In the third of our series of articles we look at EU involvement in the UK’s prolonged metric conversion.
Echoing England’s Magna Carta eight centuries earlier, the Treaty of Rome provided for a single system of measures within the EEC. This was not a problem – all the founding members were metric. And in 1972, when the UK applied to join, it did not foresee a problem either – its metric conversion appeared to be progressing smoothly.
In 1980, the measurement directive was adopted by the EEC. SI would be the Community’s primary measurement system. Some member states faced change – as early adopters of the metric system, several were accustomed to older versions, for example cgs or metric technical units. The UK had again struck lucky with its choice of SI, and moreover secured an opt-out for road signs and draught beer and cider. What could possibly go wrong?
By 1994, measurement issues in the grocery business were coming to the fore. Importers and wholesalers worked almost exclusively in metric. Supermarkets were using modern electronic weighing machines which could only deal in decimals. Schools had been teaching only decimal arithmetic for 20 years and a whole new generation unfamiliar with conversions between imperial units was becoming a significant part of the workforce. Moreover, the EEC measurement directive allowed no opt-out for Imperial weighing and pricing of groceries. Had the time come for the Government to embark on a publicity campaign, explaining the importance of a single system of measurement and providing assistance for those who were still unfamiliar with the gram and kilogram, before going on to bring in the regulations for metric weighing and pricing that had been postponed in 1978?
Those in England who fondly remembered a golden past could see what was coming, and the British Weights and Measures Association, which had been dormant for over eighty years, suddenly came to life. The great and the good flocked to become patrons and honorary members. CBEs, OBEs and MBEs were particularly welcome, as you would expect – this was about preserving Imperial measures, after all.
Regulations were introduced in 1995 requiring metric measures for price marking, and in 2000 for weighing for retail sale of either “loose goods” eg fruit and vegetables, or “from bulk” eg meat and cheese. But of a government publicity campaign similar to that which accompanied the introduction of decimal currency there was no sign. Instead the Government had hit on a plan to avoid any resulting unpopularity – blame the European Union. Everyone from government ministers to the lowliest trading standards officer took up the refrain, and this continued throughout the ensuing years, notably in 2008 when the Minister at the Department for Innovation(!), Universities and Skills proclaimed that the Government had “saved the pint and the mile”.
A consequence of this failure to explain and justify their policies on a wide range of issues by successive governments became apparent on 23 June 2016. As the President of the European Commission said shortly after the vote, “You can not repeatedly blame the EU over many years for your problems, then expect to be believed when you suddenly start saying everything is fine.”
Nothing better illustrates the UK’s half-hearted approach to conversion than its position on road traffic signs. Cyprus, Ireland and Malta, all EU members which once used the Imperial system of measures, have now converted their road signs to metric, yet UK governments have never been short of reasons why the job can’t be done.
In the final article in this series, we will try to assess how this sorry story will affect future progress in the UK towards resolving its measurement muddle.