EU in or out: metric either way

In February, the Prime Minister confirmed the date of the referendum which will decide whether the United Kingdom remains in or leaves the European Union (EU). The referendum will take place on 23 June 2016. In this article, Ronnie Cohen looks at some measurement issues related to the decision on EU membership.

The UK Metric Association (UKMA), sponsor of this blog, has no view on the EU referendum. But it believes that it is in the interest of the UK to use the global and international system of measures whether we stay or leave.

One widely-believed British myth about the metric system is that it has been imposed on the UK by the EU. In fact, the EU has granted the UK many derogations over the years regarding the continued use of imperial units in specific areas. However, this myth is the basis of some hostility towards the metric system by a few Euro-sceptics and their friends in the tabloid press. If they are hoping that a British withdrawal from the EU, currently known as Brexit, will enable them to turn the clock back on metrication without penalty, they are likely to be disappointed.

Many Brexit supporters are hoping to exploit opportunities to strike new trade deals and seek new business opportunities with key markets outside the EU after a possible Brexit. In this article, Ronnie Cohen looks at the use of measurement units in key markets outside the EU, in particular in Commonwealth countries and in the increasingly-important ‘BRICS’*.


The government co-ordinated the transition to the metric system, with the support of unions and journalists. Retailing, industry, weather reporting and sports reporting went metric largely at the same time as government. Road signs were also converted to metric units. Commonwealth and State Ministers met at a conference in 1977 and agreed to outlaw the use of non-metric units in contractual agreements. By 1980, the metrication of Australia was largely complete.


Brazil adopted the metric system in 1852 along with Portugal and other Portuguese colonies. Ten years later, Brazil replaced Portuguese Customary Units with the metric system.


In Canada, government services, electricity, gas, water, engineering, medicine, weather reports, the grain trade, and commercial and industrial construction all converted to the metric system. The use of metric units for the mass or volume of pre-packed food products has been required by law since 1976. Over the Labor Day weekend in 1977, speed limit signs were converted to km/h and vehicle speedometers and odometers were required to show metric. However, thanks partially to the length of the border with the USA, some industries remain wedded to pound/inch units.


One of the reforms that the Qing dynasty implemented in China was the metric system. The Qing dynasty sent the Chinese ambassador to Paris to the BIPM to seek advice about moving to the metric system. In 1908, the dynasty overhauled its weights and measures legislation and retained traditional Chinese measurements but redefined them in terms of the metric system. A revolution brought the Qing dynasty to an end in 1912 when the Republic of China was created. At the time, there were many diverse weights and measures throughout the republic. In the 1920?s, a new Chinese leader gave priority to the unification of weights and measures. Traditional Chinese measures were retained for internal use but the metric system was adopted for official transactions. China completed the transition by legislation in 1985 which redefined traditional Chinese measures in terms of rational metric sizes. To facilitate acceptance, a “1, 2, 3 system” was promoted: 1 sheng of volume is exactly 1 litre, 2 jins are exactly 1 kilogram, and 3 chis are exactly 1 metre. Other Chinese measures redefined in this way include the li and the mu so that 2 li are exactly 1 kilometre and 15 mu are exactly 1 hectare.


Before the metric system was introduced in India in 1956, English and native measurements were used. In 1956, the Government of India passed the Standards of Weights and Measures Act, which aimed to make all non-metric measures illegal by 1960. India followed the “big bang” approach to metrication and make rapid progress on metrication over two years from 1960 to 1962. Metric weights and measures became compulsory throughout the country from 1 April 1962, and most of the changeover took place in the following ten years. Weather reporting went metric in the 1980s. Almost all industries in India operate exclusively in metric units.


In the early twentieth century, Japan had three legal measurement systems. These systems were traditional Japanese measurements, British imperial measures and the metric system. Japan recognised that there was no need for more than one measurement system so a bill was passed to make the metric system the sole legal system in Japan in 1921. It came into force in 1 July 1924. Metrication took place in two stages. In the first stage, government departments, public services and other leading industries converted. In the second stage, all other businesses and activities would convert to the metric system. There was, as in the UK, resistance to metrication. After some postponements to the plans, a law in 1939 allowed the use of Japanese measurements was allowed indefinitely in special cases. After the Second World War, the US occupation army brought US measurements to Japan so Japan was using three systems again.

The US occupation army supported the adoption of the metric system in Japan. A new measurement law was passed in 1951 and came into force a year later. It allowed the use of Japanese and inch-pound measurements until 31 December 1958. Learning from the earlier failure, the metric system was publicly promoted in a public relations campaign intended to disarm opposition to the changeover. By 1956, the chemical, metal, machine and textile industries were mostly metric. Electricity, gas, and water supply were 95% metric and all other industries were 60% metric by that time. In 1981, the Japanese Standards Association reported that “the metric system in Japan has been completely adopted”.


Following its formation five years after the revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union adopted the metric system and the Gregorian calendar, thus bringing both its measures and its calendar into line with the rest of continental Europe.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, all fifteen of its constituent republics, including Russia, continue to use the metric system.

South Africa

Here is a transcript of a government news release on 15 September 1977 relating to the completion of metrication of South Africa:

“Not only the fact that the decade that has passed since September 1967 suits the decimal character of the SI perfectly, but also the fact that the Republic has become a metric country within the originally planned transition period of ten years makes today’s date a fitting one. The success achieved is largely due to the good co-operations received from commerce, industry, agriculture, the professions and other organizations, all government bodies at the central, provincial and local level, and, above all, the ordinary citizen. Without this co-operation such a profound change affecting each and every one of us would not have been possible.

South Africa is widely acknowledged as a world leader in the field of metrication and in the application of the SI system. Many countries now in the process of changing over have studied the South African change-over and are following the same pattern to a large degree. With the USA as the last large non-metric country now engaged in changing over and the existing metric countries also replacing their systems with the SI, it is clear that the SI will soon be the only system of units used in the world.” (My italics)


An imperial edict and statute in 1869 was Turkey’s first attempt to implement the metric system and outlaw non-metric measures. This failed to bring the metric measures into widespread use. Turkey’s second attempt at metrication was a statute of 1881. Under this statute, an official inscription was used to mark weights that complied with the metric system from 1883 onwards. Once again, Turkey returned to the old measurements in 1895.

The final, successful transition to the metric system was an important part of the modernisation of Turkey after the First World War and was implemented by the Measurements Act of 1931.

And what about the UK?

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the UK’s outlook can not be isolationist. The continued use of the international system of measures will reinforce the message that we are keen to play our part in world affairs (despite the contrary impression given to overseas visitors by our road traffic signs).

Moreover, the metric system will remain crucial to the UK economy. With the exception of the United States, which accounts for less than 10% of the UK’s overseas trade, all key markets outside the EU use the metric system. So those who believe that Brexit will enable the UK turn the clock back are likely to be disappointed. It is not conceivable that the UK can return to its Imperial past while the rest of the world remains metric, a fact recognized in the 1972 White Paper on Metrication.

 *Wikipedia has this to say about BRICS:

BRICS is the acronym for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The grouping was originally known as ‘BRIC’ before the inclusion of South Africa in 2011. BRICS members are all developing or emerging countries, but they are distinguished by their large, fast-growing economies and significant influence on regional and global affairs; all five are G20 members. Since 2009, the BRICS nations have met annually at formal summits.

As of 2015, the five BRICS countries represent over 3 billion people, or 42% of the world population; all five members are in the top twenty-five of the world by population, and four are in the top 10. The five nations have a combined nominal GDP of US$16.039 trillion, equivalent to approximately 20% of the gross world product, and an estimated US$4 trillion in combined foreign reserves.”

Other sources:

Further reading:

24 thoughts on “EU in or out: metric either way”

  1. Ronnie:

    Please don’t Americanise Canadian spellings! In Canada it is Labour Day, not Labor Day.


  2. I don’t personally support BREXIT but suspect it would be more likely to force metrication on the UK.

    With UK out of the EU there would be little need for them to retain derogations for use of imperial units within EU borders. However the UK tries to re-negotiate trade with the EU (either as an independent trading nation or a member of the EFTA) the EU would have little reason to bow to our demands and would be able to insist on metric-only labels on any goods entering their market place – and would be able to increase prices accordingly if UK businesses wanted imperial size products.

    In either case I do think we as a nation need to stop making silly excuses citing things like the EU and culture as reasons not to join the rest of the world in the 21st century.


  3. I personally think that leaving the EU would be a disaster for Britain. Paradoxically perhaps, leaving the safety of the biggest trading bloc on Earth and taking the risk of going it alone in the world would probably be the trigger required to force the UK government to finally complete the aborted metrication program started fifty years ago.
    If the UK leaves the EU it will have to be more aggressively competitive and that means conforming to the same measurement system the vast majority of its potential trading partners use. Virtually all of the countries the UK would expect to be trading with ditched their own indigenous methods of measurement long ago for the sake of international harmonisation. Why should they accept an opt-out by Britain?
    It’s even likely that ex-colonies, such as India, could be offended by the continued use of these last vestiges of British Empire. The relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies is now one of equals. The master-servant relationship is long gone and Britain now needs to court its former servants. Now that the boot is on the other foot it shouldn’t be surprising to see the former underdogs calling the tune.


  4. @John Frewen-Lord

    I got the information from the following link, The page is in my list of sources at the bottom of the MV article. In the Canada section of the USMA Metrication in Other Countries web page, Joseph B. Reid, President Emeritus of the Canadian Metric Association, wrote “During the Labor Day weekend in 1977 every speed limit sign in the country was changed from mph to km/h.”. He used the American spelling for Labour. I did not know any better and got the impression that Labour Day in Canada was spelled that way so I spelled it that way. I would not normally use American spellings, which are out of step with the rest of the English-speaking world and international organisations.


  5. Ronnie, see Wikipedia. They spell it Labour day for Canada.

    Either Joe Reid spelled it that way for American eyes or the USMA altered the spelling to conform to US norms. But rest assured, it is Labour Day in Canada. You may wish to correct your original copy.


  6. It would indeed be the height of irony (from a metrication perspective) if Britain leaves the EU and then does in fact find itself under more pressure to fully metricate all exported goods with no Imperial units allowed.

    Does the EU currently allow British-made cars to have dual-marked speedometers (if they are not digital and switchable by the driver)? If so, might that change if the UK left the EU?

    As always, those advocating a Brexit should take heed of the Law of Unintended Consequences!


  7. @Ronnie:

    It is unfortunate that many Canadians adopt American spellings – thank Microsoft for that, which for over 20 years now has shipped US versions of Windows on computers sold in Canada, complete with American spellings (and date formats). But that does not represent official Canadian spellings, which tend to be a mix of British and American – this is an extract from today’s (2016-03-26) Toronto Star:

    ” Trump has the worst approval rating of any major-party candidate since at least 1992, maybe ever. He is viewed favourably by about 31 per cent of Americans, unfavourably by about 63 per cent. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is also unpopular — her rating is 41 per cent favourable, 54 per cent unfavourable — but even she is far more popular than Trump. And his numbers have been sinking further over the course of 2016.” The Star’s style guide follows official Canadian spelling guidelines.

    Returning to the subject of this article, I too am (just) in favour of the UK staying in the EU, although I admit it is a very close call. But as Alex Bailey and Cliff say above, we will need more, not less, metrication if we are to survive as a lone country in a very metric world. Yet I see letter after letter in the mainstream newspapers from people who still think that metrication was forced upon us by the EU, and leaving will free us from that. That wrong perception really needs to be corrected.


  8. @Ezra:

    All the cars made in the UK that are exported to the EU have, as far as I have seen, km/h-only speedometers. That includes those marques still ‘British’ – Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover/Range Rover, et al. The ‘non-British’ cars assembled in the UK – various Nissans, Hondas, etc. – all have metric-only markings as far as I know.

    The only time I have actually seen a dual marked (km/h predominant) speedometer in Europe (in Holland) was when I rode with a Dutch colleague in his 2000 Jeep Cherokee, which had the same speedometer as on Jeeps in Canada. Whether this was technically legal or not I don’t know.


  9. Canada and the United States are children of a Common Mother. Canada has long held a unique spelling pattern complying with BrE for some words and AmE for others. But, overall, taking pronunciation, tense differences, structure, verb usage, preposition and article usage, I suggest you take a back seat and relax. There is nothing wrong having similarities with your sibling. Most siblings have differences from their parents and that is just what has happened to Canada and the US. The language changed accordingly. As did the language in the UK. Read up on the English language and you’ll be very surprised that UK English made more radical changes that most North Americans wouldn’t even dream of changing. North Americans found new objects, conditions, geography and had to deal with new vocabulary. Overall, it is only normal that we sound and write more similar with our sibling with whom we share the longest border in the world and have built all of our cities within a hundred miles of the border so we can be close with our older bro.
    As a child in elementary school in Canada, we were taught both. Center and centre, color and colour, honor but Honour Guard and most certainly never tyre, kerb, encyclopaedia, connexion [Oxford changed this in 1996 too] and Heaven forbid “gaol” for jail. Nor do we spell program with mme, or gram as gramme etc.

    To scream at this poor writer for his usage of “labor” simply adds to the inferiority complex that we Canadians tend to show when we want to side with mom. There is nothing wrong to speak and write like our sibling. Yes, there are American spellings of many words that Americans opt to spell the British way. Canceled is the US spelling but at most airports you’ll see cancelled. Theater is the US spelling but half the theaters in the US spell them theatre. Dialog is the US spelling but 95% spell it dialogue. But you don’t see any American causing a commotion about not complying with Mr. Webster.

    Half the Canadian population wants to hide behind their mother’s skirt while the other half wants to do things like their older sibling. Instead of being who you are…and as a Canadian I am happy to see that both are okay. We are a multicultural country and we have both British and French in our history…so, we don’t need to make any drastic decisions. I remember a classic example while I was driving back east somewhere. The sign read: City Center & Centre Street Next Exit. THAT my friend is Canada. Choose whatever you feel is good for you.


  10. I guess the use of a common language is much the same as use of a common measurement system.
    From my personal point of view it comes down to my educational and wellbeing aspect.
    A lot, if not most, of our post formal, and certainly post employment, education comes from the media,TV and Internet being the most influential.
    From this viewpoint, those of us with a lesser education rely to a large extent on media to fill in the gaps and hone our skills. I prefer these gaps to be filled with good quality mortar rather than sandy mud.
    In short I prefer to be taught (in UK) Queens English rather than Chav. I prefer to be taught metric, rather than having to filter out obsolescent and frankly quite pointless Imperial units. I prefer and indeed expect the media, of whom the majority of presenters and producers probably have a university degree or at least a string of A levels, to present me with correct and usable information straight out of the box. I expect the media to use the correct terms (in news, factual, educational and documentary articles) at ALL times ALWAYS.


  11. The info about speedometers from John-Frewen Lord adds yet another bit of evidence that conversion of road signs in the UK to metric will reinforce the perception that the UK is actually metric. Not only will drivers get reinforcement from seeing metric-only signs, they will also get reinforcement every time they look at a km/h-only speedometer (which will certainly be the case after conversion) to check their speed against the km/h speed limit signs.

    A very powerful psychological driver towards seeing metric as “normal”.

    btw, does anyone know if cars imported now into Ireland have km/h-only speedometers?


  12. Does the UK Metric Association have any comment on the veracity of this European leader’s take on the metric system, and Britain’s usage?

    This is from a few years back, now, but maybe still relevant? Subtitled.


  13. @ John Schiesser

    I am sure UKMA is big enough to take a slur (or is it meant to be a joke?), but just to put the record straight in case there is any doubt: the subtitling has absolutely nothing to do with the dialogue of the film (which was shown under the title ‘Der Untergang’ in German and ‘Downfall’ in English). Pathetic, really. As for that ‘European leader’s take on the metric system’, who knows, who cares.


  14. As to that last comment, it certainly is a compelling argument for metrication. With a leader like that behind it, there’s certainly going to be major push coming, whether or not the UK joins the EU.

    In fact, I don’t think they’ll take anything but “no” for an answer on Brexit, if he has his way.


  15. @Jake “comment above should read two above. Not sure why there was such a lag. Doesn’t Britain have April Fool’s day? Obviously this isn’t the actual translation. Steiner (sp?) Obviously is not German for DfT. I had a long, hard laugh from this!


  16. Whatever the views of the reader on the EU referendum, hopefully they will understand that the case for a single system of measurement is entirely independent of the outcome.


  17. Tellingly, Russia and China also use metric (and speak English, albeit using Canadian spellings) in air traffic control and possibly other spheres, where other BRICS nations have succumbed to pressure to adopt imperial units. In reference to Alex Bailey and Cliff’s comments, it would be interesting to see just how far the UK and the rest of the EU would complete its metrication in these matters. We’d probably have UKMA agitating for dual units as they did (do?) with motor vehicle dimensions on road signs :-(.


  18. @Mark Williams

    This is another area where Ronald Reagan did the world a great disservice. Had Jimmy Carter been re-elected, the USA would have converted to metric during the 1980’s and the rest of the world that needed to would have quickly fallen into line without so much as a whimper.

    I still hold out hope we (USA) will convert (or at least start) while I still live and breathe. 😉


  19. “So those who believe that Brexit will enable the UK turn the clock back are likely to be disappointed. ”
    Perhaps so in terms of international trade, but what you will see, I believe, in the event of a Brexit, is a return to much more imperial usage in the domestic and retail sphere, with the lb, foot and even gallon becoming more commonplace.


  20. @Mark Williams

    Russia (and several CIS states) switched to flight levels in hundreds of feet (same as the rest of the world) a few years ago when they introduced RVSM airspace:

    Click to access 12ATSBL06%20-%20Russian%20RVSM%20introduction.pdf

    China has a stranger scheme in which a metric flight level is assigned, but it must be converted to feet and and flown on an altimeter calibrated in feet. All Chinese RVSM flight levels are 100 ft above the normal 1000 ft increments used in the metric world. Note that in RVSM airspace, use of a metric altimeter is forbidden.

    Click to access 08ATSBL02%20China%20RVSM%20%282008%29.pdf


  21. “One widely-believed British myth about the metric system is that it has been imposed on the UK by the EU.”

    I always thought it was “imposed” on the UK by common sense because it’s the superior measurement system 😉


  22. @John Steele:

    Just another item for the to-metricate list in the event of a `brexit’—or `brstay’—then. The list is not overly long and one more (especially this one) oughtn’t present much of a problem.


  23. The notion that the UK will continue to move towards metrication whether Brexit happens or not is most certainly a valid one.

    One hopeful sign (amongst many) is that the always superb BBC nature documentaries (my favourites) seem to have gone properly metric (as shown by this clip that I was able to see on YouTube here in the States):

    Good ol’ Sir David Attenborough is still doing the narration (thankfully!) after all these years. These days, however, we no longer hear of “miles”, “degrees Fahrenheit” (or worse temperatures that clearly must be Fahrenheit but with no unit mentioned) or even the dreaded “Centigrade”. As this clip indicates, we’re now fully in the world of “Celsius” and “kilometres” (pronounced correctly, no less!)

    A new day, perhaps? One certainly hopes so.


  24. It is difficult to gauge what will happen to metrication in the UK if Brexit occurs. The metric opposers support Brexit on the false belief that leaving the EU will give the British (actually the English) the position to negotiate their own trade deals. Metric opposers are under a false belief that a trade deal with the US would result in two way trade in Imperal/USC between them.

    However, President Obama and others have made it perfectly clear that an England out of the EU will go to the back of the queue. This has angered the Brexiters and now they are accusing the US of being the force behind the creation of the EU.

    What this means is that US will not support a return to imperial measures. Also, any attempt to try to revert to imperial will result in companies leaving and others closing. Any serious chatter on the subject will be enough to scare off any or all business activities between England and the world.

    If the Brexiters win and England leaves (assuming Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain and leave the UK) there would be no need for the EU to continue with the present status quo on EU regulation 80/181. They can immediately put the original intent of the law into effect.

    If the Remainers win, the EU could review the derogations and might require the UK to adopt all EU laws.

    Either way, the future looks uncertain.


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