Lord Howe of Aberavon, the former Conservative Chancellor and Deputy Prime Minister, intervened in the Queen’s Speech debate on Tuesday to reiterate his call for the Government to complete the conversion of the UK’s weights and measures to metric units.
Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Howe (who is patron of the UK Metric Association) described the present situation as “a uniquely confusing shambles … that puts us all to shame.” “Metrication has got stuck”, he said. Stressing that the original decision to convert to the metric system “had nothing to do with our relationship with our European partners”, he went on to “urge the Government as a whole and the country across the board to resume the long drawn-out process of conversion to the metric system, begun in 1965.”
Text of speech
The full text of Lord Howe’s speech is here:
“My Lords, the topic which I propose to discuss certainly was not touched on in the gracious Speech, but it could and should have been raised at any time. It is a very simple proposition, which may surprise the House: British weights and measures are in a mess. We have litres for petrol and fizzy drinks but pints of beer and milk. We have metres and kilometres for athletics and the Ordnance Survey but miles per gallon for cars. We have the metric system for school but still have pounds and ounces in the market. Certainly, this muddle matters. It increases costs, confuses shoppers, leads to serious misunderstandings, causes accidents, confuses our children’s education and, quite bluntly, puts us all to shame.
This is even a constitutional topic because about 800 years ago, Britain’s first charter of human rights that dealt with constitutional matters—I refer, of course, to Magna Carta—proclaimed that there should be only,
“one measure of wine throughout our whole realm … and one measure of corn … and one width of cloth” ,
and so on. Long before then and ever since, every civilised society has recognised the need for one set—and only one set—of standard measures. By contrast, we have managed to come near to recreating Disraeli’s two nations—divided between, on the one hand, a metrically literate elite and, on the other, a rudderless and bewildered majority.
How did we get into this uniquely confusing shambles? It is because we have been dithering about it for some 150 years. As long ago as 1862, a Select Committee of the House of Commons unanimously recommended the adoption of the metric system which had swept across Europe and elsewhere. In 1904, the House of Lords voted in favour of a Bill to the same effect and, remarkably in a way, in 1965 the decision was finally taken—in response to requests from the CBI and others, and after long and widespread consultation—to go metric over the following 10 years. It is important to understand that that decision had nothing to do with our relationship with our European partners. It was our own decision on our own case, taken eight years before we joined the European Community.
How did we manage to end up in this very British mess? It is because successive British Governments have lacked consistency, candour and courage in implementing and presenting a policy which was, at the outset, rightly supported by a broad majority of all those who had given the topic serious consideration. It was the first Wilson Government who launched the process in 1965, and the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan Governments who carried it on. The whole operation was handled, without significant controversy, by a broadly representative commission: the Metrication Board, which, in its final report in 1979, was able to suggest that the change was by then almost complete. In the Heath Government I had been, as Britain’s first Minister for Consumer Affairs, responsible for the metrication programme. By 1979, however, I had myself become a penny-saving Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as such I readily accepted the decision to abolish the Metrication Board, which claimed to have completed the process.
So where should we go now? We simply cannot afford to go on crippling ourselves with acceptance of the present mess, and it certainly would be madness to go backwards. No one is now so foolish as to argue that we should actually move away from the rest of the world. The only solution is to complete the changeover to metric as swiftly and cleanly as possible. To sustain our present imbroglio would continue consumer confusion, perpetuate safety hazards and obstruct business efficiency.
I could have presented the case in this way: the most glaring omission from the gracious Speech is the lack of any reference to the need to complete the modernisation—and metrication, of course—of our system of measurement. Measurement is fundamental to industrial production, consumer protection, health and safety and science and education. The policy of all Governments since 1965 has formally been to change gradually from imperial to metric units, while continuing the option for consumers to continue using imperial measurements if they wish. However, there has been no further progress of any kind since the year 2000. Metrication has got stuck. As a result, we remain in a muddle of metric and imperial measurements, with some people using one system and others using the other, with all the resulting incomprehension, conversion errors and additional costs, giving the impression to visitors, especially in this Olympic year, that we are a nation living in the imperial past.
A particular recent concern, for example, was the failure of the Department for Transport to seize the opportunity to improve road safety by requiring all imperial-only height and width restriction signs on bridges over highways to be replaced by signs in dual metric and imperial units. That would be a simple thing to do and would cost about £500,000. If it were done, it would probably have huge financial benefits of over £2 million as a result of savings and reduced bridge strikes by metric drivers of foreign lorries on imperial roads with bewildering signs.
I urge the Government as a whole and the country across the board to resume the long drawn-out process of conversion to the metric system, begun in 1965. We should seize on opportunities for progress as they arise and make proper preparations for bringing us comprehensively up to modern international metric standards—a simple proposition that we have neglected for far too long but which we should courageously, carefully and swiftly undertake as soon as we can.”
Notes for editors:
(a) Lord Howe of Aberavon (then Sir Geoffrey) was Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister in the Thatcher government between 1979 and 1990. He had also been Minister for Consumer affairs in the Heath government in the early 1970s. (He should not be confused with the hereditary peer, Earl Howe, who is a Government Minister).
(b) The UK Metric Association (UKMA) is an independent, non-party political, single issue organisation which advocates the full adoption of the international metric system (“Système International”) for all official, trade, legal, contractual and other purposes in the United Kingdom as soon as practicable. UKMA is financed entirely by membership subscriptions and personal donations.
(c) The UK’s official metrication programme began in 1965 and has now lasted 47 years. Government policy has been to change gradually from imperial to metric units for an increasing range of purposes. Metric units of measurement are the primary system for most official and legal purposes, including pricing and labelling of retail goods, although “supplementary indications” (imperial conversions) are also allowed. The major exception is road signs, which are required to display exclusively imperial units for speed and distance measurement. There has been no new Government initiative on metrication since 2000.
(d) Further extensive background information can be found generally on UKMA’s website at www.ukma.org.uk .
(e) UKMA also has a blog at www.metricviews.org.uk.
(f) The following are available for interview or comment:
- Lord Howe of Aberavon on 020 7219 8709 (House of Lords)
- Robin Paice (Chairman of UKMA) on 023 9275 5268 for interviews in Portsmouth or by telephone