This is the title of a recent article by Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business Editor. Clearly, successive UK governments over the years have failed to steer the country away from the latter and towards the former. We suggest a simple step that would help.
Robert Peston’s article on the BBC web site on 2 April referred to the results of a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce. He used this survey to point out why Britain needs to sell more abroad and to ask why this is not happening:
Here is a quote from the article:
“If the symptom of Britain’s disease is excessive debt … then the disease itself is that Britain hasn’t paid its way in the world for decades.
Or to put it another way, Britain has for 30 years been buying more from other countries than it sells to them.
So the imperative if we are to get out of our malaise, most would argue, would be to narrow and eliminate the intractable current account deficit.
… official figures on what happened to the UK’s current account deficit in 2012 were both shocking and disturbing.
Because far from this important imbalance being rectified, as the government hoped and expected would happen as a consequence of the persistent weakness of sterling, the UK was a net borrower from the rest of the world last year to the tune of £54bn, up from £17bn in 2011.”
Peston goes on to say that his conversations with companies point to three problems: global supply chains, company debt and ‘supply constraints’. He writes of the latter:
“For example, I recently had a striking conversation with Michael Morris, a director of a precision engineering firm in north-east England called Chirton. This is a smallish manufacturer with a great story to tell. Founded in 2003 with a staff back then of just five, today it employs 51, has turnover of £2.8m, and has sold components to China.
Here is the thing. Chirton simply can’t find sufficient numbers of skilled people to hire, to keep pace with the demand it is seeing. So it is turning valuable orders down. Which is pretty depressing for them, and not particularly cheerful for the rest of us.”
Those skilled workers that Mr Morris is seeking need to be numerate, confident in using numbers to solve problems, and totally familiar with measures and measurement. They should also have have a perfect grasp of metric measures – Chirton sells to China, so imperial won’t do. And at another level in the company, innovation and the improvement of productivity rely on numeracy and on familiarity with measurement.
These issues are discussed in the UK Metric Association’s publication “A very British mess” (2004).
Clearly, completing the adoption of a single system of measurement will not solve all of the UK’s problems with its trade deficit. There are other issues that have caused the decline in exports over the past 50 years, for example the priority given by bankers to short term returns. But politicians could have done more.
In 2006, following publication of UKMA’s report “Metric signs ahead”, Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, appeared on BBC’s Question Time, and said that few people had approached him about the issue of the measurement units used on UK road signs:
Sorry Alistair. That was not the issue. You should have been asking how your department could help those of your constituents who were saying, “Why can’t my kids get a job?” and, “Why do I seem to be getting worse off each year?” Bringing the measurement units that appear on UK traffic signs into line with those used in the rest of the economy would have helped.
And, in 2008, at a time when such questions and others relating to the UK’s dismal export performance were finding their way to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the response by the Minister, John Denham, was a press release announcing, “Government saves pint and mile”. Sorry, John, you too were looking in the wrong direction.
The economic debate at present is focussed on the coalition government’s austerity drive versus the opposition’s preference for increased spending. Perhaps instead both should be focussing on how Britain could sell more abroad and reduce that current account trade deficit. And a good way to demonstrate that the country is serious in this would be to end the current measurement muddle and to complete, at long last, the transition to a single, simple, logical, and coherent measurement system.
Both of the UK Metric Association’s reports are available as free downloads from the UKMA web site, www.ukma.org.uk
11 thoughts on “It’s trade or bust for Britain”
It is not possible for any country whose businesses don’t operate 100 % on the metric system to be a major trading partner of any country that does operate fully on the metric system.
Consider why Germany is doing so well compared to the UK and US. Even if the elite population of trades people in the UK work entirely in metric units, it is no gain if the majority of the working class don’t. As was experienced with Chirton, either the company suffers due to lack of skilled labour or the company in order to survive has to relocate to a metric country. How many UK companies have done this? How many design and engineer in the UK, but produce elsewhere?
The strangest thing about all of this is that this type of debate does not occur anywhere else in the world. The world is metric and its economies are growing. One noticeable trend is the growing number of countries abandoning the US dollar as a reserve currency and instead trading in the currencies of their major trading partners. China has formed currency swaps with countries like Russian, Japan, Australia, India, Brasil, France (the latest) and others. As the dollar loses importance as a trading currency the influence of the US will continue to decline and its continued use of non-metric units will continue to harm the US.
China and the EU have been moving into Latin America, displacing US interests. The future of the world will belong to the movers and shakers who were once at the bottom and are rising fast to the top, while the USC and imperial users are sinking to the bottom.
I heard on NPR the other day that a small engineering firm here in the USA that has been growing because it has been getting more orders for work from outside the country has been forced to turn away work since they have not been able to hire enough people with the requisite mathematical skills.
I’d be willing to bet some of that is direct lack of familiarity with SI and the rest is a more general lack of mathematical skills that is hampered by the fact that we here in the States are not using SI instead of US Customary, which makes learning many math concepts in school that much harder.
Eventually, the USA will have come around to SI just like the rest of the world. Let’s just hope the UK breaks out of its metric muddle even sooner!
The problem with the metric people learn at school is that they cannot properly relate it to the environment around them in the UK as long as imperial units are used on road signs (and as supplementary indications). Metric units seem to be in much the same category as learning French: all well and good when you go to the continent but not needed at home and can be forgotten. The fact is NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. Anyone seeking a job where measurement is involved will need to be familiar with using metric measures. How much longer will our politicians be blind to this obvious link between the continued use of imperial on the roads (and hence in general everyday language) and the lack of numeracy.
I’m not convinced that road signs are the reason people in the UK don’t understand or use metric. Road signs are just one area of life that uses measurement. By your logic, people should be completely comfortable with metric units that are used in the market, petrol sales, weather forecasting, etc. With 99 % of the products on super market shelves metric only, everyone who shops would have no problem knowing the metric units used. The issue with road signs would only make the kilometre not well understood.
Politicians are not blind. Those who refuse to complete the metrication process are metric opponents. They don’t want things to change. They love the muddle because they can always claim that metrication brought the muddle to the UK and the only way to end it would be a complete (but impossible) return to imperial. They can’t do much about what has already changed although they would love to, but they will never allow the remnants to metricate as long has they have a say and influence.
I’ve heard many a metric opponent claim that when imperial was taught in the school there was no lack of numeracy. They insist metric introduced innumeracy.
What they realize but don’t give a hoot about is that industry does work in metric and that leaves them on the outside looking in. It is obvious though they don’t care and would rather cut off their nose to spite their face then give in and call for complete metrication.
In conclusion, instead of just blindly blaming government, you should be putting the blame where it really deserves to be placed, and that is on metric opponents who have brought their personal prejudice into the halls of government.
Road signs are the most obvious sign that Britain is not a properly metric country. Others have written on other threads about the signal this gives to visitors and most probably to investors too. The DfT acts as though the units on road signs have nothing to do with the units used elsewhere in the economy and in society. Everyone uses (reads) road signs, even pedestrians. The government has the power to do something about this and only the government. The sector by sector approach originally taken to metricate the UK may not have been a bad idea in itself but the process stalled when it came to everyday matters, including loose sales of goods in the shops and the use of metric on road signage.
I agree with what you say about those who have taken their personal prejudices to the halls of government. We know more than enough about these people already. Governments may have hoped that the metrication issue would sort itself out as one generation replaces another but that will not change the units on the roads.
What resistance there was to decimalisation of the country, which I remember well, quickly died down because the non-decimal coins were removed from circulation.
I occasionally hear the arguement that the public are not clamouring for metric on the roads, but they did not clamour for a decimal currency either. It was the government of the day which decided that this was the way forward and that it was in the national interest. Why today’s government do not see the obvious link between poor numeracy and the lack of a proper single system of measurement is something I do not understand. UKMA has been making the case for change clearly and consistenly enough for over ten years now.
Maybe I’m missing something here. But, from what I can understand from your response is that government is some type of entity run by logical thinking robots but from time to time they don’t think logically and those in society that do become frustrated by their illogical nature.
So, what can we as logical thinking citizens who see the light do to correct the situation? What can we do to make the robots think logically and complete the process of metrication?
On the other hand, let’s pretend that government isn’t run by logical thinking robots but by real humans with personal opinions that go counter to ours. What you see as an obvious link, they don’t. Their prejudice and bias to their own opinions and beliefs sees a different link. It doesn’t matter if UKMA has been making the case for the change for 100 years. They are being ignored by those of an opposing opinion.
Put your feet in their shoes. If you hated the metric system with a passion (as many of the opposition does) what would you do if you were placed in a position where you had the power to complete the change or maintain the status quo? Would you do the right thing, go against your inner feelings and those that support you and push to complete the change or would you do what is natural to you and oppose the change with all of your power and might?
The only way you can bring about the change you want and for government to work for the greater good, then it must be run by those of either a neutral position on the issue or a person biased in favour of metrication and completing the change.
Do you know anyone in the government who supports metrication and wants to see it finished? If so, then that person or persons need to be promoted or voted into the position where they can do the most good. Otherwise, 10 years from now you and I will be lamenting why isn’t government doing anything about completing metrication.
I do like to think that government is run by sound-minded individuals who can think logically, act in the best interest of their constitutents and the country and can see the bigger picture, aka the national interest. I admit I am sometimes led to frustration with the reality of how politicians act and behave. Acting in the national interest may well conflict with views expressed at a very local level, I realise that.
Much has been said on the threads here about short-termism and politicians acting to simply get re-elected (and to secure their source of income, often their only one). Obviously it is in human nature to act in one’s own interest but I have always thought politicans should be above that and, if necessary, should explain the bigger issues to their electorates.
That is what I believe they should do in the case of having a proper system of measurement in the UK. But I realise they have to see that particular light themselves first.
Would you consider William Dartmouth, a UKIP MEP and the Party’s Trade Spokesman, a sound minded individual who can think logically, act in the best interest of his constituents and the country and can see the bigger picture, aka the national interest? Maybe those who oppose him may feel is isn’t but his constituents and supporters do.
In his mind and the minds of his constituents, the bigger picture is not full metrication but a full reversal to imperial, or as far down that road as they can go. To him, metrication goes against the national interest. His supporters are also frustrated by the presence of metric. So in his logical mind, the completion of metrication is the wrong goal for the UK. As long as he holds a position in the government, even as an MEP in Brussels, he is going to oppose metrication as much as he can.
As far as I see it, it is a no win for either side situation. You can argue your points until you are blue in the face and the opposition can argue their points until they are blue in the face and neither side will budge and the status quo will remain.
The solution can not come with the government, it must come through the courts. The Supreme Court of the UK has to make a stand for either complete metrication or full imperial, but not both. Both are in violation of Magna Carta. “There shall be but one Measure of Cloth through the Realm….”
The imperial reform of 1824 was also opposed by people who wanted to keep the old measures.
But, under the WMA of the UK, the government has the right to change the measures in use, so as long as they maintain “one measure”. If the government has failed to live up to its responsibility, then a lawsuit must be brought forth and have the courts decide if the Magna Carta is to be followed and only one measure be used throughout the land.
Maybe this is something that needs to be researched further. It would be interesting to see if there are any lawyers who favour metrication and are willing to make a statement to such an idea.
Er – Ray: I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but all the clauses of Magna Carta (including the ‘one measures’ one) have been revoked at various times in the past and replaced in most cases with more modern legislation. Nothing of Magna Carta has any effect in modern law.
The sentiment did remain – The Queen Anne system was enforced from 1706 to 1824 and Imperial was the enforced system from 1824 until the 1960’s, but metric has never had that prestige for some reason. Presumably because the post 1960’s governments have perceived it as “foreign” and have put the least effort into it that they could. Had they known that the Royal Society in London in 1688 were one of the first (maybe *the* first) to promote such an idea, they’d have supported it harder.
You make some very interesting and pertinent points with which I agree, though I would refrain from commenting on the sound-mindedness of individual persons. What I wrote is that I do like to think that government is run by sound-minded individuals in the national interest; but that does not mean that I believe that this is what actually happens. I am not a fool and I see the reality of politics quite clearly.
I am not convinced that court action is the best approach to completing metrication, or achieve the use of a single measure as you rightly put it. People will never clamour for this process to be completed, but then they don’t clamour to pay taxes either. Government has to take a lead, explain the need for the change and implement it, in the face of minor opposition, if necessary, as happened during the switch from shillings and pence to decimal currency.
While I remember the changeover to decimal currency, I have not researched the background to that change. I assume there was a cross-party majority in favour. A similar approach should be considered for moving us forward with metric units.
But I am also a realist enough to see (or at least to take the personal view) that Britain is in some ways a rudderless ship at the moment: do we move forward, and if so to where, do we stay where we are, or do we try to return to some perceived golden age (the line peddled by a party which did well in the county council elections). If that golden age ever existed it must have been well before 1950. Britian has become an increasingly prosperous country during my lifetime. I believe that this is in no small part due to the increased trade within Europe but with other countries too. That trade is based on the economy having switched to metric. This benefits those in business and who use measurement professionally (as discussed on the board about metric and ‘class’) but it does not flow down into society in general to the point where everyone speaks the same measurement language. In the same way that I believe that everyone should speak the national language well enough to function as a member of society, whatever other language one may use at home, so I believe we should have a proper system of measurement used and understood by everyone. And that means having one system of measurement, not two.
Damn – when I read the article above the first time I thought I saw it claiming that this Mr Morris of Chirton was on record as saying specifically that he couldn’t get employees familiar with modern weights and measures. Which would have been great for the UKMA – just the sort of direct evidence (that’s been needed for years) that there exists a real problem.
Unfortunately, after reading the Robert Peston article at the BBC for myself, I realise that the “have to be familiar with metric weights and measures” bit was an editorial add-on by the UKMA article writer, not part of Mr Morris’s comment at all. All Mr Morris said was that his prospective employees were too innumerate to be of any use. No mention of weights and measures.
Pity. If Mr Morris *had* said that, it would have been good ammo. As it is, I suppose UKMA could write to Mr. Morris asking if he did think that even amongst his numerate employees, weights and measures were ever an issue, but I suspect he’d decline to comment.
The government won’t listen to single-interest pressure-groups maybe, but the CBI probably would, and the government *does* listen to them. The CBI should be interested in anything that impacts Britain’s commercial impact abroad – but they need to be presented with cases (several preferably) where real company directors can be heard on record saying that the metric mess is impacting them. As (briefly) I thought Mr. Morris had just done here.
But it wasn’t to be. Pity.