We review the events that followed the announcement in May 1965 of a change of Government policy on the adoption of metric weights and measures.
Our article last week examined the consequences of the failure to follow through the change in policy in 1965 on measurement units. This week we look at some of the events up to 1980, the year that the Government abandoned attempts to achieve a planned and orderly transition to a single, simple, rational and universal system of measurement for the UK. We then look at the years of waste and confusion that followed.
For a personal, ‘eye-witness’ account of this period, readers may be interested in the article written by the last Director of the UK Metrication Board, Jim Humble OBE, which may be found here: http://www.ukma.org.uk/articles/jhumble.
Metric Britain before 1965
It is often said the usage of measures in a country is never entirely customary or metric, but a mixture of the two, with the proportions depending on how far the transition has progressed. This is illustrated by examples of metric use in the UK before 1965:
- The teaching of science in schools, colleges and universities was metric, using the centimetre gram second system (cgs).
- The teaching of engineering was a mixture of Imperial for civil and mechanical engineering and metric, using the metre kilogram second ampere (MKSA) system, for electrical engineering.
- Electrical energy was sold by the kWh, although gas was sold by the therm (equal to 100 000 British thermal units).
- Engine sizes were specified in metric: cubic cm (or cc) for motorcycles and litres for cars.
- The Met Office had been using metric internally since 1914. Celsius temperatures, then known as centigrade, started appearing in public forecasts in 1962.
- The scales on nautical charts issued by the Hydrographic Office were metric.
- Roll film had been designated in metric since the early 1900s, namely 8, 16 and 35 mm.
- Before FM and digital, radio stations were known by the wavelength in metres of their transmissions. Some readers may remember the BBC’s Light Programme on long wave, 1500 m.
- For mapping, the Ordnance Survey had adopted a metric national grid in 1940.
Although they may not have realised it, the British had already begun their transition to metric measures long before 1965.
In November 1965, major sectors of British industry approved a policy statement that urged British firms to regard the traditional screw thread systems – Whitworth, BA and BSF – as obsolescent, and to make the internationally-agreed ISO metric thread as their first choice (with the ISO Inch (unified) thread as second choice) for all future designs. Industry had thereby signalled its intention to move from focusing on pound-inch markets to metric ones.
A year later, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Metrication was appointed.
By 1967, the British Standards Institution (BSI) had recommended that the UK adopt the modern version of the metric systrem known as SI, one of the first countries to do so, and the Department of Education and Science (DES) had published guidance for the change to metric units in education. The construction industry issued its timetable for the changeover, which was then followed successfully. In this year, also, the adoption of international paper sizes (A4 and so on) started and the UK Hydrographic Office began the conversion of depths on charts to metres.
1968 saw the establishment of the UK Metrication Board to co-ordinate this voluntary activity – it had been recognised by the Government, belatedly, that the metric changeover would need a helping hand if it was to extend successfully beyond industry. The Royal Society, the BSI and the DES all published guidance on issues related to the adoption of the metric system. In 1969, the metric system became obligatory for the dispensing of medicines.
However, in 1970, the first cloud appeared on the horizon when the Minister for Transport announced that speed limits would not be made metric in 1973 as had originally been proposed – the cost was estimated at £2 million!
In 1971, the introduction of decimal currency went ahead as planned.
In 1972, a Government White Paper on metrication said that the changeover should take place in a well-ordered and regulated manner. At this time, the metric transition had the support of the minister responsible for trade.
In the same year, the Government began negotiations to join the European Economic Community (EEC), knowing that entry would carry with it an obligation to adopt the Community’s measurement system – ‘let there be one measure’ should have been a principle familiar to UK negotiators. Membership of the EEC was supported by a referendum in 1975.
Another cloud appeared in the early 1970’s – a widespread reluctance in manufacturing industry to fund the changeover. Target dates were frequently missed. Some companies opted for a US takeover to avoid the investment that the changeover would require. Despite the approach of industry to the Government in 1965, many companies did not believe that one day they would face the choice of going metric or going out of business.
However, many of the plans laid in the late 1960’s did appear to be coming to fruition. Teaching of maths in primary schools went metric in 1974, the Ordnance Survey began issuing Landranger maps to 1:50 000 scale to replace the “one inch” series, Royal Mail adopted metric measures for postal tariffs, and a large number of packaged goods, including tea, sugar, rice, flour and soft drinks, began to appear in rational metric packaging.
It was not until 1977, that the shortcomings of the Government’s favoured voluntary approach became apparent. Jim Humble relates how a major carpet retailer found commercial advantage in reverting to sales by the square yard because these prices appeared to customers to be 20% cheaper than those in metric. Metrication of carpet sales entered into a full-scale reverse. Retail associations pressed the government for cut-off dates for imperial pricing of a wide range of products, but to no avail. With a General Election approaching, the Government lost its nerve, and the changeover stalled.
It was left to a new government, taking office in 1979, to kill off the Metrication Board and limit further metrication to what could be achieved voluntarily. The message was clear – plans for a well-ordered and regulated transition had been abandoned.
Fifteen years of drift followed. The very British mess that resulted is described in UKMA’s publication, available for download here: http://www.ukma.org.uk/publications, and is summarised in our last article. Worse, pre-packed groceries were often in metric packaging, but loose fruit and veg was weighed and priced everywhere in Imperial. Visitors to Britain could be forgiven for thinking that here was a first world country with a third world approach to measurement units. And school pupils must have wondered how their maths teaching related to their lives outside the school gate.
At this time, manufacturing industry saw a decline in Britain’s competitiveness, caused partly by the failure to complete the metric transition.
Metric countries such as Brazil, China and Russia were increasing their share of world trade, and, of course, the UK could not isolate itself from these changes. Many Commonwealth countries, once export markets for Britain, had pressed on with metrication, some following the 1965 announcement, and by 1995, for example, Australia, India, Malaysia, New Zealand and South Africa had substantially completed the transition. Canada, despite the 8900 km long border with the US, had converted its road signs.
One by one, big (Imperial) names in British industry succumbed to foreign-owned (metric) competition. For example:
for cars, BLMC, later the Rover Group then MG Rover gave way to Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Peugeot, VW and BMW (now makers of the Mini);
for lorries, Foden, Leyland and Bedford gave way to Mercedes, DAF, MAN and Renault;
for buses, Leyland and Guy gave way to Volvo and Scania;
for aircraft, BAC and its successor, British Aerospace, gave way to Airbus.
And so on for a myriad of smaller companies. Manufacturing survived, albeit often by foreign-owned companies. But the focus of the UK economy had moved from manufacturing to services.
One of the areas hardest hit was the West Midlands, represented in Parliament in the 1960s by John Horner who had put the question to the President of the Board of Trade that had produced the auspicious reply fifty years ago.
Our final article in this series will look at the short burst of activity between 1995 and 2000 and the long period of stagnation that has followed.