Isolationist or Imperialist?

On the eve of a showdown Cabinet meeting on Brexit, one of our frequent contributors, Ronnie Cohen, asks if British attitudes both to the EU and to this country’s metric changeover are part of the same mindset.

Recently, we have passed the second anniversary of the European Union (EU) membership referendum when a majority of those who voted chose to leave. This article suggests parallels between our attitude to the EU and our choice of measurement units.

For most of the its time as a member of the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC), the UK has sought to rewrite rules to suit itself. This can be seen from the days when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher secured a budget rebate for the UK and also by the number of opt-outs it has from EU rules. Whilst the UK is not the only country to have opt-outs, a table on the “Multi-speed Europe” Wikipedia page shows that the UK has eleven opt-outs, more than any other member state. As well as these, the UK has also sought and obtained various derogations from directives, including those that mandate the use of metric units for most purposes.

Here is a list of opt-outs that the UK has or had from the EU:

  • Schengen I (absence of passport controls at borders)
  • Economic and Monetary Union (EMU)
  • Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)
  • Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ)
  • Charter of Fundamental Rights
  • Social Chapter (this opt-out was later dropped)
  • Eurozone
  • European Stability Mechanism
  • Fiscal Stability Treaty
  • Single Resolution Mechanism
  • Euro-Plus Pact
  • Prüm Convention on cross-border co-operation
  • Enhanced Co-operation in other areas
  • Symbols of Europe

In addition to the opt-outs, former Prime Minister David Cameron sought further concessions for the UK just before the referendum on continued EU membership. In his negotiations, Cameron asked for the UK to be excluded from any commitment to “ever closer union” (which he received), an end to payment of in-work benefits to EU migrants coming to the UK and of child benefits for EU migrants’ children who live abroad and of unemployment benefit for EU jobseekers. He also sought new rules to protect non-members of the eurozone from regulations made by eurozone members. With these changes ‘under his belt’, Cameron campaigned in the referendum to stay in the EU. He was opposed by a group of eurosceptic MPs who believed that the UK Parliament should be able to overrule EU law – a unrealistic demand, incompatible with membership of the EU. Other eurosceptic demands included control of regional policy, social and employment law, and fisheries.

In negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, the British have aimed to keep as many benefits of EU membership as possible without the obligations that go with them. They have done this by trying to keep all their trading privileges and joint projects (e.g. Galileo, European Arrest Warrant and security co-operation) and, at the same time, seeking to end free movement of EU citizens to the UK, to end contributions to the EU budget and to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Even though the Prime Minister is committed to leaving the European single market and customs union, she has tried to replicate all the benefits of both by replacing them with other arrangements such as a proposed Customs Partnership and a Maximum Facilitation (a.k.a. maxfac) scheme.

Unsurprisingly, the British have faced strong resistance from other European leaders over their proposals in the negotiations. The Europeans accuse the British of “cherry-picking” and of trying “to have their cake and eat it”.

We can see the same isolationist mindset over the UK’s reluctant adoption of the metric system for all trade, administrative, legal and official purposes. The UK’s changeover to metric measures began with high hopes in 1965, and the EEC’s requirement, echoing Magna Carta, that “there be one measure” was not seen as a problem when the UK joined the EEC in 1973. But after progress stalled in 1978 and the planned metric changeover was abandoned in 1980, British politicians began to seek derogations from EU directives to permit the continued use of imperial units for specific purposes. In consequence, progress since 1980 compares unfavourably with many countries that formerly used Imperial measures, including those that became members of the EU, namely Cyprus, Malta and the Republic of Ireland. An example of the UK’s Imperial mindset came in 2008 when the minister for (would you believe?) Science & Innovations announced that “the government had saved the pint and the mile”.

Let us examine further the unfinished business of metrication. There are only six imperial units that remain in official use. They are miles, yards, feet and inches for road signs, the Imperial pint for draught beer and cider and for doorstep milk and troy ounces for precious metals. However, there is plenty of unofficial usage of imperial units in British society. Imperial units are still widely use by estate agents, in product descriptions and advertising, by small shops and market traders, in supplementary indications, in measuring devices on sale, in commercial maps and in cab and taxi mile-based charges. This usage relates to trade and commerce alone and is not a comprehensive list.

Over the years, EU moves towards common measurements based on the SI, the modern version of the metric system, have often been met with resistance in the UK. On the one hand, the British want the benefits that a common measurement system brings to multi-national manufacturing, cross-border trade and mutual recognition of standards, while on the other hand we retain non-standard measurement units. This makes no sense. Is it part of a wider isolationist British mindset, or is it just that we prefer to follow rules that we ourselves have written, as in the days of Empire? Metric Views will be interested to hear what readers have to say.

UKMA takes the view that completing the metric changeover is in the public’s interest whether or not the UK remains a member of the EU. In or out, over 90% of our trade will be with metric countries. Large sections of the UK economy have made the switch to metric measures, including the supermarkets that supply over 75% of our groceries, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, aerospace, defence, science, education, medicine and athletics, and even DIY superstores. If we are to prosper in a largely metric world then we need a SINGLE, simple and rational system of measurement that all understand and are familiar with.


10 thoughts on “Isolationist or Imperialist?”

  1. “Recently, we have passed the second anniversary of the European Union (EU) membership referendum when a majority of those who voted chose to leave.”

    A majority vote yes, but barely. Something like 52 % to depart and 48 % to remain. Not a whooping majority. Thus a recipe for problems in the future as the vote divides the country right down the middle with constant bickering, squabbles and outright violence. Economic disasters will intensify.

    If the vote was held today would the results be the same? It doesn’t seem so. Maybe there should have been something other than 50-50 to be considered a majority to leave, like 60-40 or 70-30. Or maybe three referenda over a 3 year period and the best 2 out of 3 becomes the result.

    Those who were too young to vote in 2016 but can now vote in 2018 have expressed in the media they would have voted to stay. What about those in 2016 who voted to leave and are now dead?

    But, the vote aside, what purpose would there be to the union if one country is granted all of these opt-outs. This should have never been allowed. At least with the majority leave vote, the opt-out issue is resolved and the opt-outs become forever dissolved. Should the UK or parts of the UK ever wish to rejoin the EU in the future, there will be no opt-outs ever. Based on the opt-out issues alone, leaving the EU is the best solution for the rest of the union.

    I’m sure there are a number of Brexit supporters who voted leave based entirely on the metric issue and see it as an opportunity to force England to return to imperial units. Being the case, the remain camp has their work cut out for them as they will have the fight the imperials tooth and nail. Do not give one millimetre to the inch.


  2. Gary Younge writes in the Guardian today:
    “This is the stage we have now reached with Brexit. Rhetoric has come toe-to-toe with reality. Those who imagined that Britain is stronger than it is – that the European Union is weaker than it is, the Irish border would matter less than it does, and time would stand still while we worked ourselves out – find their imperial imaginations imploding under the weight of their own hubris. …”


  3. Falls under the heading of someone else’s problem.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit


  4. A 20 km step in the right direction, in a TV interview yesterday our prime minister quoted distances from the Irish border in kilometres. About the only time I have had any empathy with the lady.
    Now, if only one of our many transport gurus started using metres in TV interviews we may be getting somewhere, sometime.


  5. The campaign ‘Leave means leave’ placed a full-page advert in yesterday’s London Evening Standard. It included the following statement:
    “There are over 160 countries in the World Trade Organisation and only 28 countries in the EU. It’s obvious where the greater opportunities lie.”
    One wonders why we have rarely heard a similar argument in relation to the UK’s metric changeover, with 190+ countries primarily using the metric system and a handful not.


  6. Toby,

    Since it is an advert, anyone who wishes to purchase advertising space can post almost whatever they want. So, you, the UKMA, etc can if they so desire purchase a full page advert emphasising the argument you have made.


  7. With the UK running an ever higher risk of crashing out of the EU and supposedly then becoming a global trader (and realistically mostly with the world outside of the USA and hence with a 100% metric world in that case) it is more than both sad and frustrating that Imperial still is so prominent in daily British life.

    The latest evidence I see is in the reporting about the really bad weather hitting the UK. For some reason the BBC still insists on using Fahrenheit and inches (albeit in parentheses after the metric) when discussing the cold temperatures and the snow accumulations. If that is the editorial stance at the BBC I can only shudder at what local radio stations and the newspapers must be doing in their reporting.

    If the UK does crash out of the EU and has to trade on WTO terms until it strikes bilateral trade deals on better terms then it had better seriously rethink its commitment to finish converting to metric to facilitate those trading relationships.

    Who knows if the Tories will even manage to hang on to power (or who the new PM will be once Theresa May gets chucked into the dustbin of history). With any luck someone with a more global vision will assume the reins of government and finally drag the UK over the metric finish line!

    The one possible silver lining that could come from the UK leaving the EU is that a new government could claim that it is converting in order to facilitate global trade as the European version of Singapore at its own behest and not because the EU is bullying the UK into doing it (since the UK would be free of those nefarious technocrats in Brussels). Who knows? Miracles can happen! 😉


  8. As a follow on I see that the Guardian is doing the same thing as the BBC …. showing in their news stories about the winter storms metric values for temperature, snowfall, etc. followed by Imperial in parentheses.

    Really? I get that the Daily Mail and their ilk would do that sort of thing, but the Guardian??? An otherwise first rate news source (as best I can tell) is still trying to breathe life into the corpse of the Imperial set of units? That cannot bode well, I fear, for a full-on switch to metric in the minds of the masses in the UK.


  9. Ezra,

    You need to understand that what you are experiencing in the media is not necessarily the policy of the media outlet but the individual preference of the reporter and/or editor. In many cases, the preference for imperial or dual may also have to do with readership complaints. Older people who cling to imperial are more likely to still read newspapers and write in complaints when the format is not to their liking. Younger people if interested read their news on-line and have access to news from around the world. They won’t complain to media outlets that don’t use metric or metric only, they just find an outlet that does or in the case of the dual units, just skim over the imperial.

    Young people I have talked with in the past few years don’t tend to read articles at all, least of not long winded ones. They get their snippets from twitter or something similar and don’t often care about the details. Many just pass news around in a mobile phone text. In 20 min they moved onto a new topic. It is just a matter of time before news articles either in print or digital disappear due to lack of interest.


  10. Further to my recent comment, I have just checked the WHO website and they say the social distance should be 1 metre (3 feet). I am very surprised at this short distance and use of imperial units but perhaps the USA, their largest funder has had some influence.


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