Metrication not an issue in EU referendum

Many issues have been raised in the referendum campaign. The UK measurement muddle has not been one of them. Ronnie Cohen comments on the campaign so far.

In March, shortly after the date had been announced for the referendum to decide whether the UK should continue its membership of the European Union (EU), Metric Views posted an article about the measurement issues affecting the choice faced by UK voters:

Postal voting has now begun in the referendum. Polls close at 22:00 on Thursday 23 June.

Ronnie Cohen has identified the following issues that have been debated by the Remain and Leave sides as they compete for our attention:

  • economy (e.g., jobs, investment, inflation/prices, standard of living, economic growth)
  • immigration (e.g., free movement within the EU)
  • cost of EU membership contributions (e.g., gross EU contributions, net EU contributions, British rebate, EU spending in the UK)
  • sovereignty (e.g., law-making powers, how the UK is governed)
  • workers’ rights (e.g., working conditions, pay rates)
  • NHS funding (related to cost of EU membership contributions and how much would be available to fund the NHS if the UK left the EU)
  • Turkish accession to the EU (related to security and immigration)
  • EU regulations
  • education and research funding from the EU
  • farming and fishing (e.g., Common Agricultural Policy, EU fishing policies)
  • energy and the environment
  • global role and defence (e.g., the UK’s influence and place in the world)
  • trade negotiations (Should the UK be able to make its own trade deals or let the EU negotiate trade deals on behalf of the UK?)
  • policing and security (e.g., cross-border policing, security collaboration, border controls, European Arrest Warrant)
  • travel and living abroad (e.g., travel for leisure or work, living in other EU countries)

In the EU referendum, the voters will be asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”. They have the following two choices in response to this question:

  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

Voters can put a cross into only one box next to their choice. If they don’t, their vote may not be counted. The referendum question was set by The Electoral Commission, and is intended to be simple, fair and objective.

Among all the topics in the recent debate on the UK’s membership of the EU, neither metrication nor any issue about measurement units seems to have been raised. Ronnie reports that he has searched online for issues related to measurement matters in the EU referendum debate but has found none. Although some might suggest “metrication” should fall under the category of “EU regulations”, the UK’s adoption of the metric system did not begin with its accession of the European Common Market in 1973. The Royal Commission of 1862 had recommended adoption of the metric system, and an Act of 1898 made it legal for all purposes. Measurements were of course regulated long before then, and in England the first recorded law on this matter goes back to AD 965 and the reign of King Edgar. It said, “only one weight and one measure shall pass throughout the King’s dominions.” Clearly, the idea that a country needs only one measurement system has been around for quite a while.

So, metrication is a non-issue for the vast majority of voters. The public appears to be largely indifferent. Yet the muddle has not gone away, there is general use of both imperial and metric units in many areas of life, and there is widespread public acceptance of this very British mess. Muddle has become normal. But muddle is not normal in the rest of Europe, or indeed in the rest of the world. The UK, and perhaps also the US, is alone in the industrialised world in accepting the handicap this brings.

But voters, politicians and the media may be right to ignore the measurement issue in the referendum campaign. After all, whatever the outcome, it will remain in the UK’s interest to use the global measurement system, which has now been adopted by 98% of the world’s countries.

13 thoughts on “Metrication not an issue in EU referendum”

  1. “So, metrication is a non-issue for the vast majority of voters. The public appears to be largely indifferent.”

    I am not so sure that this is correct. I have seen quite a number of letters to various newspapers (including the Independent) suggesting that ‘once we leave the EU we can go back to using Imperial measurements’.

    This is so wrong, on various counts. Firstly, as the article above states (and previous articles as well as contributors to this blog have stated), metrication in the UK was started long before there were any formal proposals to join what was then the EEC. It was done because that was the way the world was becoming, and we needed to become metric if we wanted to play our part in it. Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, as well as almost all other not metric parts of the world saw things the same way, and converted too (most of them more successfully than the UK).

    As is well known, the EU gives the UK various derogations allowing continuing use of imperial measurements for various purposes, much, I am sure, to the pleasure of Germany and other EU countries who no doubt are quite happy to see business from the rest of the (metric) world come their way rather than to the UK.

    Should we leave the EU, it has been acknowledged, even among the Brexit campaigners, that the UK would take a huge financial ‘hit’. The £ would drop drastically, making imports much more expensive. While exports would become cheaper, most of our exports are made by companies that work (and are often based) internationally, and who have threatened to pull out of the UK if we leave the EU. So, cheaper or not, our exports would decline, adding to our financial woes.

    And who would be exporting to anyway? Very likely not so much to the very metric EU (assuming we can cut a reasonable deal – not a given by any means). Currently 45% of our exports go to the EU, but that would plummet if we left, at least initially, especially if Nissan leaves Sunderland (they have threatened this), or Airbus shifts manufacture of wings for its planes to the far east (also threatened). The rest of the world? Maybe, but that too is almost completely metric. At the moment, as a member of the EU, we are perceived as being properly metric (even though we aren’t quite there yet). The USA? Most of our exports going there are in industries already metric, so that will change little.

    As a lone country, and without the ‘cover’ of the EU, any shortcomings in our perception of being metric will be laid bare for all that metric world to see. If the UK decides to leave the EU, it had better smarten up in fully completing its metrication efforts, or the economy will become even worse than it will be by simply leaving. We would need to become MORE metric, not less.


  2. @Ronnie

    Excellent recap, Ronnie. Thank you!

    As for the possible impact of a Brexit on metrication, both Northern Ireland and Scotland would be faced with some important decisions that could have an impact on the continued use of Imperial in various parts of daily life (e.g. road signs).

    It will be telling if the outcome of the referendum in Scotland is overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the EU while the rest of the UK votes in favor of leaving sufficiently to give the Leave vote an overall majority. From what I have read that could set the stage for yet another referendum on independence for Scotland (with perhaps even better chances for the independence vote to carry the day).

    Talk about knock-on effects! As they say on radio and TV …. stay tuned!


  3. @John

    Very good description of the likely impact of a Brexit in your post.

    Your last point is especially well taken. Even the USA and its enormous economy has had to align itself with the universal metric system and produce goods in metric. Just imagine how much more pressure the UK will feel as a much smaller economy with heavy competition from other countries to go metric when nearly all of its customers will want goods made to metric specs.


  4. If the dire predictions for the economy are realised, then Britain could end up like Liberia, Myanmar and a number of other countries – desperate to make a connection with the modern world by, for example, completing the changeover to the global measurement system, but genuinely unable to do so due to lack of resources, both financial and administrative.


  5. Now that it looks like Brexit is happening and the Scottish minister I just saw on the BBC clearly indicates that Scotland has to reexamine its place in the UK and take another look at the possibility of another referendum on independence, there is clearly a real chance that Scotland will wind up leaving the UK at some point and join the EU as an independent country.

    If that does happen, I would not at all be surprised if Scotland fully metricates and converts all of their road signs in just the manner that the Irish Republic did not that long ago. It will also be fairly easy for Scotland to do this since they have many fewer road signs than England does (since they have fewer roads as a more sparsely populated country).

    All in all, this could be a real push towards metrication of the British Isles since both England and Northern Ireland would then both have a land border with a fully metricated country that is also in the EU. Moreover, many have argued that Britain outside of the EU would have to metricate further in order to compete in global markets (outside of the USA). So, ironically, an England outside of the EU might actually feel more pressure to metricate than it does now.

    Stranger things have happened!


  6. The other point I forgot to mention is that Sinn Fein is just now pushing again for a vote on uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic (which voted, like Scotland, to remain in the EU).

    Of course, if that happens, the road signs in what is currently Northern Ireland would be metricated very quickly. And if Scotland leaves the UK and metricates its road signs, where does that leave England and Wales?

    Realistically, I believe in that scenario that there will be a strong push in England and Wales to metricate road signs simply as a practical matter. Once again, there are unintended consequences. England and Wales suddenly being “free of Brussels” just might decouple metrication from EU bullying in the minds of enough folks in England and Wales so that they can look at that issue strictly from a practical and economic perspective to promote trade with other countries, including those still in the EU, by presenting an unmuddled and unambiguous metric face to the rest of the world.

    Who knows? Such developments might even spur a new American administration (assuming the best outcome over here in November where the Democrats win the White House and take back both the Senate and the House of Representatives) to dust off Jimmy Carter’s old plans for metricating the USA!

    As always, it pays to expect the unexpected! 😉


  7. From all of the interviews I read or heard, not one mentioned the metric system. Almost all of them who voted to leave were angry over the immigrants in their towns. They hated the fact that people walking down their streets didn’t speak English or that there were shops in their town that catered to foreign tastes, displacing English customs.

    Now these foreigners feel unwelcome. Will they be forced out? Will they fight back? If they do, they will expend a lot of wasted energy that will make the English economy worse than what it is. Will they boycott English products?

    It also has to be noted that the leave versus remain sides were only 4 % different meaning that the 48 % that wanted to remain will make life a living hell for those that chose to leave. Who will negotiate the exit treaty? If you get remain supporters, they can make secret deals with the EU that benefit them at the expense of the rest.

    The EU is now also in a position reopen the EC 80/81 issue. It was pressure from the UK that they allowed for supplemental imperial. But with the UK leaving they can see no reason for it and now insist on metric only.

    England will suffer for their blunder, there is no doubt about it. But those who think it will bring about a return to imperial will be as disappointed as when they thought the “mile and pint” being saved for England didn’t bring about a hoped return to imperial.


  8. @Michael:

    Ouch! Looks like I may well have got that one wrong. Ah, well ….

    The good news is that, if Scotland does get independence and converts its road signs (which I believe it will in that event), you can kiss “miles”and “miles per hour” good-bye up there.

    I say this not only because Canadians, despite heavy Imperial usage they see and hear all the time from American media, still always use “kilometers” and “km/h” and have done so since the 1970’s simply because their speed limit and distance signs all converted (with no Imperial anywhere).

    And today I heard on NPR (National Public Radio) an MP from the Irish parliament (Dail) who lives on the border with Norther Ireland talk about the “more than 500 kilometers of common border” between the Republic and NI. (And he even pronounced km “correctly”! 😉

    There is no doubt in my mind that he spontaneously used “kilometers” because the speed limit and distance signs were changed to metric several years ago. Same effect as in Canada. So, a Scexit (Scottish exit???) from the UK will (I predict) quickly result in full conversion in Scotland to SI.

    (Although my predictions are probably worth what you pay for them, I guess. :-0


  9. @Ezra:

    Nicola Sturgeon said very soon after the referendum result was known that she would look at holding a second referendum. But, notwithstanding that Scotland has no money (it relies hugely on a pipeline of cash from Westminster), I would not put it past her to negotiate a deal with Brussels that would go a long way to replacing at least some of that cash – in return of course for as much acceptance as possible of EU rules and laws. Those include adoption of the Euro, signing up to Shengen, passporting of financial services – and of course no derogations, such as the UK receives for continuing with imperial road signs.

    Now whether all these conditions are acceptable to Scotland (or even practical and achievable) may be up for discussion. But I bet Brussels will be more than willing to get Scotland on board, not only for its own sake, but as a slap in the face to Westminster. Sturgeon is probably the most astute of the UK’s current crop of politicians, and if anyone can get a deal from Brussels, it will be her.


  10. @John:

    Your assessment of Scotland’s possible future sounds quite plausible to me. And, yes, Sturgeon is a most impressive leader and politician. If anyone can pull that sort of thing off, she can.

    One possible outcome as well is that companies located in the EU could open offices in Glasgow or Edinburgh in order to have those offices in the EU (if Scotland finds a way to stay in) but close to England (and in particular, London). That could be one stimulus for economic growth up there.


  11. @Michael Glass:

    I doubt there was anything stopping the shop doing this before—albeit without the opportunistic free advertising, obviously. As the `imperial martyrs’ found out, it was refusing to deal in metric which landed them in trouble—no problem whatsoever with using whatever weird units they like as secondaries. When it comes to pre-packaged imported goods, I suspect those same `fed up’ consumers will not be quite so keen to pay a further premium for special non-metric sizes.

    This bit of `journalism’ from Mr. Murdoch’s rag was particularly awesome in its concentration of wrongness:

    There are two main systems for measuring distances and weight, the Imperial System of Measurement, which is done in kilograms, and the Metric System of Measurement which pounds and ounces.

    Ezra is probably right about the road signs, though. If Scotland and/ or Northern Ireland leave the UK and join the EU in the medium term then they probably won’t be offered opt-outs, even temporarily, for imperial measures. Once bitten, twice shy. Likewise for England and Wales, assuming they ever get around to leaving the EU in the first place or try to join the EEA instead…


  12. @Mark Williams says: 2016-06-30 at 21:37

    The mis-quote of “There are two main systems for measuring distances and weight, the Imperial System of Measurement, which is done in kilograms, and the Metric System of Measurement which pounds and ounces.”

    I thought that quite nicely demonstrated the general intelligence, truthfulness and reliability of the article.


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