  15. When I was a primary school in the ’50s we still had units of measurement such as rods, poles or perches. I don’t have the least idea what these were!
    In the ’60s we changed to the metric system which obviously made all calculations so much easier. I was sure that it would only be a short time before the old system was phased out.
    In the early ’70s I moved to South Africa where it was illegal to buy or sell anything or any kind of measuring device such as tape measures or weighing scales in anything but metric units. Within a few months it became second nature and I totally forgot the ancient and redundant imperial system… Until….
    Thirty Five years later I returned to live in Britain. I was shocked and amazed to find that after half a lifetime they were still using this outmoded system. Even after seven years I still trip up over these ridiculous measurements.
    What a bunch of lily-livered failures these politicians are not to have the courage to just go ahead and ban the sale of anything marked in imperial units and to instruct all newspapers and broadcasters to discontinue using these units unless the context makes it essential.
    Take the bull by the horns and have some guts and get the job done!


  16. @Frank Buckley
    I am sure Australia did much the same as South Africa. The import and sale of non-metric instruments were banned for one year only. Within that time the job was done and few gave Imperial a second thought, so no market for non-metric instruments but no restrictions either.
    I was at primary school in the 1940’s. I always find it amazing the people say these daft measure are the ones they understand, ask them “what is a stone?” or “how far is a mile?” the response is a blank stare! Only recently, since all the fuss about allotments going metric have I had even the remotest idea what a rod was and had no idea that it had ever been used in the real world.


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