“Can the economy survive without a national measurement system?”

This was the question posed at a recent seminar organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in Portcullis House, opposite the Palace of Westminster. Typically, however, the keynote speeches skirted around the central problem.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee is described as “an Associate Parliamentary Group of members of both Houses of Parliament and British members of the European Parliament, representatives of scientific and technical institutions, industrial organisations and universities.” It has over 300 individual or corporate members and thus represents almost the entire British scientific and engineering establishment in its relations with Parliament. The theme of its meeting on 15 February 2011 was: “Can the economy survive without a national measurement system?” so you might have thought that this would be a splendid opportunity to explore a solution to what is arguably the biggest problem of our national measurement system – namely that a large proportion of the population and the media use a different set of units from the official one. If so, you would have been disappointed.

The meeting was addressed* by three impeccably qualified speakers, including the Managing Director of the National Physical Laboratory (the UK’s National Measurement Institute), the Head of Materials and Processes Integration (Airbus), and the Director of Strategy, Measurement Research (LGC Group).

The content of their speeches* (including the near obligatory quotations from Magna Carta and Lord Kelvin) was unexceptionable and will be familiar to most readers of this blog. These were some of the main points:

  • It has always been the responsibility of governments to define the legal units of measurement.
  • The National Measurement System (NMS) upholds a system agreed internationally in 1875 [system not identified, however]
  • All science and industry depend on the work of metrologists (measurement scientists).
  • “Measurement underpins the welfare of modern society and touches almost every part of daily life.”
  • The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is the custodian of the NMS – “the collective infrastructure of national facilities, expertise, knowledge, science, research and legal framework in the metrology field”.
  • The NPL provides a consultancy service to over 2000 industry customers.
  • NMS provides Airbus with “robust, traceable standards which are essential for manufacturing; cross-sector best practice and knowledge transfer; manufacturing optimisation and product improvement; and innovative metrology for product improvement and new concept development.”
  • Reliable measurement: “facilitates free trade through harmonised standards”; “underpins regulation” so that “parts manufactured in one country fit into machines in another country”, “products tested and approved in one country can be sold in another country, without further technical inspection”; and “consumer protection is maintained.”
  • There are problems of lack of accuracy and of “standards, benchmarks … and protocols.”
  • The UK plays a leading role in BIPM, which “ensures world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI)” [at last it gets a mention].

So, all good stuff – except for one thing …

The elephant in the room

Sorry to use this overworked cliché – but it really is appropriate in this case.

It beggars belief that a serious discussion about a “national measurement system” (NMS) can take place without reference to the unfortunate fact that a large part of the general population and much of the popular media (not to mention our official road signs) do not use our national measurement system but continue to use a random collection of units that have survived by chance from Roman and medieval times.

The scientists, engineers and industrialists will no doubt claim that their work is entirely metric. All their calculations, their research, their learned papers, their standards and specifications, their components, their measuring instruments are all wholly and exclusively metric. The disconnect with wider society (the argument continues) is not a problem for them and is not relevant.

But it IS a problem, and it IS relevant.

It is a problem since scientists, engineers and industrialists need to communicate with and explain themselves to the general public and the media. They also need to persuade politicians to accept their advice and recommendations (e.g. on climate change, or BSE, or the classification of harmful drugs), and above all they need to obtain public funding for their research. In order to communicate and persuade effectively, they need to speak the same language and to use the same measurement units.

Science and science-based industries are controversial and are much misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, resulting in deep public distrust. Symptoms of this are the growth of non-scientific (or anti-scientific) medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture, the drop in take-up of the MMR vaccine with potentially fatal consequences, the campaign against genetically modified crops and in favour of “organic” farming, the growth of “creationism” as a serious alternative to Darwinism in science lessons in schools.

It would of course be an over-simplification to suggest that the only or main cause of this gulf of incomprehension and distrust is that scientists (and most industries) speak metric, whereas many non-scientists, even if they are partly conversant with metric units, generally default to “traditional” imperial units. Yet the fact that scientists speak in a language (metric) that is perceived by many as alien and “unnatural” is an additional, unnecessary barrier that makes communication with non scientists even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  The challenge is to make metric the “natural” language of everybody.

It is disappointing therefore that the three distinguished speakers at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee seminar carefully ignored the “two systems” problem.   By failing to address the issue – indeed, by pretending that it is none of their business – scientists help to maintain the gulf and thereby sell themselves short. One can only hope that some of the other participants – especially those who might have an influence on the Government – may be prepared to use that influence to persuade it to resume the stalled metrication programme and complete it as soon as possible.

*Their speeches can be read at this link (scroll down to page 38).

39 thoughts on ““Can the economy survive without a national measurement system?””

  1. British scientists have certainly played a major role in the development of SI. British scientists were well represented in the development of the metric system – indeed the formal concept of a “coherent system of measure” based on dimensional analysis was proposed by James Clerk Maxwell while the demonstration of the transfer of energy and hence the desirability that energy have one name, regardless of its manifestation came from James Joule.

    When the time came for the original metre and kilogram to be retired and to be replaced by new artefacts that were under international control, the world turned to British enterprise – the prototypes were manufactured by Johnson Matthey and accepted by the world community in 1889.

    It is little wonder then that six of the nineteen units of measure that were named after eminent scientists were named after Briton, ahead of the four that were named after German and French scientists. However, the British Government did little to support her scientists – it was the French Government who provided the political impetus for the metric system. It is my view that the chief contributors to the metric system were British scientists and French politicians with British politicians unwilling to commit themselves or the United Kingdom to embracing a single coherent system of measure.

    (Wikipedia has a more detailed history of the metric system – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_metric_system).


  2. Dr Brian R Bowsher, Managing Director of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) says in the leading article:

    “Standards help everyone to talk in the same language when something is being measured, a dictionary explains the meaning of a word and how to spell it; in a sense, we do the same for measurement. ”

    Perhaps that “sense” needs to become a lot more powerful for the general public to accept the metric ‘language’. Who does the average person rely on for guidance on their use of measurement language? I would suspect neither the NPL nor BIPM!


  3. I found a link to the National Measurement Service a few weeks ago and wondered what they were all about! And now I know. So here we are, at the cutting edge of measurement sciences and we still have the idiots at BWMA winning the popular vote on measurements. I can’t believe that in 3 pages of speech the word ‘Metric’ was never used!

    Last time I wrote to my local MP, Mr Cameron no less, on the issue of Metrication, he was kind enough to reply. He sympathised with my position but was not minded to push for further metrication unless business seemed to indicate that it was what the public and business wanted. Surely with all of the recent new of inward investment from BMW and Nissan, along with the ongoing investment in new Airbus projects employing 8000 in the UK, there is every reason to press on.

    I also am considering writing to some of the speakers featured in the article to see why they never mention Metric! [Please do – Editor]



  4. So, what was the answer? yes or no? It looks like all the speakers had been briefed to waffle for thier allocated time without mentioning ‘Metric’ or ‘Imperial’ or ‘the current system’ for fear of opening a serious debate. So, who called the seminar and why? Did the taxpayer pay for all this hot air, and what did we get in return? Whatever, my opinion would be, if we need 300 scientists to try to not answer this question then we need 300 new scientists (or whoever). For sure no economy can survive without a national measurment system, the question itself is just plain daft.


  5. This is a shame. I would have thought this was a perfect opportunity to raise the issue of the “two system mess”, and suggest the solution: Make the national measurement system for the UK SI only (which it should be). I’m not even sure the metric system was ever mentioned in the speeches.

    As for whether the UK economy can survive without a single national measurement system, who knows (I personally think it is unlikely in the very long term), certainly the two system mess is costing the UK a lot of money, possibly billions every year. If we can quantify that figure, perhaps that might help in persuading those who make the decisions that the UK cannot afford not to go fully metric?

    Slightly off-topic I know, but since homoeopathy, organic food, and GMOs were brought up in this article, you might be interested to know that I eat organic, avoid GMOs like the plague, and use homoeopathy rather than chemical medicine, and I still support metrication wholeheartedly 😉 (And since it was also mentioned on the same para, I feel Darwinism makes a lot more sense than “creationism”, if anyone would like to know what I think).

    I wouldn’t consider myself unscientific or anti-science because I eat organic or use homoeopathy. In fact I like to follow scientific and technological developments.

    [I acknowledge that there are differing views about homeopathy, “organic” foods etc, but I mentioned them as examples of how scientists’ evidence is frequently dismissed or not heard. This is not the place to debate the substance of those issues – Erithacus]


  6. The economy is already severely handicapped by the fact that the UK does not have a proper, single system of measurement that is in general use. The crux of the problem in my view is our road signs. The failure of governments since the 1970s to metricate the signs on our roads – the public space where everyone sees units of measure ever single day – has left many people with the sense that metric is only required for science and engineering, or for the supermarkets, but not for everyday life. When these signs are finally modernised and changed to the metric units that have been taught in schools for the last fourty years, I am confident that the remaining areas of imperial discontent will melt away as people will see metric all around them. In the meantime it is difficult to convince the last bastions of opposition to metric units that the official system of measurement is already metric when everybody living in the country, or indeed anyone entering the country through a port or airport as a visitor, is confronted with road signs that are not marked in the country’s official units of measure. This situation is surely about as absurd as one could expect in a country which thinks of itself as modern and progressive and which indeed led the world in the development of metric in the first place. The UK must be the only country in the world that does not have its road signs in its official units of measure.


  7. It is extraordinary that these people can abdicate their responsibility to push for completion of metrication! The entrenchment of different systems of measurements in different shops, and road signs at variance with all our neighbouring countries, is a disgrace, and these professionals are duty bound to highlight this to ministers and other members of Parliament, not shy away from it.


  8. @Erithacus – I agree that this is not the place to debate the content of issues like homoeopathy and organic agriculture. I understand that you mentioned them as examples to illustrate your points. I hope I am wrong, but I was just concerned that some anti-metric individuals might take that paragraph out of context (and start making false associations between metrication and these unrelated issues), which is the only reason I included that point at all. That said, I do completely agree with your point that scientists’ evidence being dismissed or ignored is a serious concern.

    Further to what Brian mentions, I too wonder if the scientists were actually briefed not to mention metrication. I think ultimately that the whole mindset in government (if not the media too) needs to change for the job to be finished. In the meantime, if only there was an MP who was brave enough to do a private member’s bill to finish metrication soon, and didn’t care what the media wrote…

    I agree with Jake that the key is to convert road signs. It has to happen eventually anyway (how much longer can the DfT keep resisting the inevitable?). The media and the general population would surely use metric much more afterwards, this is only what happened in Ireland after their changeover. And who knows, maybe there might be better communication between scientists and the government/the media/the public when all use the same units.

    I also think that finishing metrication at long last, would also surely bring an end to the mindset in some that “metric is only for industry/science/engineering” which defeats the purpose. Wasn’t metric/SI meant to replace all traditional non-systems (of which Imperial and US Customary are just two of many such non-systems) for all purposes, to be used by all people?


  9. Scientists do appear to be notoriously shy of promoting the metric system for general purposes, even in the context of educating the public about scientific matters.

    A glaring example of this is the well known author and scientist Professor Richard Dawkins. Before he retired his professorship was in “The public understanding of science” at Oxford and yet he shows no sign of encouraging the consistent use of metric in his books (some of which I have read recently).


  10. An MP and/or a member of the House of Lords [who supports metrication, but who isn’t a member of this Parlimentary and Scientific Committee] should raise this issue in Parliament. Enquire why his/her colleagues, didn’t mention: SI, metric, etc. and stress the need for one system.


  11. If Mr. Cameron is sincere when he replies to michduncg that if “business interests” indicate that the UK should finish the job of metrication, he would be amenable to doing that, then perhaps UKMA and allies can find a way to quietly round up support among British businessmen and women to persuade the government to do just two things:

    * Convert road signs to metric
    * Require the BBC (in all its incarnations, not just the World Service) to use metric only

    They could do this without fanfare (since they are shy about this topic) and proceed with metricating road signs over time despite the inevitable hue and cry that the anti-EU folks would raise.

    Given the Irish experience, just these two changes alone would ensure that over the next 10 years Imperial would virtually disappear completely …. even among small grocery traders … and a pound of strawberries would become ancient history!


  12. Following is a copy of an e-mail I sent to Phillip Hammond, MP on 26 04 2011
    Mr Hammond,
    I am a British subject who has lived in Australia for the past twenty years.
    As you will be aware Australia changed from Imperial units to SI units many years ago.
    The changeover was well managed and swift and I have yet to speak to anyone here who regrets the change.
    Australians now have a system of measurement that is fully understood by young and old and is used throughout the world.
    How very different from what happened in Britain.
    Changing yards to metres but retaining miles makes no sense. The SI system of measurement is holistic and needs to be used in its entirety to reap maximum benefits. Having 1609 metres in a mile is as inefficient as having 5280 feet or 1760 yards in a mile.
    I cannot understand why Britain mismanaged the changeover so badly and what really puzzles me is why your department made SI units on road signs illegal. Britain is the only country in the world to make SI units illegal!
    The British tabloid newspapers claim that changing over to metric will mean a loss of British identity. Japan is a far more traditional country than Britain but they managed the changeover in the nineteenth century without loss of identity.
    Retaining any official Imperial measurements is harmful to Britain. It is harmful because it creates confusion for the citizens of the country and promotes a negative image of the country abroad. Because of this botched changeover, Australia and most developed countries no longer look to Britain as a modern innovative industrial nation but rather as a tired, anachronistic land that has totally lost its way in the world. Not good news for a country reliant on exports.
    Although I now live happily in Australia I hate to see what is happening to my country of birth because of the incompetence and ignorance of successive governments who were unable to do a job properly. Please reconsider your policy on the use of SI units.

    Here is the reply I received from Judith Tracey, Regulatory Services and Information, DfT Ministerial Support Unit on 13 06 2011

    Dear Cliff Steele,

    Use of SI units on British road signs

    Thank you for your email about the use of Imperial measurement on traffic signs which has been forwarded to me to reply. I apologise for the delay in responding but this Department has recently been through a complete restructuring exercise which has resulted in a slight back log of work.

    I have noted your comments and by way of background I will first explain that in early 2007, the European Commission held a public consultation on amending the Units of Measurement Directive (80/181/EEC). As part of that consultation, consideration was given to the scope of the Directive and derogations for continued use of certain imperial units for specified purposes, including the mile for road traffic signs.

    The UK Government responded as follows:

    “Road traffic signs are inherently local in their scope and speed limits are applicable to specific roads or part of a road or to specific areas. The significant costs involved for the UK in changing the measurements used on signs, replacing signs, providing safety and publicity material and the consequential costs for businesses and other organisations would far exceed any benefits in terms of meeting the EU’s objectives. The principle of proportionality requires that action at Community level does not exceed what is required to achieve the EU’s objectives and clearly consideration must be given to ensuring that costs are not disproportionate to overall benefits.”

    The outcome of that consultation was an EU Directive (2009/3/EC), published in the Official Journal in May 2009, which removed any obligation on the UK Government to set a date to end the use of the mile as the primary unit of measurement for road traffic signs.

    We do not consider that diverting funding from high priority areas for the metrication of traffic signs is justified – not least as there is no evidence that the use of the mile presents a safety risk to road users. Only if it did would this Government reconsider its policy in this respect – at which point we would, of course, produce a comprehensive estimate of the likely costs involved.
    Yours sincerely,
    Judith Tracey
    Regulatory Services and Information

    So the official line is: The European Commission is not making us do it and we have no money so everything is staying as it is. Very disappointing indeed.


  13. It is sad that the UK views metrication as something Europe tries to make them do, and of no value to anyone in the UK. The government seems incapable of thinking beyond this “the EU is forcing us” mindset.

    Perhaps they should chat with Australia, Canada, and South Africa about why they went metric and why their metrication was more successful than the UK’s. In the case of Canada, they metricated their roads in spite of having a very long land border with a neighbor who had no immediate plans to metricate roads. It is mildly distracting to have a land border with a change of measurement units; I guess Northern ireland and the Republic of Ireland have the same situation.

    Sadly, in the US, all the groundwork was laid for metrication of both highway construction and signgage, Congress caved to their major contributors and passed a law restricting the Federal government from forcing metrication on the State highway departments (mostly pressure from the contractors, not the highway departments). Metrication has to be “voluntary.” (or continuation of Customary can be bought for a campaign contribution)


  14. @Cliffe Steele

    Ms Tracey claims that DfT would reconsider if the mile was a safety issue. Yet her boss (Mr Hammond) quietly dropped plans to make dual metric/imperial compulsory on height and width restriction signs on cost grounds even though it was purely for safety reasons (help avoid of bridge strikes etc). In truth they put cost before safety.


  15. I think everything this government does vis-a-vis metrication (as well as the previous government, though not quite as much) is just a smoke screen. They view metrication as a political “hot potato” and will avoid it like The Plague.

    Both Canada and more recently Ireland (to cite only two instances) have demonstrated that a cost-effective and successful road sign conversion program can be implemented relatively easily if there is but the political will to do so.

    For the time being perhaps the two avenues to pursue are pressuring the government to:

    * Post both metric and Imperial height, width, and length restrictions throughout the UK (for both safety and cost reasons …. since it’s cheaper to post dual unit signs than repair a bridge or overpass).
    * Make metric distance signs legal (though not required)

    This would at least get us part of the way to the final goal of 100% metric road signs and would abolish the nonsense that metric distance signs posted by a local council or other authorities or organizations should be removed or defaced by anti-metric zealots.


  16. Last night I went to the Hansards website and read the verbatim debates from 1904 through to the late 1980s concerning metrication. It is very depressing reading. The Government seemed most commited to metrication over 100 years ago. From the 1970s onwards the Euroscepticism had already started to cloud the issue.


  17. @philh,

    Yes, I’d noticed Dawkins’ ambivalence towards metric in his prose. However, he is quite a traditionalist in some ways despite the image his detractors paint of him as a firebrand apostate (e.g. his fondness for many facets of his Anglican upbringing such as church organ music), so it’s not really surprising.

    Simon Singh, on the other hand, deserves an honourable mention. Based on his most recent book about the Big Bang, he seems to use metric consistently (even when describing the telescopes of the early astronomers, which certainly wouldn’t have been designed in metric). I find that the insertion of conversion whenever a quantity is expressed ruins the readability of a piece of writing even more than inconsistent units; you are constantly stopping to check whether the number you have remembered was the metric or the imperial. The lack of this in Singh’s book was a great relief.


  18. As there is so much resistance to metricating the road signs in the UK, perhaps a different approach would be more successful.

    * Bridge strikes are a clear safety issue, so pushing for metric signs to be added for all heights and widths that are now marked in Imperial measures would be useful. The extra expenditure of double signage would be recouped in the reduction in bridge strikes.

    * In Northern Ireland, support for metrication of the road signs is divided along the political divide. Despite this, getting the numbers for a change is not as remote as it would be in England. It’s worth plugging away at.

    * It would also be useful to push for the occasional sign in kilometres to be added to main roads for the information of visitors.

    Of course, a total metrication of the road signs is not only more desirable, it is also cheaper and easier. However, if this is out of the question for political reasons, a more modest change would be helpful. After all a little bit of something is better than 100% of nothing.


  19. @Michael Glass

    Yes, I think a policy is needed that acknowledges the lack of public appetite for metrication of the road signs in the UK. My suggestion is that the yard should be ditched, and the metre legalised for use on road signs. The abbreviation would have to be ‘mtr’, which is the same number of letters as ‘yds’. The Yard is not in everyday use anywhere else except on the golf course, and the metre is already widely used on motorways and major roads in the road side indexes. It would also get the metre into everyday use and maybe lead the way to further metrication in the future.


  20. While I am grateful to michdung for his suggestion, I think it would be highly undesirable to invent a non-standard abbreviation for metre (“mtr”) rather than the international symbol “m”, which in fact is already in use on height and width restriction signs (though not, alas, on distance signs). So this is a No No. What is really needed is to ban the use of “m” to mean “miles”.

    I also have reservations about introducing metres independently of kilometres and then mixing them up randomly with miles. It destroys the important concept of a consistent, integrated, coherent system. Children will learn that there are 1600 m in a mile, and 30 cm in a foot.

    In any case experience has shown that the policy of “metrication by stealth” does not work.


  21. I can’t see that anyone here has a policy of metrication by stealth, Erithacus. Imperialists invented the term to heap calumny on a gradual change to the metric system as people individually switch to the metric system. It’s just a propaganda term.

    [Michael – The fundamental mistake made by politicians and civil servants from the outset has been to introduce metrication without explaining the reasons or attempting to justify it (or worse, blaming it on the EU). This is what opponents complain about when they talk of “metrication by stealth”. Thus, natural suspicion of change is reinforced by resentment about measures imposed without popular consent or at least acquiescence.
    By contrast, in Australia there was a debate about it in the 1960s, and a resulting Act of Parliament (the Metric Conversion Act), which gave legitimacy to the whole process. The UK failed to do this – hence our current problems.
    So I think you are advocating “metrication by stealth” – and it is counterproductive.]


  22. @Erithacus

    In hindsight, I accept that the use of ‘mtr’ may be unnecessary, indeed I have seen some local road work signs in Gloucestershire that warn of the approaching in incident in metres and abbreviate it to ‘m’.

    As far as the transition to full metrication, it goes without saying that I would prefer an ‘overnight’ and full switch. However, that doesn’t seem likely in the UK does it. I mean, here we are 40 years on and we’re about 80% of the way there.

    My reason for suggesting the withdrawal of the yard is to firmly entrench the metre into the national pysche. I do actually use the 1600m to a 1 mile reference, as it is easier to remember than 1760 yards. If saying there is 1600m in a mile helps giving the public a reference to the metre then so much the better.

    We have to accept that in the UK there is not an appetite for completing metrication for whatever reason. Short of the US deciding to go metric (and I fear their press is and public are anti metric for political reasons as they regard the metric system as a ‘commie’ – a bit like the UK press referring to metric measurements as ‘Napolean’), I think we need to have a strategy that makes sure that we make marginal gains rather than see a gradual reversal of metrication.


  23. My edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “stealth” as “secrecy, secret procedure”. A public suggestion that the UK Metric Association push for dual signage on low or narrow bridges is hardly a secret procedure!

    The fact that opponents complain about “metrication by stealth” does not automatically mean that they are right.


  24. I don’t think we should lose site of the fact that 1 mile = 1609.344 metres. The mile and the metre are totally incompatible.

    The approximation of 1 mile = 1600 m is useful sometimes but only for converting miles and fractions of a mile to metres in order to mentally overwrite such indications when we see them. We don’t want a 1600 metre mile, we want the kilometre.


  25. Absolutely agree with Michael Glass. I have been coming to this site for several years and I am frustrated that nobody ever gets excited about any positive suggestions. The UKMA doesn’t seem to have a plan or agenda, if it did then I may consider making a donation! But all we seem to get is ‘no that won’t work’ – people on here seem to get more worried about the rights and wrongs of km/h or kph, or whether seems to be ‘by stealth’ or not. And as for 1600 or 1609.344 is the sort of pedance that makes metric the much maligned system that it is in the majority of the UK press.

    Let me tell you how I see it – the UK public doesn’t want to go metric, so telling them they HAVE to is pointless. No UK Goverment is likely to sign its name to metrication right now as its all been associated with the EU. This is a myth peddled by Governments themselves eg Labour (probably the most metric friendly of the parties) claimed a victory for the UK against the EU when the it ‘won’ the right to keep the remaining imperial measurements in 2009.

    In contrast, by stealth DOES work! The majority of the UK uses, and understands Celsius, due to its constant use on the TV and in most newspapers. They use grammes and litres to cook and shop because its what they are used to and what recipe books and TV chefs use.

    I run a business and I talk to my team in terms of making ‘marginal gains’ to achieve our goals and targets. Showing them the whole picture would a) scare them to death and b) ignore the current level of progress that has already been achieved. Its the same with the completion of metrication. Do you think the BWMA are unhappy that LBS are back in use only on fresh veg and fruit at a couple of Britain’s supermarkets? I doubt it – they’ll be thinking ‘today pounds, tomorrow gallons and fluid ounces’. They don’t mind turning back the clock by stealth. ‘We’ shouldn’t be afraid of creeping metrication!

    We talked on here a few months ago


  26. @michdung

    It isn’t the case that we are “afraid” of creeping metrication. If we thought that British society was on a steady path to full metrication or that we could achieve it incrementally by so called “stealth” we would welcome it.

    What we are concerned about is the end result if we encourage a strategy of trying to disguise the change in the form of a 1600 metre mile. Why should the kilometre assert itself as the primary unit of distance if people won’t let go of the mile and don’t appreciate the obvious simplicty of a 1000 metre unit? There has to be a decisive change at some point.


  27. This online dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/stealth
    includes the following definition of “stealth”:

    “the act or characteristic of moving with extreme care and quietness, esp so as to avoid detection”

    This very accurately describes the way in which metrication has proceeded in the UK over the last 50 years – without any announcement by politicians, or any public information campaigns. Metrication of goods and product labelling has occurred so stealthily that by the time the public really noticed – when loose good were required to be weighed and sold in metric units in 2000, the task was a done deal. This has understandingly led to a degree of public resentment.

    The hitherto stealthy approach to switching to decimalised weights and measures is in sharp contrast to the open and well-publicised decimalisation of British currency, which was carried out in a rapid and efficient manner with the public being brought on side enthusiastically by a well-organised public information campaign.

    The obvious lessons to be learned are that completing the metrication programme stands the best chance of success if it is done rapidly in a well-organised manner with plenty of public information beforehand in order to get the public on side.

    The Government gradually replacing “yards” with “metres” on road signs without announcing its intentions beforehand, will not work. However well-intentioned a stealthy approach might be, it will only lead to resentment.

    The fact that the Government hasn’t “signed its name to metrication” is the very reason why metrication has been allowed to be assumed to be an EU imposition, and why in turn it has been difficult for the Government to complete the metrication programme. So much so, that metrication has now ground to a complete standstill.


  28. Peter K’s comments are “spot on”. This is why I think only a coalition of business leaders, education leaders, and the NHS would have any success (if they could be convinced to speak out together) in convincing the government that it is in the NATIONAL interest of the UK to cleanly and fully complete metrication swiftly.


  29. The problem Ezra is deciding just what is the national interest – how do you clearly define it? I think that we (and perhaps through the medium of the UKMA) need to create a full and clear definition of what is the national interest, and how the lack of complete metrication is hurting that national interest. We then present that definition to the government, the media, etc in clear, concise, and, most importantly of all, IRREFUTABLE terms. Only then will full metrication be possible.

    Until then, for every argument for, the government, hostile media and anyone else against metrication, will present an argument against, leading to the current situation – a sort of stalemate.


  30. John,

    What you suggest are excellent ideas. However, I think they go only part of the way.

    Most (some say all) human decision making is irrational followed by clever rationalizations (sometimes only a split second later) to “justify” the original decision taken. The anti-metric folks have bound up metrication with the EU and the Brussels “take over” of Britain.

    It is important as you suggest to tie metrication to Britain’s Brighter Future (to coin a slogan) and decouple it from the EU. Most seemingly irrational opposition to sensible ideas comes from hidden agendas, which must be combated in their own way, which means reframing the discussion to have any chance of succeeding. (See the writings of Dr. George Lakoff for an excellent and fuller exposition of these ideas.)


  31. Everyone here agrees that a well-publicised and total metrication program is the most efficient and economical way of completing this change. However, when the National Health system announced that all weighing equipment had to be metric only, this was not metrication by stealth. Nor would it be metrication by stealth if the Department for Transport announced that to prevent bridge strikes, metric heights and widths would be provided.


  32. @Ezra Steinberg

    I wouldn’t class the anti-metric’s binding British metrication with an EU take-over as a clever rationalization. Dishonest more like!


  33. Just heard (on National Public Radio) a presentation by a researcher who pointed out how much we depend on our emotions to make decisions and how much more effective emotional appeals are than rational ones to motivate most people to action.

    So, it seems that perhaps UKMA ought to leave the rational arguments to discussions with technocrats and policy makers and pursue a public relations campaign that appeals to the emotions of the British citizen. Perhaps a campaign that emphasizes the British roots of the metric system (the past) and how moving to becoming fully metric is a way for Britain to regain a leadership role in the world (the future). And a few subtle digs at America’s backwardness in hanging on to our version of Imperial wouldn’t hurt either, I suspect. 😉

    The point is to tap into positive emotions of British pride, inventiveness, creativity, and leadership as a counterpoint to the the negative emotions that UKIP, BWMA, and their ilk (fear of change; fear of the EU, etc.) appeal to.


  34. The British press reports almost entirely in imperial units. Pick up any popular newspaper or magazine or switch on the TV and radio and you’re more likely than not to hear imperial units used exclusively. The Daily Mail seeks out all metric measurements and converts them to imperial with a zeal worthy of the Taliban.
    A large section of society (those educated in the last forty years) do not fully understand imperial units and end up having to either learn them or remain ignorant about a lot of information given. I see this situation as being unfairly biased towards traditionalists and against the rights of younger people and all those who have bothered to come to grips with the modern world. It needs to be addressed because it’s self perpetuating. If we are to be stuck with this ridiculous dual system of measurement, for the sake of fairness, the British government should make it mandatory for metric equivalents to be given alongside imperial units in parentheses in the written form and verbally on TV and radio for all factual information.


  35. I so agree with Cliff Steele that those in favour of full and proper metrication (including me) are the victims of unfair discrimination in the popular press. The irony is that we are the ones typically accused of being illiberal on the basis that we dissaprove of dual measures and ask that imperial be decisively phased out.

    BWMA, for example, loudly protest that people should be free to choose. yet in much of what they say there is a distinct condemnation of metric and active suppression of its use.

    The truth is that we all have to face up to the fact that in public communication we have to agree to a common understanding which can only be served by an agreed standard. Having more than one of them for the same purpose simply makes life more difficult and to no advantage. Personal choice cannot always be satisfied.

    In this context alone it makes more sense for the metric system to be dominant because it serves that common purpose both domestically and internationally.


  36. No mention of metrication? How utterly bizarre!

    How can a government claim to set the actions it will take to support an NMS to meet the changing needs of business and society without dealing with the metrication muddle?

    Given this government and its myopia on the issue, only those very same business and social interests whose changing needs are supposed to be met can pressure the government to finally set things right.


  37. http://www.bis.gov.uk/nmo/about/faqs/weights-and-measures-for-consumers

    ‘Metric units of measurement are now used for most transactions regulated by the Weights and Measures Act 1985. It is Government policy to encourage the use of metric units for other purposes, including public administration.

    Having a single consistent set of units of measurement in use for trade reduces costs for business and enables consumers to make price and quantity comparisons more easily.’


  38. I came across the following parody of change-overs to new systems of calculation and measurement. It seems quite apropos given the persistent resistance by some to metrication as an attack on “Britishness”:

    [audio src="http://www.2kents.com/files/RomanNumerals_TheFrantics.mp3" /]

    Ave Caesar!


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