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: