Heading for the exit?

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.

9 thoughts on “Heading for the exit?”

  1. The rhetoric we have heard from the Prime Minister this week exposes the isolationist thinking at the top. Some how Britain, it seems, is so different from the other 26 countries of the EU we should be allowed to live by different financial rules, even though we expect the benefits of membership. We want to have our cake and eat it.

    We do of course have a special relationship with the US unlike the rest of Europe. The trouble is we seem to have delusions of grandeur and think that we have the same clout in world markets as the US.

    No wonder then that there is such a lack of enthusiasm for adopting international measurement in its entirety. Being British, it seems, means we hold back just a little even if we cut off our nose in the process.


  2. I agree with philh’s comment. The UK will always have some connection to its neighbours in Europe. To live in isolation would be disaster.
    Metrication will happen and would have happened regardless of European agreements (i.e. the EU and EEC). The push towards metrication is worldwide. All countries are using the metric system including the US.
    I regard the metrication of road signs to be the last big hurdle in the battle towards full UK metrication. Unfortunately the political and financial climate is not favourable.


  3. Unfortunately I disagree with the ‘No’ outcome prediction. The same UK press that is really behind the current push on getting Britain out of the EU is the same press it is anti-metric. If they succeed in getting a referendum, they will campaign for Britain’s exit from the EU and I predict very hot on its tails they will then campaign for the return of ‘lbs and ozs’. While I hope that the majority of the UK is silently in favour of remaining in the EU and completing metrication, our biggest obstacle is the ferocity of the whinging UK press and its hideous ability to appeal to the easily outraged British public.


  4. Philh makes a very valid point about Britain wanting to have its cake and eat it. The most important aspect of EU membership for Britain is probably Britain’s access to the single market and the wealth and tax which that generates, but that is all the Prime Minister seems to be focusing on the moment. Yet, if you look at all the other areas with which the EU is concerned, from farming to safety and security in transport on land, at sea and in the air (the EU basically covers all policy areas except defence, which is handled by NATO), it is clear that Britain is not somehow detached from the reality of mainland Europe but is a clear and vital part of Europe and that its interests are best served by ensuring the closest possible cooperation with its European neighbours and by making sure that the British voice is heard.

    The argument put forward by opponents of completing metrication (the so-called metric martyrs and their friends) that using imperial units within the country for issues that do not affect EU-wide trade has always been a fallacy based on ignorance and prejudice, and is simply buying time to put off the inevitable change that must come. If you regularly travel between mainland Europe and Britain, as I do, you are bound to think that Britain looks as though it is in a timewarp. So much of the built fabric of the country has been modernised over the last few decades but its road signs let it down dreadfully. Just why is it so difficult to have signs on British roads that show the units of measurement that British children learn at school? What is the advantage of not metricating the road signs? Why do feet, inches, yards and miles have to be perpetuated on road signs even though they have been phased out and are now effectively prohibited for commercial purposes? I would like to hear a politician answer that question. If we have so much money to spend on wars to improve other countries, why can we not spend a little money on improving our own country and our nation’s numerical skills at the same time?


  5. Kilopascal, a reader of MV in the US has commented on several of the bulleted points in the article. Although his comments exceed our advisory limit of 300 words, we are posting them on this occasion as they might be considered to relate to four separate topics.

    Second point – the start of the UK metric changeover
    “This is a very important point those opposed to metrication and the EU deliberately ignore. It was British industry that wanted metrication and as a means to grow as the world was becoming one big market place. Obviously business interests have the most exposure to foreign desires than the common people on the streets and are the first to recognize the importance of standards and the profits realized when there are standards.
    But in order for their metrication to be successful they have to assure that the whole economy, not just part of it is metricated. Since they draw their work force from among the common population, their efficiency depends on how well the work force can work in metric. If the work force can’t work in metric then the benefits of metrication to the industry are lost.
    However, the side effect of a global economy is that barriers to trade are reduced and not only is there a greater flow of goods but it also allows industry to seek out other places to manufacture if the local population doesn’t possess the talents needed by the industries, such as the ability to work in the metric system or having a positive attitude to work in it. Thus British and American industries no longer need to rely on the local population to accept metrication and can go elsewhere to have their products made and that is exactly what they have done.”

    Third point – rebalancing the UK economy
    “It seems that as industry started to leave the UK, the UK had no choice but to develop an industry that it was hoped would not leave. However it appears Frankfurt is making an effort to draw the financial service sector of the EU away from London an placing it in Frankfurt. Maybe that is why the UK now wants to diversify.
    It isn’t totally true that bankers aren’t interested in metrology. Commodities are priced by measurement units. Bankers are very interested in ounces of gold, barrels of oil, gallons of gasoline, pounds, bushels, hundredweights, etc of farm products. If anything, the banking industry, at least in the UK/US is the most resistant to metrication. Eliminating the influence of Wall Street and London might be the only chance there is to change this and have only metric units for commodities to be priced in.”

    Fourth point – metric countries’ share of UK trade
    “This is one of the biggest fallacies around. I don’t know what that 12 % entails, but if it is manufactured goods, then it is totally wrong to assume that metric products can’t be sold in the US. The vast majority of products sold to consumers comes from China and the Chinese manufacture them in metric even to round numbers and just converts the numbers on the labels. Industrial products tend to come from Germany. The company I work for purchases a great deal of components of German manufacture. It is all metric, even if the catalog or literature is converted. It is obvious the numbers are rounded metric.”

    Sixth point – metric usage in society generally
    “The real importance of metric only road signs is that it is self-educating. They have everything to do with global trade for many reasons. People who see them will make an effort to learn them and thus be more efficient when working with metric units. Also there is a cost savings to the import and export of vehicles. Vehicles imported into the UK for UK registration have to be modified at a cost. Vehicles exported from the UK also have to be modified. This all comes at an unnecessary cost.”


  6. There may be some truth in the suggestion above that companys have relocated out of the UK due to the work force being incompetent with metric but it will be hard to prove because business executives are unlikely to cite that as a reason.

    I certainly think though that it is self evidently true (and I believe it to be so from personal observation) that those who only use metric when they have to, are placing themselves at a disadvantage in learning to use it effectively.


  7. For a substantial proportion of eurosceptics, opposition to metrication is more or less an article of faith. They see it as a battle against the European Union. This notion is intellectually dishonest because the case for the completion of the UK metric programme would be just as compelling if the UK withdrew from the EU tomorrow. In any case, the EU has already agreed that the UK can use certain imperial units for particular purposes indefinitely after extending the derogations on imperial units several times. Resisting metrication to fight the EU does the British no favours in the EU and no favours in the field of measurement.

    The metric system is not just a European standard, it is a global standard. Even if the UK disengages from the EU, it cannot escape the use of the metric system as most of the Commonwealth and indeed most of the world is metric. The grossly disproportionate number of bridge strikes by foreign lorries, the waste involved in customising UK cars with speedometers and odometers that use miles, wasteful spending on dual and duplicate warning and restriction signs, the general lack of familiarity with many metric units and constant undermining of children’s maths and science education by use of imperial all show that, in the long term, the UK’s position as the only country in Europe that is holding out for the use of the old pre-metric measurements is untenable. In the entire developed world, only the UK and US continue to hold out for the old pre-metric measurements. Their position is untenable in the long term.


  8. @Ronnie it’s actually separating metrication from the EU in the eyes of the press and public that is the sticking point. There are any number of other sensible standardisation ideas that have been proposed in recent years but the moment there is any suggestion of EU involvement the whole thing is shelved.

    Take, for instance, the idea by the clothing industry several years ago of introducing a single and simple system for people to determine sizes. Yes, the metric system was used with pictograms on labels showing the various measurements of the particular item of clothing. Despite being an industry-led proposal a story on the front page of the Daily Mail (IIRC) connected it with Brussels and from that moment it was doomed.

    In the same manner, the E system of road numbering seen across many European countries which, in my opinion makes it much easier to navigate through various countries is completely invisible to British road users. The real reason why we don’t see E numbers on our road signs is actually nothing to do with the EU but any suggestion that they should be used is usually shot down by the Anti Europe bunch. This is despite it actually being a United Nations creation.

    I also recently had a discussion with a friend about the movement to switch our clocks one hour ahead of GMT throughout the year giving us an extra hour of daylight in the evening. There are a number of arguments for and against this proposal but, as I pointed out to him (merely playing devils advocate) that this would effectively put us in the same time zone as the rest of the EU and some might see that as an attempt by the EU to dictate to us how our clocks are set. I’m waiting to see how that one pans out!


  9. The “Christmas Card” from a college I attended long ago, includes this story about its new India Institute:
    The story suggests that there are those, including the Foreign Secretary Mr Haig, who see the importance of building links to countries around the world with large and growing economies. It specifically mentions Brazil, China and Russia as well as India. Does it need to be said that it would help if we appeared more committed to their (and the global) measurement system?


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