Speed, momentum and resistance

Which is preferable: a swift metric transition or a leisurely one? UKMA would have preferred the former. Successive UK governments have opted for the latter, believing that it carries less risk to their popularity. Ronnie Cohen assesses progress.

Despite the level of resistance to the use of metric measures by anti-metric groups and by many eurosceptics and their supporters in the press, the use of the metric system continues to advance in the UK.

Just look at the supermarket chains that dominate food retailing. They are almost exclusively metric. In many supermarkets, the only place where you will find pounds and ounces in the fresh fruit and vegetables section is on the dual scales. Some counters in supermarkets show imperial as well as metric quantities whereas others do not. Most shelf and product labels show metric only. This even applies to products still sold in imperial quantities. On many of these products, the label only displays the metric quantity (e.g. 454 g, 568 ml) despite the fact that they are based on old imperial package sizes. That said, rational metric sizes have become the norm, rather than the exception.

ASDA’s publicity stunt with punnets of strawberries last year proved to be short-lived. Its plans to return to imperial pack sizes were soon abandoned. You can still find punnets of strawberries in ASDA, but sold in rational metric sizes without equivalent imperial weights shown on the labels.

The sale of milk in litre sizes is now commonplace, despite the long-standing British affection for their ‘pinta’. The pint however, as an endangered species, enjoys legal protection for dispensing draught beer in pubs. Its survival elsewhere is far from assured. Litres have replaced imperial gallons in news reports, sensationalist or otherwise, about fuel prices.

Metric-only supplies are appearing in the big stores, for example metric-only maths sets, metric-only rulers, although dual measuring equipment is still commonplace, for example tapes and thermometers.

Published recipes are now mostly metric. The use of Fahrenheit in weather and media reports has almost disappeared, and centimetres are replacing inches for rainfall and snowfall (with help from news reports on snow conditions at continental ski resorts). When ‘ton’ is heard it is likely to mean ‘tonne’, not ‘imperial long ton’ or ‘American short ton’. Running the mile is now a matter only of historical interest, and London 2012 should ensure that the focus remains on metric events, including the 1500 metres that replaced the mile.

Even on road signs, the position is becoming clearer. The recent adoption of new traffic signs regulations forced the Transport Minister and the Department for Transport to put their cards on the table. Retention of imperial signs is now seen to be a political decision: the arguments in favour of changes with long term benefits are outweighed by the risk of short term unpopularity. Costs or potential savings are disregarded, and the impact on other parts of the UK economy, on the single market and on Britain’s reputation abroad appears to have little influence on decisions.

What is surprising about the continued advance of the metric system in most areas is that it is happening with very little government support, and despite opposition from several national newspapers. Recent governments thought that if this issue were ignored it might eventually resolve itself. This view may be gaining credibility and the transition may now have a momentum of its own. Whether this is enough to complete the job, how long it will take, and how much damage will be done to the UK economy on the way is far from clear.

9 thoughts on “Speed, momentum and resistance”

  1. Over the past three weeks, I have watched BBC4’s “Jonathan Meades on France”. The programmes highlighted the differences between republican France and the United Kingdom, in history, tradition, culture, outlook, even architecture. One of the aspects of UK metric transition that I find surprising is that we have emulated France rather than Commonwealth countries with which we have much in common – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa come to mind. These achieved the transition to metric measures in around ten years, yet in France it took over sixty years from adoption in 1840 for metric measures to be universally accepted (as noted by Ken Alder in his book “A measure of all things”). In the UK, the metric transition kicked off in 1965 – so that is 46 years and still counting.


  2. I’m not sure if I’m the only one but I’ve thought that in the last year or so that the anti-Metric lobby seems to have been quieter than in recent years. In that time metrication does seem to have moved forward a little.

    The press, both printed and on-line, seem to be using metric more and seem to be a little less likely to provide imperial conversions. Some of the remaining products in the shops that have been stuck in a time warp seem to be dropping imperial measures on their packaging, we’re seeing more use of metric on road signs showing height and width restrictions… and in the last few weeks I’ve even see weight limit signs using “t” instead of “T”!

    There’s still a long way to go though and I’ve spent the last few days cringing at friends describing the depth of snow in inches and I can’t understand why the DfT still insist on using “m” for miles on signs. But I did pick up a low priced store brand measuring tape in Sainsbury’s last night that was metric-only (no inches!!!), perhaps it’s this sort of product will help build momentum!


  3. I fear that there is a large element of wishful thinking in Ronnie’s article.

    Most of his assertions about progress of metrication are debatable. If you watch mainly BBC, read the Guardian, shop at Waitrose and don’t drive or drink beer in pubs, then you could well imagine that metrication is well on course for completion in a few years’ time. This is of course the Government line and they use this perception to justify their inactivity. Indeed both politicians and senior civil servants probably inhabit the same insular world.

    The reality is that UK metrication is stuck – even regressing. ITV and the satellite broadcasters (which command the bigger audiences) are full of imperial and USC. The most widely read tabloids (Sun, Mail, Express) still give summer temperatures in Fahrenheit and petrol prices “per gallon”. The big supermarkets have reverted to giving “supplementary indications” on price labels (probably a consequence of the EU decision to authorise them indefinitely). Most street markets operate primarily in pounds and ounces. The DfT is obstinately opposed to converting road signs. And selling draught beer by the litre is illegal.

    The metric/imperial divide is partly one of social class and occupation, but also of educational standard and attitudes to change vs tradition. This is one reason why it is difficult for the Labour Party, with its reliance on working class support, openly to advocate finishing the job.

    Indeed most politicians would rather the issue would go away – or at least lie dormant. The task is to keep reminding them that this de facto “two systems” policy is unsustainable and needs to be tackled proactively. Suggesting that metrication is progressing nicely without Government support is not helpful.


  4. @Erithacus: I accept that the UK has not made much progress with metric in certain areas that you have mentioned. I have talked about the progress made in some areas.

    Another area of progress that was not mentioned in the article is the big decline in the sale of fruit and vegetables by the pound in street markets and small shops in recent years. Many traders and shopkeepers have moved away from selling by the pound to selling by the bowl and by the item (or number of items).

    Perhaps, by pointing out areas of progress, we can show that there is greater acceptance of metric units in some areas and that could make it easier to move to metric in other areas where there has been little progress.


  5. This is a very positive article, and one that does show how far we have come. I would like to clarify a couple of points though, relating to food retail:

    1) ASDA consider their Lb punnets a success and will be extending the range to include raspberries. This was reported recently in ‘The Grocer’ magazine. This may be limited to a few months of the year but they report that 70% of customers ‘preferred’ to buy their fruit in lbs.

    2) The use of imperial prices on loose produce is creeping back in with most supermarkets have a secondary imperial price on their fruit and veg and service counters. Sadly, my own employer has also gone down this route, as they feel that they must give customers comparing market prices ‘a level playing field’ to compare against.

    That said, in my branch, most customers on our service counters who buy by weight (rather than sight) will specify a metric measurement. I’m not sure how much this varies across the country.


  6. We are ‘celebrating’ a 2oo year anniversary on February 12, the result of metrication bungled in France. Exactly 200 years ago Napoleon, opposed to metric, came up with a ‘Systéme Usuel’, or Customary System by decree of 1812 February 12. The Paris system of weights and measures was reintroduced for daily life and the retail shops ‘accomodé au besoin du people’ (accomodated to the needs of the people). Just like US Customary since 1893, this abomination was defined by metric units. A 16 ounce pound of 5oo g, the metre was divided in feet and inches as in Britain etc. Decimal time and the republican calender had already been scrapped, now the metric system seemed to be heading the same way. The use of the decimal metric system in the shops was banned between 1816 and 1825. The tide turned around 1820, in 1836 a Weights and Measures Act that was to complete metrication came before Parliament and in 1837 the Law of July 4 was passed. By this law France went metric in 1840, January 1. Napoleons decree caused the collapse of the almost completed metrication in Geneva – Geneva went metric in 1876 under Swiss law – , and one may wonder what the US would have done of this reverse had not happened.


  7. No matter how many times a metric unit replaces an imperial unit in popularity of usage there is not going to be a ‘system’ of measurement until the transition is totally complete. The situation now is like having a house with shiny new washbasins and taps but having the water carried in by bucket from a well down the street. A random grouping of imperial and metric units is no better than what preceded it. A few metric units here and there give the impression of modernity but it’s an impression that’s as superficial as the lazy politicians who have allowed this muddle to exist. It’s a national embarrassment. It’s up to everyone to keep up the pressure on politicians and the media to complete the job begun in 1965. Well done UKMA for your efforts so far.


  8. I’ve discovered an interesting effect. Down in the market, there’s a “traditional sweet shop” which my son, Bill Jr. loves to visit when ever we’re in town. Gobstoppers, jelly beans and fruity jellies in big glass jars with airtight glass tops jostle for space on the packed shelves with jars of chocolate buttons and pear drops.

    The pricing is in £ per 100g as you might expect, indeed the jelly beans happen to be £1 per 100g (or at least they were last time I was there). I ordered a 100g serving. “A pound of jelly beans then sir?” asked the young lass behind the counter turning to reach for the relevant big glass jar. I was just about to “correct” her by saying “no, just 100g please” when I realised what was going on.

    It seemed that despite my greying beard, the young lady had no realisation that I might misinterpret what she’d said to mean “1lb of jelly beans then sir?” rather than the “£1 of jelly beans then sir?” which was what she’d meant.

    I must say that despite using metric for everything since the 1970’s it still felt strange to reply “Yes, a pound please” fully expecting to be served with 100g of the things! I handed over my £1 and Bill Jr. of course hadn’t noticed anything amiss and the girl behind the counter hadn’t either.

    Well, that’s progress for you. Just occasionally you can get a surprise from the younger generation in quite odd ways.


  9. Here in New Zealand, we adopted the Metric system over 30 years ago. I was taught Imperial measures when at school, and learnt Metric measures later when I was an adult. I recall that one of the first measures to be accepted by the general public was the Celsius temperature scale. I now note that the Celsius scale seems to be accepted by the UK Met Office, and hence by the media. However as we all know, they may revert back to Fahrenheit, during the summer months. It will be interesting to see what happens this summer. Unfortunately, wind speeds are still recorded in miles per hour.

    The NZ media had an important role, in informing the public, during our metrication. Its unfortunate that the UK media polarizes the Imperial Mertric divide. However, I believe that judging from what I have learnt on the Internet, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic, about the building momentum of change. It has slowly accelerated from “creeping metricaion” to “crawling metrication”.
    Keep up the good work UKMA.


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