Problems of sovereign debt in the eurozone have seen the UK side-tracked in EU decision making, and, say some commentators, headed for the exit. Is this situation likely to impact on the UK’s stalled metric changeover?
The editors of Metric Views believe that the answer to this question is “No”. The reasons will be familiar to our regular readers, but a summary of the more significant ones may be helpful at this time.
- In 1897, the UK Parliament legalised the use of the metric system for all purposes. This was 54 years before the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, which was the forerunner of the European Economic Community (EEC) and later the EU.
- In 1965, the UK Government announced that “… British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole …”. The UK Government quickly realised, however, that the changeover of manufacturing industry could not be achieved in isolation from the rest of the economy, and the UK Metrication Board was set up in 1970. This was three years before the UK became a member of the EEC.
- In 1986, financial services in the City of London were reformed and deregulated, known as ‘big bang’. This, coupled with a decline in manufacture from the 1960s onwards, resulted in a major shift in the UK economy from manufacturing industry to financial services and from the regions to London. It may also have contributed to a decline in interest about the UK’s continuing measurement muddle – metrology has never been a hot topic among bankers. There is now, however, agreement among the mainstream political parties that this shift has gone too far, and there is much talk about ‘rebalancing the economy’ towards the regions outside London, manufacture and exports. Rebalancing should focus attention on the measurement muddle, if not among bankers, then among businesses and politicians.
- About 12% of the UK’s trade is with the US. The remaining 88% is with the rest of the world, which predominantly uses metric. Furthermore, it is the metric economies of the Far East that are growing while the US (and European) economies stagnate. So it is likely that metric countries’ share of UK trade will increase in the coming years, even if the EU’s share (currently about 50%) declines. Robert Peston provides evidence for this, if any is required, in his two recent programmes on BBC2 entitled, “The party’s over: how the West went bust”.
- Globalisation is resulting in the survival of the fittest. Running two measurement systems in parallel results in duplication, muddle, mistakes and additional costs. This is a self-imposed handicap that the UK economy can well do without.
- The view of the UK Department for Transport and others that the choice of measurement system does not matter where there are few implications for cross- border trade does not stand up to close scrutiny. There are, as an example, the problems faced by the drivers of the nine million vehicles using roll-on, roll-off ferries annually to cross between the UK, with its imperial signed roads, and continental countries and the Republic of Ireland, with metric signed roads. In addition there are the problems resulting from the general lack of familiarity in Britain with metric measures that are mentioned in the last Metric Views article, problems that most of our competitors do not face.
Recent events in the EU gave rise to this article. But it is continuing global developments which make it imperative and should ensure that the UK faces up to the issue of its measurement muddle. And this will be true whatever the outcome of the financial crisis in the eurozone.