Global Britain or Imperial isolation?

On 29 March, Sir Tim Barrow, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union, handed a signed six-page letter from the British Prime Minister to the President of the European Council, invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and confirming the UK’s intention to leave the EU. So where do we go from here?

This act starts the two-year countdown of negotiations with the 27 remaining members of the European Union over a withdrawal agreement between the UK and the rest of the EU. At the end of the two-year period, the UK automatically ceases to be a member of the EU, with or without an agreement.

During the exit negotiations, the UK must resist calls to reverse the metric progress that has been made since 1965 when the UK started its own metrication programme in response to demands from British industry and the adoption of the metric system by an increasing proportion of its export markets. Now the metric system has spread to every country in the world and is now the global standard for measurement. Some populist imperial nonsense has been espoused by Eurosceptic politicians and newspapers in the last few months. Unfortunately, many of these see the metric system as an imposition by the EU. This widespread myth has led to a lot of hostility to the metric system and demands to go back to imperial units in domestic trade and commerce.

British negotiators will try to get a free trade deal with the EU and seek free trade agreements and trade deals with the rest of the world. Common standards and rules are the basis for deals for free, frictionless trade and the removal of non-tariff barriers and the ones involving measurement are bound to be based on metric units. How would the manufacturing and construction industries cope without the international metric standards for screw threads and other common spare parts? All the UK’s main export markets except the USA are metric. You can read more about that at

It was not always so. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the British Empire ruled one-fifth of the world’s population, covered about a quarter of the world’s land mass and included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and various other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This was the Empire that gave the imperial system its name. During the Empire period, the imperial system was used for trade and commerce among the countries of the Empire. However much nostalgia and sentimentality there may be for the old measures, those days are gone for good and will never return.

Since the UK voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, two main irreconcilable visions of Brexit have emerged. In the “Soft Brexit” vision, the British would remain part of the European single market and customs union, accept free movement of people from the EU, contribute to the EU budget and accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In the “Hard Brexit” vision, the British would withdraw from the European single market and customs union, end free movement, stop EU budget contributions and would no longer be subject to ECJ rulings. There is clearly a trade-off between the trade benefits and the EU obligations that come with these trade benefits. One thing that leading EU politicians have made clear is that the EU will not allow the British to keep all the benefits of EU membership while avoiding all the obligations that come with it, especially now that they are leaving the EU. The EU does not want to boost support for strong populist anti-EU movements that exist in other EU countries lest they encourage other EU member states to follow the UK out of the EU. Will there be any backsliding over metrication as the UK leaves the EU?

Even though the Prime Minister has opted for a hard Brexit, her Article 50 letter has some encouraging words about continuity, certainty, free trade and minimal disruption. As she says in her letter, “The Government wants to approach our discussions with ambition, giving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union – and indeed from third countries around the world – as much certainty as possible, as early as possible.” and that “We also intend to bring forward several other pieces of legislation that address specific issues relating to our departure from the European Union, also with a view to ensuring continuity and certainty, in particular for businesses.”. In the field of measurement regulations, the best way to achieve that is to retain the EU measurement directives in British law and to ensure there is no reversal of the metrication progress made so far.

These days, British architects, manufacturers, builders and engineers work in metric units, ensuring that they can compete with a metric world. The metric system is fundamental for manufacturing and exports. Everything that is built and manufactured is measured. Contrary to what we see all around us in the UK, a lot of metric usage is hidden. Whatever happens with measurement policy, this hidden metric usage is bound to continue. Our cars, roads and buildings are now all designed and built in metric units. This is unlikely to change.

Among all European countries, whether inside or outside the EU, the UK is the only one that is still using some imperial units. If the British want free trade with the rest of Europe, this will involve accepting common rules and standards and the ones involving measurements are bound to be metric as all other European countries, including non-EU countries, use the metric system. For example, the British accepted the ETCS (European Train Control System), an essential component of the ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) in 2014. When the British accepted this common European signalling standard for the railways, they had to accept the use of metric units on the railways as part of that standard (see

Will the Brexiteers accept that we live in a metric world and that we must use the same measurements as the rest of the world to succeed in manufacturing, trade and commerce? Will UK measurement policy support Theresa May’s vision of “Global Britain” or support imperial isolation? Only time will tell.

21 thoughts on “Global Britain or Imperial isolation?”

  1. Global Britain. Don’t think so. Most English people want a return to imperial – we are going back to the 19th century. Goodbye modern UK; hello Scottish independence and a reunited Ireland.


  2. If the Imperial system was fit for purpose in the modern world, then why has every Commonwealth country, and there are around fifty of them, abandoned it over the past 60 years? It certainly has not been due to pressure from the EU. Cyprus and Malta adopted metric measures long before they joined the EU, and Ireland, formerly part of the British Empire but not a Commonwealth country, converted its road signs to metric in 2005 even though it could have retained Imperial ones if it wished (as the UK has done).


  3. Want to do something about ending the Imperial isolation? A good start would be to sign the petition to fully adopt the metric system in the UK.

    To get a response from the Government you need 10,000 UK citizens to sign . However, a worthy aim would be to get more than 161 signatures. That’s the number that signed the petition to allow traders to choose to use Imperial or metric measures or both in the 6 months that the petition was open. Check it out at


  4. Lee,

    The media seems to be backing a return to imperial, but when you read the comments to the articles over 80 % of the respondents are posting pro-metric commentaries. It isn’t “many English people want to return to imperial”, it is just a few sad Luddites who make a lot of noise, one would think it is the majority, but in fact is an extreme minority.

    Read the article, then read the comments:


  5. @ Michael Glass 2017-04-03 at 15:32

    This was one of Jill Seymour’s petitions, the UKIP spokesperson for transport. Even with national media coverage it got only 161 votes, surely we can do better?
    As of today UKMA’s petition has 67 of those 161, but Jill Seymours petition got a whopping 310 votes.


  6. BrianAC,

    Jill Seymour’s petition was to stop dual height and width signs on the roads. It failed to deter the government.

    As for the UKMA’s petition, it now has 76 signatures.


  7. According to a recent poll only 48% of those asked wanted a return to imperial only so that means 52% of people prefer metric i hope that’s a good sign since it would be hypocritical of the government to ignore those 52% but not the 52% who voted for brexit


  8. There is a very simple explanation why Britain left the EU and it had very little to do with being only one nation among many, BUT EVERYTHING WITH THE SIMPLE FACT THAT IT IS A LOT MORE DIFFICULT TO UNLEARN SOMETHING, THAN LEARN SOMETHING NEW! Britain decided to go metric in 1965 but never enforced that clever step. Theresa May’s plebiscite was a god sent opportunity for slightly more than half the Brits to avoid having to learn something new and better. Well, it is no loss to the EU, but it will definitely be to Britain! But hey, they still have one country they can form a union with, at least as far as medieval measurements are concerned, their equal measurement backward and mentally challenged US brothers and sisters.


  9. @ Lee Kelly – from that datum one can assume that 52% were either against the proposal or indifferent to it, but yes it does indicate some progress! Is there a link to the poll? As I’d like to see how that splits with the various demographics.


  10. The UKMA petition has now garnered 143 signatures. However, most of the extra signatures were added in one 24 hour period. I believe this coincided with a spate of people publicising the petition.

    I think that the only way to make the petition count is to publicise it to UK people who would be likely to support it and aim to go for 10,000 signatures in just over five months.

    Obviously, progressive politicians would be likely to support it. So would engineers and engineering firms. However, they need to be contacted and informed about it. It’s a big ask and a big task.

    Have any people here got any ideas about who to contact and how it can be done?


  11. @Lee Kelly – The way I heard it was the poll found that 48% of Brexit supporters wanted to return to imperial measures and 52% of Brexit supporters didn’t. The percentage of people who wanted to return to imperial measures in the remain camp was much lower.(something like 15 or 20%.) Quite a large number of Brexiters also want to bring back capital punishment, corporal punishment in schools and smoking in pubs.


  12. @Daniel Jackson:

    The redacted author of the letter mentioned in the Gizmondo article might also be the author of this article:

    The Brexit brigade is still going on about bendy bananas and the return of imperial measures. But it is a strategy born of ignorance or – worse – panic

    Basically, there is no ‘our side’ on this yet—just the mother of all smokescreens from the loonies.

    On the subject of redacting names: one of UKMA’s Freedom Of Information requests some years ago resulted in our dear DFT releasing a [consultation response summary?] document with John Wilkins’ name only partially redacted, describing his influence on the development of the metric system! 🙂


  13. Here’s a knee-buckler for you from those Liberal Arts Muppets at Auto Express.

    Model: Land Rover Discovery 2.0 Sd4 HSE
    Price: £57,495
    Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbodiesel, 237bhp
    0-60mph: 9.5 seconds
    Test economy: 30.9mpg/6.8mpl
    CO2: 171g/km
    Annual road tax: £450

    That’s right, mpl: Miles per litre. It had to happen in mishmash YUCK.
    Debasement of science or what!
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit


  14. Since my last posting, two things have happened to the pro-metric petition.

    * The number of signatures has gone up to 161.
    * The petition will be closed on 3 May 2017 at 00:01 am.

    The reason for the early closure is to do with the impending election. Both petitions now have 161 signatures. Just one more signature by midnight on 2 May will make the pro-metric petition to draw ahead.

    Therefore I urge everyone to make an effort to get that extra signature or two.

    The link:


  15. The pro-metric petition has now reached a milestone:

    * The number of signatures has reached 162.
    * The petition will close on 3 May 2017, at 00:01 am.

    This is one more signature than the most recent anti-metric petition but more than 9,800 signatures short of the 10,000 signatures needed for the Government to respond.

    It is worthwhile to look at the result of all the petitions both for and against metrication:

    * Change all road signs to display metric measurements in the United Kingdom
    237 signatures, now closed

    * Fully adopt the metric system
    162 signatures

    * Let merchants choose to trade using Imperial and/or Metric measurements.
    161 signatures, now closed

    * Restore the Imperial system of measurment to the UK and phase out Metrication.
    21 signatures, now closed

    * Make Imperial Units legal for trade and mandatory alongside Metric Units.
    13 signatures, now closed

    Overall, there is little demand for metrication and even less for rolling back metrication.


  16. The pro-metric petition has now closed with 162 signatures. Several points need to be made:

    * The petition ran for less than 2 months. In the ordinary course of events it would have closed on 22 September 2017.

    * This is more than 9,800 signatures short of the 10,000 signatures needed for the Government to respond.

    * Despite closing four months early, the petition garnered one more signature than the most recent anti-metric petition.

    To get a better overall view we need to consider all the petitions both for and against metrication. Here they are:

    * Change all road signs to display metric measurements in the United Kingdom
    237 signatures, now closed.

    * Fully adopt the metric system.
    162 signatures, now closed

    * Let merchants choose to trade using Imperial and/or Metric measurements.
    161 signatures, now closed

    * Restore the Imperial system of measurment to the UK and phase out Metrication.
    21 signatures, now closed

    * Make Imperial Units legal for trade and mandatory alongside Metric Units.
    13 signatures, now closed

    Overall, there is little demand for metrication and even less for rolling back metrication.


  17. This editorial in the American magazine “Autoevolution” advocates that the USA finally adopt the metric system:

    However, this paragraph really jumped out at me:

    “If you’re a German or any other European – or just about any nationality apart from the Brits and the Yanks – a horsepower is actually smaller than a brake horsepower or a regular one. That’s because in the country that pretty much originated the idea of making cars, they use the Metric System, just like nearly every single country on the planet, except the United States, the UK, Liberia, and Myanmar.”

    Hoo boy! The author lumps the UK in with the Liberia and Myanmar (Burma) as countries that have not yet metricated? No wonder the UK can sometimes have problems presenting itself as a true blue global player on the international business scene. Yet another reason to finally convert road signs and scrub Imperial from advertisements, weather forecasts, etc. etc. so that no one can get the impression that Imperial still rules in the UK.

    (Many thanks to the USMA member who originally posted the link to this editorial on the USMA mailing list.)


  18. Things are definitely heating up regarding the Irish border issue:

    And Sinn Fein is making overtures to the Unionists:

    I wonder if they won’t cook up some sort of deal to give Northern Ireland special status in a united Ireland. Stranger things have happened. If so, I’m sure you can kiss Imperial in what had formerly been Northern Ireland good-bye.


  19. The whole question of how to handle the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland continues to heat up with the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs stating that purely technical solutions will not suffice to handle the border issues that will arise with the UK leaving not just the EU but the Customs Union as well:

    I still wonder if a deal could be worked out to unite Ireland where the Unionists feel like their rights will be protected. That would certainly solve the problem of the border and reflect the desire of the majority in NI that voted to stay in the EU.

    (Editor: This post is somewhat off topic. But there may be an issue that should concern this forum: will the divergence in legal matters that began with partition in 1922 but showed signs of slowing down when both the RoI and the UK joined the Common Market in 1973, now resume? And if so, what are the chances for the eventual adoption of a single system of measurement for road traffic signs on both sides of the border?)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: