On 23 June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. After all 382 voting areas of the UK declared their results, Leave had a total of 17 410 742 votes (52% of the total vote) and Remain a total of 16 141 241 votes (48% of the total), on a turnout of 72% of a total electorate of 46 million.
The margin of victory for Leave was 1 269 501. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned on Friday morning and will step down early in September 2016 when a successor is expected to have emerged. The UK will leave the EU, although it is not clear how long this will take.
The outcome could have huge implications for the future of the UK, given the different outcomes in the four nations that make up the UK. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU but England and Wales voted to leave. Another referendum on Scottish independence is being considered, given that all 32 voting areas in Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Nationalists in Northern Ireland are calling for a referendum on whether it should unite with the Irish Republic..
So where does Brexit leave the stalled metric changeover?
The UK will leave the EU single market of 27 other nations. Two options are being floated:
1. Join the European Economic area (EEA). This is a free trade area, currently including the EU and three other nations, all metric.
2. Cultivate trading partners throughout the world and negotiate trade treaties where necessary. There are around 200 potential trade partners, and, guess what, they are nearly all metric.
Some regard the metric system as an imposition of the EU rather than the world standard. This perception has been encouraged by successive governments who have used the EU to deflect criticism of UK weights and measures legislation and regulations. In future, the case for continuing and completing the metric changeover will have to be made on its own merits, hopefully encouraging rational debate, as happened elsewhere in the Commonwealth in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
It is not for Metric Views to speculate on the likelihood of another referendum in Scotland on the issue of independence. However, should this occur, as a condition of an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU, it is also possible that the exemption for the use of metric units on “road signs, distance and speed” that currently applies to the UK could be withdrawn.
The Republic of Ireland completed its transition to the metric system in 2005 when it changed its speed limit signs; distance signs had been changed during the previous decade. If Northern Ireland were eventually to form a united Ireland with the Republic, it is unlikely that the anachronistic road traffic signs in the North would survive for very long.
In both England and Wales, which have been united constitutionally since the late Middle Ages, there was a majority of votes for Leave. They are likely to remain together, for better or worse, should the UK fragment.
As discussed previously on this blog, the metric changeover in the UK began in 1864 with the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Act. It was given fresh impetus in 1965, when it was announced in Parliament that:
“The Government are impressed with the case which has been put to them by representatives of industry for the wider use in British industry of the metric system of weights and measures. Countries using that system now take more than one-half of our exports; and the total proportion of world trade conducted in terms of metric units will no doubt continue to increase. Against that background the Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole …”
At that time, around 75% of the world’s countries had adopted the metric system. The figure is now around 98%, and about half of the UK’s exports go to the EU alone. In 1965, the concentration of industrial production was in Europe, the US and Japan. Today, China and India, both of which adopted the metric system in the second half of the twentieth century, have become major players.
The USA, which accounts for around 10% of UK trade, deserves special mention. Opponents of the metric system in the UK often use the USA to justify the continued use of so-called customary units. However, metric is officially the preferred system of weights and measures for trade and commerce, and is used by government, NASA, the military, scientists, some sports, healthcare, the car industry and package and nutrition labelling.
So the arguments put forward in 1965, apply with even greater force today.
For over a thousand years, the use of a single system of measures has been an aim of government in England, then in Great Britain and finally in the UK. But this began to be questioned in 1995, by which time the UK had come close to achieving the objective set out in that Parliamentary statement thirty years earlier. The completion of the changeover has now stalled. Clearly the battleground in future in England and Wales will be, as now and regardless of Brexit, “one system or two”: on one side the proponents of a single, simple, rational and universal system of measures, and on the other side a free-for-all.
Plus ca change, toujours la meme chose.