This was the headline in a back number of a trade magazine that recently came to our attention. So who was this choice, why the surprise, and when was he or she chosen for transport?
Not in May 2010, when Philip Hammond MP, who had been Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in opposition, became Secretary of State for Transport in the present government, and when Norman Baker MP, whose interests are said to be civil liberties and environment, became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Regional and Local Transport). In fact, we have to go back four decades to the general election of 1970, and to an article in Commercial Motor Magazine of 26 June of that year to find the cryptic headline and the answers to our questions.
The article began:
“The Prime Minister’s choice of John Peyton as Minister of Transport is a surprise appointment.
Although a former chairman of the Conservative backbench MPs’ transport committee, Mr Peyton’s preoccupations in recent years have been the coal and steel industries.
His only incursion into the transport field which can immediately be recalled was his sponsorship in 1962 of a Bill to amend the road vehicle licensing laws to enable a group of people to legally hire a taxi to take them to work …”
Mr Peyton however had a pivotal role in creating today’s measurement muddle – it was he who accepted Transport Ministry officials’ advice that the changeover of road traffic signs should be postponed. Later in 1972 , there was a Ministerial statement which said that “the Government had no alternative date in mind” for the changeover of road signs. This is perhaps the first example of a lack of joined-up government policy on measurement units involving the UK Department for Transport (DfT).
Mr Peyton’s lack of vision in 1972 is disappointing but perhaps understandable, given the absence at that time of obvious progress with the post-war metric transition, either in the UK or around the world. For example:
- UK chemist shops and pharmacies had changed to dispensing medicines in metric measures in 1968, and grains, scruples and drachms had been consigned to history. This change could easily have escaped most people’s attention.
- The construction industry had begun to design new projects in metric in 1969, but few of these would have seen the light of day three years later.
- Most UK manufacturing industries, including the motor industry, were users of pound inch units, as were shipyards and the aerospace industry.
- There were still forty or so non-metric countries around the world, including most Commonwealth countries.
- The Apollo program (1963-75), which had sent men to the Moon from Cape Kennedy (with inch spanners) was still fresh in people’s minds.
Forty years on, there has been a dramatic change:
- Our shopping basket has gone metric, from packaging of groceries to the weighing of loose fruit and veg. And much else in the high streets and retail parks, from carpets to kitchens, is also described or priced in metric measures.
- The successful metric transition of the UK construction industry has enabled our architects and design engineers to establish a major presence in world markets.
- Our motor industry, now dominated by foreign-owned firms such as BMW, Honda and Toyota, is metric and a major UK employer and exporter.
- Shipbuilding, which was slow to adopt metric measures, has become a shadow of its former self.
- Our aerospace industry is dominated by Airbus maker EADS, which now rivals Boeing.
- Fewer than 5 countries around the world have not adopted metric as their primary system of measurement.
- The US Space Shuttle has been taken out of service, and astronauts now travel to and from the international space station in a Russian-built Soyuz rockets, widely considered the world’s safest, most cost-effective human space flight system.
So do Peyton’s successors today take a different view on the matter of joined-up government policy on measurement units? You might expect so, but you would be wrong.
In June 2010, when a proposal for dual marking of height and width restrictions came before Philip Hammond, he said:
“Today I am scrapping Labour’s plans to force councils to spend £2 million changing road signs to include metric measurements.”
In fact, this change would have saved money, and Hammond’s decision appears both irrational and perverse.
And then Norman Baker. when replying to an enquiry forwarded to him by an MP from a constituent, said only last week:
“ … there are no plans to change the law to allow the conversion of traffic signs in Great Britain to metric measurements.”
So it would seem that the ghost of that surprise choice, Mr Peyton, lives on at the DfT, influencing its policy on joined-up government in relation to measurement units. Indeed, it has been said that there are now only three domains in the world not committed to a metric transition: Burma, Liberia and the UK DfT.
And the United States? The USA has been committed since the mid 1970s to the transition from US customary to metric units for most purposes. But it is also committed to the freedom of key players to do nothing, thereby demonstrating once again the futility of this approach – see the Metric Views article on the 1862 Select Committee report.
The Commercial Motor article of June 1970 concluded by saying that Mr Peyton would draw a salary of £8500 as Minister of Transport. So there is at least one thing that has changed at the Transport Department over the past forty years.