Inside the Commons

Have you been watching this series on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 9.00 pm? Three programmes have already been broadcast, with the final on due on 24 February. They show the workings of the House of Commons and there are a few surprises, or perhaps not.

Having seen the first programme, it certainly comes as no surprise that some MPs prefer an ad hoc mixture of historical and metric measurement units to a single, coherent, logical and universal system.

Our elected representatives work in a crumbling Victorian Palace, many of their staff dress in Georgian costume, and the origins of some of the procedures they follow are lost in the mists of time. And their legislative output is signed off by the Clerk in Norman French!

Readers of Metric Views who have seen the programmes may be left thinking ‘How is it that the metric changeover has made significant progress?’, rather than ‘Why is it taking so long and is still unfinished?’

So how long has Parliament been attempting to replace a jumble of medieval measures with a simple, fit-for-purpose measurement system? The answer depends on when you start:

  • 191 years        The Weights & Measures Act of 1824 aimed to introduce uniformity and to create a system from the large number of weights and measures then in use.
  • 153 years        A Select Committee of the House of Commons recommended that the use of the metric system should be rendered legal.
  • 118 years        The Weights & Measures (Metric System) Act of 1897 permitted the use of the metric system for all purposes.
  • 50 years          The President of the Board of Trade wrote in the answer to a Parliamentary question: “… the Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units … until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole.”

We shall be returning to consider this latter anniversary in an article on Metric Views later this year.

The second programme of the series showed the search for gunpowder in the basements of the Palace of Westminster before the State Opening of Parliament. This commemorates a terrorist plot 410 years ago that was foiled by a tip-off to the intelligence service of the time and involved the medieval palace that burned down in 1834. Curious, perhaps even fun, and, unlike our surviving Roman and medieval measures, not a recipe for duplication, confusion and waste.

One thought on “Inside the Commons”

  1. When the palace under which the gunpowder was found burned down in 1834, the Imperial standards were destroyed (the standard Troy pound) or damaged beyond repair (three standard yards). In 1838 the first steps to restore the standards were taken when a commission was set up and in 1855 they were restored. It was then that the Avoirdupois pound was accepted as the Imperial standard. You can find the story in R.D. Connor, The Weights and Measures of England, 1987, p. 261 – 270.
    This is part of the fascinating history of weights and measures.


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