The 1972 White Paper Revisited

This week, Ronnie Cohen takes a look at the long-forgotten 1972 White Paper on Metrication.

One widespread myth that has constantly been repeated by Eurosceptic politicians and the tabloid media is that the metric system has been imposed on the UK by the EU. In fact, the Heath government published a White Paper on Metrication in 1972, a year before the UK entered the Common Market, the precursor to the EU. This article looks at some key points in the 1972 White Paper, starting with the points about the historical context of the transition to the metric system.

The move towards the metric system began long before this paper was published. It began as far back as 1862 when the Report from the Select Committee on Weights and Measures strongly favoured the adoption of the metric system. The 1864 Metric Weights and Measures Act legalised the use of the metric system in “contracts and dealings” and the 1897 Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act legalised the use of the metric system for most purposes. This refutes the erroneous perception of “metrication by stealth”. We have been moving towards the metric system for over 150 years.

The White Paper quotes the recommendations of the Hodgson Committee in 1951, which came to a unanimous conclusion after a two year review of the existing Weights and Measures legislation at the time, saying “that the metric system is, in the broadest sense and in the interests of world uniformity, a ‘better’ system of weights and measures than the imperial; that a change from imperial to metric for all trade purposes is sooner or later inevitable; that a continuance of the present option to use either the metric or the imperial until the inevitable comes about will cause in the long run more inconvenience than an ordered change within a specified period; and that the long-term advantages which would flow from an organised change in the near future would far outweigh the inconveniences of the change itself”. The Hedgson Committee Report also recognised the benefits of common standards in measurement in international trade and said “that it is obviously illogical for there to be two separate systems in a world which is, from the trading point of view, becoming rapidly smaller; and the advantages of a decimal system are such that it is highly unlikely that any country not now using it would adopt the non-decimal imperial system.”.

Although industry was divided about the merits of metrication in 1951, this changed significantly within 14 years. The White Paper describes the increasing proportion of British exports going to countries that were completely metric or changing to the metric system in the 1960’s and 1970’s, saying that, “In 1950 43 per cent of United Kingdom exports went to those countries which were then already metric. With the change in our pattern of trade, these same countries now take 58 per cent. A further 25 per cent of our exports in 1970 were to countries that since 1950, either had adopted or were in the course of changing to the metric system. Thus over 83 per cent of UK exports are now to markets that either are or soon will be metric.”.

The White Paper describes the steady increase in the adoption of the metric system since it was first introduced in France. It says that 35 countries had adopted it by 1900, including most of the leading European states. This number rose to 78 countries by 1960. It continued, “most Commonwealth countries which had not already done so, among them Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and also South Africa have decided to adopt metric units. All either have changed or are in the process of changing.” The US government had also recommended the change to the metric system.

The EU saw the competitive advantages of using the metric system, which was spreading throughout the world and decided to standardise on the use of the modern version of the metric system known as the International System of Units or SI as agreed by the General Conference of Weights and Measures in 1960. At the time, some EU members were using older versions of the metric system. When the UK became a member of the EEC, as it was then know, the UK was already in the process of moving to the metric system and agreed on the directives to adopt the metric system. Given that one of the main objectives of the EU was the removal of all barriers to trade and an important part of that goal was the standardisation of measurement units used throughout the EU. In 1965, the UK government aimed to complete metrication by 1975, several years before joining the EU.

By the mid-1960’s, most of British industry recognised the business and trade advantages and benefits and supported metrication. This was not surprising, given the worldwide adoption of the metric system. Here is one relevant quote in the White Paper about the support for metrication by British industry, urging the Government in 1965 to adopt the metric system as the primary and ultimately the only system of measurement in the UK:

“It was primarily the steady growth of metric at the expense of imperial markets that influenced the then Federation of British Industries (now the Confederation of British Industry) to inform the Government in 1965, after two polls of its members, that the majority of members, both in number of firms and in total size of business, was in favour of the adoption of the metric system as the primary and ultimately the only method of measurement to be used in the United Kingdom. This advice was offered shortly after an enquiry by the British Standards Institution of its members had produced a similar consensus. The Federation suggested that the time was appropriate for general Government support for the change.”

The White Paper recognised that it required government leadership and cannot be left to individuals. “Progress to metrication cannot be a haphazard affair, left to individual whim and decision. If that were to happen it could cause confusion throughout industry and would present untold difficulties to the consumer. It is in everybody’s interests therefore to ensure that it takes place in a well-ordered and properly regulated manner.” Hence, the role of the Metrication Board, authorised by the government, to lead the change to the metric system, co-ordinate the changeover in industry sectors and publicise the change to the general public.

The White Paper recognised that industry could not go metric in isolation without any involvement by the general public, given the interdependence of different parts of the economy. It said that, “In these circumstances to attempt to keep imperial units for the individual shopper while industry was on metric would be both confusing and costly.”, and that it would deny the country the full financial benefits of going completely metric.

The White Paper mentioned that it would disadvantageous to the UK to keep the imperial system, there was a risk that the UK would “become the only major trading country using it”. It would cost more to maintain imperial specifications for domestic orders while using metric specifications for export orders. It would increase manufacturing costs while making it harder for British industry to sell to overseas markets. For the UK, that would mean higher prices for British consumers, fewer jobs and a lower standard of living. As the White Paper put it, “It is their recognition of the fact and extent of metrication in countries to which they must sell that has led wide areas of British industry voluntarily to adopt it for the home market as well.”. DfT, take note.

The importance and benefits of international standards, among them the metric system, has been recognised by British industry and an important reason for the use of metric units by a big part of it. British industry recognised it as an essential part of success in international trade and competitiveness, especially in British engineering. Here is what the White Paper has to say about international standards:

“All but a few of these international standards are expressed in metric measures. This is partly a consequence of the well-established dominance of metric units in pure science and advanced technology in all countries and partly because the majority of active members of the international organisations are metric countries. National delegations cannot even participate effectively unless they accept metric units. It is therefore natural that the British Standards Institution was among the first bodies to point to the inevitable acceptance of metrication by British industry.”

The White Paper quotes the following advantages offered by the metric system:

  • It is simple both to teach and to use.
  • It offers great scope for rationalisation and variety reduction in factory, warehouse and shop.
  • It offers greater export opportunities in an increasingly metric world.
  • It supports the harmonisation of international standards.
  • It helps to remove barriers to trade.

Two points made in the White Paper that are widely ignored by politicians today is that delaying metrication is to get the worst of both worlds and that it is harder to make comparisons when both metric and imperial are both in use.

On the issue of road signs, the White Paper’s statement turned out to be prophetic. It said, “The present system for showing speed limits and other road signs is unlikely to be changed for a long time to come.”. It has been 43 years since then and they still have not been changed.

You can find the 1972 White Paper on Metrication at the following link:

14 thoughts on “The 1972 White Paper Revisited”

  1. @Ronnie C

    It has only recently appeared, but BWMA has just released a paper, “Ministers’ Metrication Conspiracy,” that used documents obtained through FOI requests. It shows documents that the UK had intended a solely voluntary metrication approach, prior to EU membership.

    Do you have a response to this change in policy? I’ll seek their permission to post some excerpts, but this format doesn’t appear to allow me to attach scans of the original, private communiques that are only now viewable to the public.

    I’m quoting one Memorandum, dated Tuesday, 29 December 1970 from the European Commission to Member States, here: “. . .the European Commission has adopted a proposal concerning the approximation of the legislation of the Member States relating to units of measure … The consequences of the unification of the units of measure will of course be felt in the field of trade of goods … The EC has selected, as a harmonisation formula, that of “total harmonisation”. This means that the community provisions and definitions will have to replace ther national provisions and definitions … The Commission has therefore laid down a transitional period of five years, during which the Member States will have to gradually eliminate the “units of measure” which do not conform … Certain units commonly used in the various Member States do not correspond to the International System of units and must be eliminated … Member States will have 18 months, after the adoption of the Directive, to make their national legislation conform to this …”.

    The date of this document clearly shows EU membership was the driving force behind imposition of metric by force. Unfortunately for you, the politicians left a paper trail that shows their true motivations and the order in which things happened. Gotcha!


  2. @ Americans for Customary Weight and Measure

    I guess you elect yourselves as the mouth piece for BWMA.
    This political jargon is a bit over my head. However, ACWM, BWMA and ARM often bring up this bit about metrication being ‘forced’ when it is supposed to be ‘voluntary’. That is fair enough on its own.

    However, a grocer using ‘lbs’ against the law is fine, but a landowner using ‘metres’ on a private sign on their own land needs vandalising. In USA it is a bit different, you call it Commie, based on the fact that Russia refused to bow to America forcing Imperial on them after the war.

    Any council choosing to use metric is taken to task, yet the illegal use of improper units in Imperial is OK.
    We all know exactly what you consider as voluntary, do it our way and it is your free choice, do it your own way, then you are being misguided, and forcing it on others, some EU or Commie conspiracy.

    I do it my way. I do it by choice. I choose because it is understood by most people of the world (not least by me, which helps). Imperial was fine in the 18th and 19th century, up to landing on the moon if you like. After that it gets a bit ragged round the edges.

    Metric (SI) is easier, metric (SI) is world wide, metric (SI) is, for the most part logical and rational. Metric is a system.


  3. @ACWM If metrication had been “forced” at the time then by now we would have been fully metricated for 40 years and would not be having this discussion.

    I suspect that if Britain had fully metricated in the 1970’s as originally intended, Canadian metrication would have been more likely to follow and the USA would have had little choice but to follow too.

    All of this documentary evidence does nothing more than prove that the politicians of the time were unwilling to do what needed to be done and this has cost us dearly.


  4. “…shows their true motivations…”.

    And what exactly do you claim their “true motivations” to be? They have no hidden agenda. Their motivation is clearly stated:

    “The EC has selected, as a harmonisation formula, that of “total harmonisation”.”

    That’s right! Total harmonisation. you are just angered that the EU and world chose to harmonise on SI, not imperial or USC. If they did, you would be singing quite a different tune.

    Harmonisation is a good thing, especially for business and industry. Common parts for many things means less cost to manufacture. Metrication has improved the economies of those who fully embrace it and muddle the economies of those who resist it.

    The US has voluntary metrication and as a result you have large industries using metric and small Ma & Pa shops struggling using USC and what they produce are hybrid products. Your definition of voluntary metrication is no metrication at all, yet in the real world it means half metricate and the other half doesn’t creating a muddle to which no one benefits.

    That is the real Gotcha!


  5. @ACWM

    For several decades, the UK and USA have tried the voluntary approach to completing their transition to the metric system and both countries have ended up being stuck with two competing systems. Clearly this approach has failed. When the UK started its metrication programme in 1965, it aimed to complete metrication in 10 years. After 50 years, there is no end in sight to the measurement muddle.

    Compare their approach to the success of metrication in Ireland and major Commonwealth countries, which you can read about on the UKMA website on the following pages: (Australia’s Experience – Conversion Rationale and Lessons Learned) (Successful changeover in South Africa) (Comparison between metrication in Britain and Australia) (sections about Australia, Canada, Ireland and USA)

    The failure of successive UK governments to take decisive action to phase out imperial measures and use metric for all purposes has lead to the measurement mess faced by Britons today. Every country needs a system of weights and measures everyone can use and understand. No country needs two systems.

    The conversion of traffic and pedestrian signs and legislation and enforcement of laws governing the use of measurement units in product description and advertising and in trade can only be done by government. It is normal for governments to enact laws, rules and regulations to ensure common standards and uniformity of measurement units within their jurisdiction.


  6. Here is a link to the article that ACWM is referring to:

    Barely newsworthy, no comments posted meaning a big yawn and a whopping “so what?”and most of all, will change nothing.

    As far as I can tell, no one else carried the article. Warwick Cairns got all worked up or nothing. It must be very upsetting to make an issue of nothing and nobody cares.


  7. Hang on!

    This 1970 policy of the European Commission did not stop and has not stopped the UK from going its own sweet way over units of measure.

    The 1972 White Paper was also strongly of the opinion that the UK should convert to the metric system. However, it is too much of a stretch to state or imply that the white paper was only concerned with pleasing Brussels. In any case, the white paper was also ineffective in switching the UK to the metric system.

    As a supposed proof of a conspiracy, it fails to convince me.


  8. I made a point of going into the article by Warwick Cairns in the Daily Globe. He speaks of what he calls the ‘destruction of the living link to Shakespeare and Chaucer’ as a result of Britain’s adoption of modern measurement units. I must say, I would have thought the ‘living link to Shakespeare and Chaucer’ would have been the fact that we are all still speaking English. Having said that, I don’t know anyone who speaks Shakespearian or Chaucerian English these days (I wonder if Mr Cairns does?). He or she would, I’m sure, be highly sought after if they did. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who lives in the kind of society or world Shakespeare and Chaucer would have lived in either (again, perhaps Mr Cairns does). Most if not all of the world is completely different today from anything Shakespeare or Chaucer would have known. Even our English language is very different to what it was then. Therefore to reduce the ‘living link’ to the few medieval units of measure still remaining in Britain today (and I suppose Mr Cairns is thinking of Shylock’s ‘Pound of flesh’ in the Merchant of Venice) is to imply that nothing else has changed in the world around us in the intervening centuries. (Even Shylock’s ‘Pound of flesh’ would not have been a 545 g pound, in the sense of the modern equivalent, as it was centuries later before imperial measures were even standardized in Britain). The lasting homage to Shakespeare and Chaucer, surely, is to read their works (possibly even have a copy on a shelf somewhere for occasional browsing). The former is still readable, from a language point of view, but for the Chaucer you will probably need ‘learned notes’ to explain the meaning as the English has changed so much. I notice from the article in the Daily Globe that Mr Cairns lives in Windsor. If history is his thing, then he has it aplenty there, more than I or most readers will ever encounter in their lifetimes (and why did they build that castle so close to the airport?). He really doesn’t need antiquated units of measure in the high street. To use Mr Cairns’ own words, perhaps he actually should get out more.


  9. @”Daniel” no it is not the article. Please show us where our quotes are for you to make that claim.

    That is a new, independent news source, that has only been up for one month, so it is not surprising that it has not yet attracted a large following.

    Unfortunately for people like you, not everything is available online. Please see “Ministers’ Metrication Conspiracy” from BWMA, first released on or about 28 September, 2015. It has not been released yet electronically, so we can only quote excerpts, but it’s a thorough 14-page document full of verified, first-person accounts. You could learn a lot from credible, first-hand sourcing and objective journalism, rather than logical fallacies like correlation vs. causation, your favorite.

    EC, aka European Union. If you’re into British politics, you’d see why this is important. You’re advocating doing what Europe says? That’s gold for the people who want the UK to leave the EU, though I’m neutral/undecided myself.

    @BrianAC I’m an American, who represents Americans for Customary Weight and Measure, founder Seaver Leslie, Maine 1978 est. As such, I receive official communications from BWMA and ARM, our sister groups. I am also in contact with anti-metric persons in Canada, both formally and informally involved. I’m no official spokesman for BWMA, but they’ve mailed this to me and I feel free to quote it. What I’ve produced, at least should be barring any typos, a 100 percent verbatim account. I’ve quoted it and provided credit, what’s the problem? You can buy the whole pamphlet for £1. It’s up to BWMA if/when they wish to release an electronic version and at what cost. They’ve clearly spent a great deal of time and money compiling this, at 14 pages, so obviously, the choice is theirs. I’ve only mentioned this after they released a separate article on the same subject.

    You clearly don’t understand that ACWM, BWMA, and ARM are all separate. No, we don’t call metric users Commies. You’ll be disappointed to know I don’t call metric-users “Commies,” though some of you forced-metric types have an eerie resemblance to 20th Century National Socialists. I can’t officially comment for BWMA or ARM, but it seems pretty obvious to me that ARM’s tit is a response to TSO’s tat. See also the “Cardial’s Hat,” the pub supported by BWMA for wanting to sell beer (bier? 😀 ) in traditional metric glasses. So there’s that obvious show off support from BWMA, which has been well-documented by the press. Sadly the pub closed, but not because of the TSO’s. It’s a consistent, to us, demonstration of a defense of “custom” even if it is a foreign custom. It’s just that some people don’t like being made criminals for selling pounds of bananas. The government is bound by law, as are signs on roads to which the pubkic has access. Giving them “freedom” is synonymous with giving them tyranny over the people. So if you want to work in government, no, you don’t have “freedom” because you’re using the public’s tax money to SERVE THEM.

    Russia previous Soviet rule, had aligned its inch’s definition to 1 Imperial inch. So they actually still use, for bullets, calibres for manufacture. The only attempt at “imposing Imperial[sic – we use USC]” has been for aircraft altitudes. This is perfectly sensible, as are knots for aeronautical activities.

    @Alex Bailey I’m not sure if the trade with Europe would have pushed the US to convert. Canada and Mexico (NAFTA) certainly wouldn’t here. Canada’s less than 1/3 the size of the US (I forget Mexico, maybe 50-60?) but no where near the industrial development of US or CA. The US is only losing manufacture anyway due to globalization.

    Fortunately the UK, as a Democracy, has multiple political parties, not all of whom are eager to fit in with Europe. I’m amazed the UK gave up the marvelous currency of Holmes, that went back hundreds of years. I learned it as a child from that literature, and was disappointed upon finding out, later, you’d abandoned it in the early ’70s.


  10. @AfCW&M:
    “Canada’s less than 1/3 the size of the US”

    You need to learn a bit more of the geography in your own backyard. Canada’s population is 1/10th that of the USA. But then knowledge of the world beyond its borders never was a strong point for America.


  11. Not sure if he means size or population; wrong in any case. Canada is almost as large as the US, 9.094 Mm² vs 9.162 Mm², but about one-tenth the population, most of which lives near the US border. Mexico is just over 1/5 the land area and 1/3 the population more or less. Both are substantially more metric than the US, with some concessions to USC for US trade. If he thinks NAFTA makes them entirely USC internally, it is another factual error.


  12. What a pretentious thing to say, stereotyping 318 million people. I couldn’t correct my typo; you have carte blanche over approval of anything I post here, and further this comes from someone who jet-sat under what can only be described as waning Imperial policies, including an Apartheid state?

    I was, at least half the size I should have said for Mexico, with 120 million. But you couldn’t get an Empire pass there, then, under the same racist policies you pretend to protest, now.

    The bulk of my comment, I believe I used “dwarf,” wouldn’t make sense with more Canadians than Mexicans nor pointing out MORE Mexicans than Canadians. So there’s that against your incredibly condescending “American ignorance” comment. Sorry, we’re based in Maine, not Texas or South Carolina. . .

    What I SHOULD have written and am unable to correct is 1/9, not 1/10. 318 vs. 35 million. Sorry that does not work out to a ten.


  13. Population of the US: 318 900 000
    Population of Canada: 35 160 000
    Ratio: 0.11 (11 %)

    Not even close to a third.

    Area of the US: 9.857 Mm²
    Area of Canada: 9,985 Mm²

    Almost equal.

    It just goes to prove that using imperial or USC can make one innumerate.


  14. I meant to type 1/10. Actual number is 1/10. I clearly referred to population; I clearly said that Mexico’s population was larger, too, so this contradiction tends to support my story. If you read (present tense) my comment, instead of trying to score political points Republican debating style, there’s no mention to area, only population. Canada’s far bigger than the US, but has a lot more frozen tundra (save Alaska) than us. One of their territories, has only 20,000 people spread across the largest area of land on Earth.

    Even though my argument proves it was a typo, I was still only off by three.


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