Will Scotland keep the pound avoirdupois as well as the pound sterling?

What impact would Scottish independence (if it were to happen) have on weights and measures?  Martin Vlietstra supplies an answer.

All parties are agreed that if Scotland votes “Yes” in the forthcoming referendum, there will be a cost in establishing an independent Scottish state.  A small part of this cost will involve setting up an independent infrastructure to regulate weights and measures.  In this article Metric Views looks at some of the “behind-the-scenes” actions that need to be considered. Whether these actions represent “value-for-money” is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide – Metric Views holds no views in that respect.

Since time immemorial rulers have taken it upon themselves to regulate weights and measures, thereby ensuring a level playing field in respect of trade. In the last two centuries this control has been extended to cover other aspects of life including health, safety and technology.  The need for expanding trade regional and world trade has resulted in a growing centralisation of the regulation of weights and measures.  In 1707, Scotland’s weights and measures were replaced by England’s weights and measures and their control fell under the remit of the parliament of the United Kingdom, thereby facilitating trade between the various parts of the kingdom.  In 1965 the British Government announced the adoption of the metric system to facilitate trade with the rest of the world.  In 1972 the EEC passed directive 71/354/EEC which required the six original members to covert to SI rather than retaining CGS and associated units. The EEC directive was consistent with the British metrication plans at the time (the UK joined the EEC in 1973), though in 1979 the directive was amended by  Directive 80/181/EEC which allowed both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to complete the adoption of the metric system at a slower pace.

Where would this leave an independent Scotland? If Scotland joins the EU or becomes a member of EFTA (European Free Trade Association), she will be obliged to adopt directive 80/181/EEC, this directive being one of the EU directives that EFTA members are required to adopt as a condition of the free trade agreement with the EU. The only unanswered question is whether or not Scotland would be permitted by the EU to retain the effective “opt-outs” currently enjoyed by the United Kingdom.

Although the actual units of measure in use have a much higher profile in the public eye than the means of regulating them, the means by which units of measure are defined and regulated is at least as important as the units themselves. Two international conventions set up the framework to oversee the definition units of measure (1875) and the application of units of measure (1955).

The Treaty of the Metre (1875) set up the General Council for Weights and Measures (CGPM). The CGPM has custody of the international prototype kilogram and, until 1960 when it was replaced by a definition based on the wavelength light generated in a specified manner, the international prototype metre. Member states are entitled to their own national copies of the international prototypes and the right to have them calibrated against the international copy at regular intervals.  Member states are also required to have a national laboratory where the national prototypes are stored and where they can be used locally. The United Kingdom signed the Convention of the Metre in 1883 and today all units of measure in the United Kingdom, including the yard and the pound avoirdupois)  are traceable to the standards maintained by the CGPM. The yard is defined as being exactly 0.9144 metres and the pound as being exactly 0.45359237 kilograms – there is no artefact that serves as a reference copy of either the yard or the pound.In 1955 the International Organization of Legal Metrology was set up to promote harmonisation of the legal aspects of metrology. This covered questions such as the maximum permitted variation of specified pieces of equipment, for example when can I call a piece of metal a “one kilogram weight”. (Answer = According to OIML recommendation R111,  a 1 kg Class E1 weight is allowed a maximum deviation of 0.00005% and a class M3 weight a maximum deviation of 0.05%. Recommendation R111 also defines procedures to make these calibrations). The scope of the OIML’s recommendations covers not only the calibration of weights, but also of taximeters, petrol pumps, automatic packaging devices, speedometers and a host of other devices.

The CIPM and the OIML work closely with each other – their respective headquarters are in the Paris region about 10 km apart. In particular, they have issued a standardised vocabulary of metrology and have also a Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) process – a system whereby one country will recognise calibrations made in another country. The mechanism is that member states can licence private organisation to perform calibration services made in accordance with a procedure laid down by the OIML and that such will be recognised by other member states. The process is not too dissimilar to having a standard set of MoT tests for an MoT, having MoT centres licenced by EU member states and a MoT issued in one state being valid in other states.  The OIML and CIPM have split their responsibilities – committees operating under the auspices of the OIML define how the standardisation is to be done while the CIPM maintains a register of organisations that are licenced to perform certain types of calibration. Membership of the OIML committees is restricted to full member states of the OIML.

Both the OIML and CGPM have “observer” members – the CGPM observer (or Associate) members may participate in MRA activities, but do not have a vote at the CGPM. Similarly, OIML observer (or participating) members are kept informed of OIML activates, but as with the CGPM, do not have a vote.

Initially it is unlikely that an independent Scotland will make any material changes to the regulatory regime.  The “MoT model” described above was set up to conform to EU regulations. The issues facing a newly independent Scotland will be whether or not to join either or both the GCPM and OIML, and if so, on what basis. The CGPM has two different precedents for states that split – both Norway and Sweden are regarded as being founder members, the Kingdom of Norway and Sweden having signed the original treaty 1875 and the country having split in 1905. On the other hand, although the Austro-Hungarian Empire was also a founding member, today Austria is regarded as a founding member, but not Hungary (the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved in the aftermath of the First World War). If Scotland decides to become a full member, she will either have to establish a national laboratory or come to an arrangement with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and the National Measurement Office (NMO) to use their services. It will also have to negotiate with the remnant of the United Kingdom and the GCPM or OIML (as appropriate) whether or not she will “inherit” part of the United Kingdom’s original membership or whether her applications will be considered as new applications. As a guideline, all EU members apart from Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta are full members of both organisations. The six “small” nations are “participating members” of the OIML and, apart from Cyprus, “associate members” of the GCPM.


12 thoughts on “Will Scotland keep the pound avoirdupois as well as the pound sterling?”

  1. This issue of use of the metric system is covered in the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence.

    Weights and Measures

    108. Would Scotland develop its own legislation on weights and measures, and would this be metric or imperial?

    The existing system will continue on independence.

    So no change!


  2. There are a lot of conflicting opinions on whether a completely independent Scotland would be able to join the EU, and if so, on what terms. Certainly, Alex Salmond is very gung-ho about joining, as witness this from him: “An independent Scotland will be an enthusiastic member of the EU, in line with our long-held international and outward-looking focus and values.”

    Scotland is, technically, its own country (and always has been ever since it joined the union), albeit one that is part of a greater entity, the UK. If, because it is already an EU member (as part of the UK), it is allowed to in effect continue that membership as a completely separate country, it may just inherit the same powers that the UK already enjoys in being able to set measurement standards that are at variance with EU norms (such as imperial road signs, etc). Alternatively, the EU may regard a completely independent Scotland as a new country, and membership will almost certainly require complete metrication, to the same standards as are imposed on all other members (UK excepted).

    In talking to a couple of my Scottish colleagues (both of whom, being in the construction industry, are pro-metric, including conversion of road signs), they feel that the ‘No’ vote will win by a whisker, but that the greater devolved powers that Scotland will then receive could even extend to road signs (that strikes me as unlikely – in Canada, which is a federal country, the decision to convert road signs to metric units was a federal one, even though it was implemented at the provincial level). But it is just possible that, either way, Scotland could push to convert its road signs, as a way of showing not only as much independence from Westminster as possible, but also to show the EU they would become ‘good’ EU citizens.

    The timeframe for complete independence, should the ‘Yes’ vote be successful, is 18 months. That should be more than enough time for an independent Scotland to rid itself of the last vestiges of imperial measurement units if it so chose. The question is, will it make that choice?


  3. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, I think that all sorts of things might be up for grabs, especially if Whitehall gets vindictive about it. Suddenly joining the Euro or completing metrication might seem a lot more attractive.

    And there is a good reason why Scots might get bolshie about weights and measures. Imperial measures are just that, Imperial. They are not the old Scottish measures at all, so there couldn’t be the same emotional pull as in England. Secondly, completing metrication might suddenly seem much more attractive as a way to show how much more up-to-date the Scots are compared with the Saxon stick-in-the-muds down south. (Changing to the Euro would be a lot more – courageous.)

    Of course, none of this might happen. However, if Scotland decides to leave the UK, other things might well change, too.


  4. Scotland should remember Lord Kelvin: supporter of metric, contributed to its development and the developer of the absolute temperature scale, using Celsius degrees, which is now one of the basic units of SI, the kelvin.


  5. I just read this in the New Yorker:

    “Beginning in 2016, the Scottish Parliament will be able to alter income-tax rates by up to ten pence in the pound. Scotland is also altering the way in which it taxes property sales, to make its methods more progressive, and it is taking over the setting of laws relating to speed limits and drunk driving.”

    So, if the Scottish Parliament will be able to set laws related to speed limits, couldn’t they then at least *allow* metric-only distance signs and speed limit signs or even go further and replace all of those imperial signs the way the Irish did?


  6. So, we have an ancient system, much tinkered with and amended over the years, and now no longer fit for purpose. A thorough overhaul is promised as a result of the referendum. No, not British weights and measures aka Imperial but the British constitution. One wonders if this job will be left unfinished, as happened to the changeover to metric measures.


  7. After yesterday’s interview with Evan Davies, there is little doubt on where the Prime Minister stands on retaining the avoirdupois pound. I just cannot believe a PM in 2014 would say such a thing as preferring pounds and ounces to kilograms. This statement is about on par with the one he made about the Queen ‘purring’ after the Scottish referendum – disgraceful, and not worthy of being uttered by the leader of the country.


  8. @ John Frewen-Lord

    Hear! Hear!

    I look forward to UKMA’s response to the PM’s insane plan to have schools focusing mainly on teaching Imperial measurements.

    It proves that Cameron has finally “gone ’round the bend”!


  9. @Ezra

    Following a 3-year consultation process a revised national curriculum came into force in England (not Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) last month. As before it requires maths and science to be taught primarily in metric units with rough imperial equivalents. So no change there. Oddly the new curriculum does require the ability to do multiplication and division in Roman numerals!

    Presumably, Mr Cameron was either unaware of or had forgotten about the new curriculum, or he was just playing to the UKIP gallery – or both. I think he has made himself look ridiculous.

    Nevertheless it is depressing that the Prime Minister should make such an irresponsible and ignorant statement.


  10. I have just watched part of that Evans Davies interview. I don’t know who he is but full marks for taking this issue head on, first question!!
    So we really are a first class, modern, forward looking nation dispite wanting to cling on to pounds and ounces, miles and pints. Also it seem we return to Roman numerals in year MMXIV for school education rather than those quaint arabic 1234s’ we have been trying to get used to recently. It must surely be me that is wrong?
    Well, at least we can be pretty sure now the hitherto inexplicable reason for the virtually fully metric palace to issue the future kings (or Queens) weights in pounds and ounces, it was on the sound advice of the prime minister.
    Another problem solved for me, I know exactly two places my vote will not be going next year, and I have just cancelled my local MP newsletter. The rest of my comments are best left unsaid.
    In my own opinion, getting this country, be it England, UK, GB or whatever, running seemlessly with the rest of the world is parmount. RUK, little england or little britain does not work for me.


  11. The Smith Commission for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, dated 27 November 2014 made no direct references to units if measure.

    However Paragraph 65 read “Remaining powers to change speed limits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Powers over all road traffic signs in Scotland will also be devolved.”

    Paragraphs 71 and 72 are indirectly connected with metrication issues. Paragraph 71 reads “Scottish Ministers already have the ability to request that a UK regulatory body carry
    out a market study of their area of responsibility to examine particular competition
    issues arising in Scotland. Scottish Ministers will also have the power to require the
    Competition and Markets Authority to carry out a full second phase investigation
    (in the same way as UK Ministers), after such an initial study has been completed,
    in relation to particular competition issues arising in Scotland.” and Paragraph 72 read “Consumer advocacy and advice will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.”

    (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/28_11_14_smithcommission.pdf).


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