The Ins and Outs of Government

We take a metric view of the changes around the Cabinet table.

OUT. David Cameron.
He said this on Newsnight on BBC2 in 2014 when asked which units he preferred:
“I think I’d still go for pounds and ounces, yes I do.”
Perhaps he did not pay attention during maths and science lessons at school, and then failed to appreciate the benefits of a single, simple and universal measurement system, if not for himself, then for his children.

OUT. George Osborne.
He wisely avoided becoming involved in measurement issues during his six-year stint as Chancellor. We must hope his successor does the same.

OUT. Teresa Villiers.
She appeared on Question Time in 2006, when in opposition, and argued strongly that road traffic signs should remain Imperial in an otherwise metric economy:

IN. Philip Hammond. Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In 2010, when Transport Secretary, Hammond ignored the results of a consultation on phasing out imperial-only height and width restriction road traffic signs, a proposal that had wide support and which would have saved around £8 million. He said:
“It is completely unacceptable that they (Labour) were going to spend over £2 million of taxpayers money to do so when we have one of the biggest budget deficits in Europe.”
Maybe he has become more aware of the realities of measurement around the world during his time as Foreign Secretary. He now faces a budget deficit that is still one of the biggest in Europe.
Metric Views can confirm there is no truth in the rumour that he intends to revert to £sd.

IN. David Davis. Brexit Secretary.
Mr Davis enjoyed a photo-opportunity with a reluctant-to-change market trader in Hackney in 2007. We hope his responsibilities in his new Department, and its high profile, will ensure he stays out of mischief for the next few years.

IN. Liam Fox. International Trade Secretary.
In 2000, Dr Fox sent a letter of support to the British Weights & Measures Association. In his new role he will no doubt discover, if he did not know already, that the old British weights and measures are little used in international trade.

IN. James Brokenshire. Northern Ireland Secretary.
In a letter in 2007, he told a constituent that Imperial speed limits are satisfactory “as they have been around for a long time”. When he has crossed the border with the Republic a few times and encountered two measurement systems for speed limits, he may realise that longevity is not always a guarantee of usefulness.

IN. David Lidlington. Leader of the Commons.
He proposed, in 2000, a Bill to permit the continued use of avoirdupois pounds and ounces. This issue of order versus freedom of choice will be one that he faces in his new job.

Abolished. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC).
In his letter to President Elect Obama in November 2008, Pat Naughtin, , pointed out that there is one SI metric unit for energy, but around two hundred terms currently used as energy measures, including therm, calorie, foot-pound and kilowatt hour. Faced with this proliferation, one wonders if it was DECC itself that lost the will to live.

12 thoughts on “The Ins and Outs of Government”

  1. Is it not ironic that, following the decision to leave the EU, the government seems to have no qualms about the spending involved when it comes to finding trade negotiators or paying all the other costs that Brexit is going to impose on the country in terms of reforming government and putting new structures in place, yet, when ministers are asked about completing metrication, as in the above YouTube clip, they cite the cost as being the primary obstacle. As for Mr Darling’s remark in that clip that his postbag does not include letters from members of the public clamouring for metric on road signs, I would ask if MPs postbags back in the 1960s included letters from the public clamouring for decimalisation of the currency. Of course they didn’t. Government took the lead back then in reforming the currency and should take the lead now on the important national issue of having a proper single system of measurement for all purposes.


  2. @Jake:

    Your comment about the decimalization of British currency is remarkably apropos given the news item I heard just this morning on the BBC World Service.

    It appears that there will be a revival of the musical “Half a Sixpence” later this year. See this link about the original production in the 1960’s:

    The World Service played snippets from the some of the old songs in the musical, which included references to “guineas”, “sovereigns”, “sixpence” (of course), plus “ha’penney” and “farthing”.

    The payoff came when, at the end of the news item, the female presenter (who sounded like she was in her thirties or thereabouts) added on her own that the World Service would eventually inform its listeners just what all those old coins were worth in “new money” ONCE THEY ACTUALLY MANAGED TO WORK THAT OUT (my emphasis).

    If Westminster had waited for the public to clamor for conversion to decimal currency, it never would have happened and groups like Active Resistance to Decimalisation (which surely would have been organized) would crow on an on about how important it was to save the “guinea” and the “sovereign” for England!

    If the UK had gone ahead and finished conversion to metric in the 1960’s, Britons today would be just as comfortable with the SI as they are with the new money and just as clueless about Imperial as they about pounds-shillings-pence (in much the same way that Australians are ignorant of Imperial and Canadians don’t understand Fahrenheit and also consistently use “kilometers” instead of “miles” because of their conversion of road signs back in the 70’s).

    It really is time to get on with it and finish the job.

    These links might provide the readers of Metric Views with a bit of amusement. The table of old coins is quite intimidating for those unfamiliar with it! 🙂


  3. @Jake:

    Quite. But as this is the game they like to play, I have previously suggested converting speed limit signs from imperial miles per hour to km/h on a 1:1 basis at an effective metrication cost of zero. If that were to happen, it is very likely that the motoring lobby within and without the supposedly impoverished highway authorities would suddenly `find’ limitless money to individually review each and every motoring speed limit with a view to eliminating it altogether.


  4. I believe that decimalisation was forced on the government by the advent of the computer industry. I wrote my first computer program in 1969 and entered the industry full-time in 1972. (Decimalisation was announced in 1968 and introduced in 1971). From my recollections of the state of computer software at that time, there was absolutely no way that everyday operations could be computerised without using a decimal monetary system – the software top manipulate £sd was just not available and the amount of time spent writing bespoke (and potentially buggy) programs just does not bear thinking about.


  5. Given the ludicrous rhetoric about the cost of EU membership during the referendum campaigns, I lack confidence that some of the new cabinet members can even do arithmetic!


  6. Paralleling the ins and outs of the changes to the government in the UK are what might be happening on the other side of the pond. Donald Trump is now nominated as the Republican party’s candidate, and is running neck and neck with Hilary Clinton, apparently. In spite of being a Republican, it would not surprise me if Trump promoted metrication, as he seems to be a bit of a ‘disturber’, and likes to upset everyone he can. Something like making the USA go metric would fit right in with such a mantra. Clinton OTH sounds far more conventional, and to me is a typical politician who sees no benefit in something so radical as metrication.

    Would any of our US readers care to comment?


  7. It would be useful if that were the case John, but he could just as easily take the line that metric is foreign and hence not patriotic (just like the right wing extremist idiots over here).


  8. @John and @Phil:

    Alas, I am sure Donald Trump would indeed resist metrication as “foreign” and as an “imposition” from the outside, thus not in keeping with the goal of making America “great” again (like we were back in the fifties and sixties when all we used was Imperial).

    P.S. I saw Trump’s speech last night at the Republican National Convention where he accepted the party’s nomination to run for President of the USA. The tone and rhetoric struck me as eerily familiar, such that the only thing that surprised me is that he did not end his speech by exclaiming: “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!”


  9. Regarding the main topic.
    I think the individuals in cabinet posts ultimately make little difference. They don’t stay long enough in the job and tend to be loyal to the boss.
    The government and civil service will face a monumental task of disentangling UK laws that were made under the terms of the treaty of accession from those which were made under devolved powers. The speculation is that all laws will be left in place until they are reviewed and either kept or discarded. Then they have to go through due process to implement the actual change. This is further complicated because there will be cases where laws were made indirectly as a consequence of those made from EU directives. Shudder to think what all this is going to cost the taxpayer!
    I think that weights and measures legislation is unlikely to change much in the course of this farcical process. The UK had already secured concessions and chose not to enforce those that were implemented in any case.
    We will, I believe, be left with the same barriers as before. Until politicians recognise the necessity to lead on the issue of metrication across society things will stay much the same.


  10. @ John Frewan-Lord

    The support or lack of support by any future president is a moot issue.

    Unknown to most people are the negotiations going on between the US and EU. A Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), currently being negotiated in secret by American bureaucrats and European technocrats, would create an “economic nato” with a combined economy valued at around 32 T€ or 35 T$. Such a transatlantic economic alliance would be the largest economic power in the world.

    In addition to establishing a free-trade area, the TTIP would harmonise US and EU regulations governing industrial standards, labour laws and intellectual property rights. To enforce these regulations, the European Commission is insisting on an Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism. Such a mechanism would bypass domestic courts and override the will of national legislatures. It would subject the US to the same type of regulations that member states of the European Union endure!

    “Harmonise US and EU regulations governing industrial standards,” would mean a common set of weights & measures. It means the US will have to adopt the metric system fully along with all of the pertinent ISO and IEC standards, which are all metric based. Organisations like the FPLA that insist on dual labels could be challenged in the Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism and be rendered invalid.

    According to Wikipedia, the TTIP will be finalised around 2019 to 2020. It might take some time to implement all of the directives, but it will get the ball rolling and before 3030, the US could be fully metric or metric to the point of no return.


  11. @ Ezra

    The US never used imperial, not even in the ’50s. The US always used USC.

    Trump can promise whatever he wants but making it happen is impossible, especially when Wall Street runs the country. The US is the world’s largest money launderer. The reserve status of the dollar gives the US an economic advantage over the world that most Americans screaming for high paying industrial jobs to come back don’t understand. The America of the ’50s is not what Wall Street wants to go back to.

    The UK economic model followed the US model in that the major driving force for the economy was the money laundering via the financial centre being at London. With Brexit and the sinking value of the pound, that “industry” is a about to be wiped out. To be attractive to people who want to “invest” in your financial services, your currency has to have a high value.

    A high valued currency is the death knoll to any country (like Germany, Japan or China) who rely on manufacturing and exporting. In order for the US to return to the ’50s, it would have to give up its money laundering operations, devalue the dollar and attract industry back. It would take a generation or two to train Americans to be factory workers and since modern production that is successful is fully metric based, that population would also need to be trained to think and work in metric units only.

    Thinking in metric is difficult if your “home” exposure is USC only. To expose Americans to metric would require a metrication of gas pumps, store scales, road signs, weather forecasting, sports, the media, etc. People will never be able to think metric on the job and USC at home. Only a few have the gift to be bi-measurable, the majority can’t.

    So, don’t expect much change in the US coming from government leaders, but wait and see what changes the TTIP will bring if agreed to and adopted.


  12. Ezra Steinburg: You’re incredibly naive and foolish to suggest that Americans for Customary Weight and Measure are all backwards reactionary conservatives, socially, economically.

    Seaver Leslie is a NYC liberal. But go ahead and talk partisan bullshit. Trump is from New York. Doesn’t mean most of New York, including me, hates him. I voted for Obama twice, and I respect ALL the people, democrat or republican who are amongst our ranks, except maybe Trump supporters.

    Measurement is ultimately libertarian. Childish and devoid from reality to liken that to either of the US’s two political parties. All three major parties (Johnson and Weld) gave their pros and cons for metric. Hell, George BUSH pushed metric in 1988.

    You are just a liar and a manipulator, just like the politicians. Who are you preaching to hear? You’re not on national TV; you’re talking to generally, intelligent people, besides the few insane ones like Ametrica. I wonder what he was doing during the Republican convention.


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