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.
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.”