Not a blunder

We take a look at the changeover to decimal currency which occurred almost 50 years ago, and ask if there are any lessons to be learned that will help resolve the UK’s current measurement muddle.

In their book “The Blunders of our Governments” #, the authors begin by describing a number of successes of UK governments during the past 75 years. These include the introduction of decimal currency, then known as “decimalisation”. As a reminder for older readers and as an introduction to the subject for younger ones, the paragraph from the book on decimalisation is reproduced below.  The book does not include in its catalogue of blunders the way the changeover to metric measures was carried out, but it could well have done so.

“Requesting people to wear seat belts and to stop drink-driving requires them to change their behaviour. It requires them in that sense to make choices. In the case of decimalisation, people had no choice. They had to use the decimal currency whether they liked it or not. Even so, the abrupt switch that took place in mid-February 1971 from old pounds, shillings and pence to old pounds and new pence could have descended into farce. It could have proved an administrative disaster. In the event, the transition proceeded so smoothly that some national newspapers, which certainly would have reported it if something had gone badly wrong, found it scarcely worth reporting. It was precisely the knowledge that something might go badly wrong that prevented anything from going wrong. The government announced that the country was going to go decimal as early as the spring as 1966, nearly five years in advance of the actual event. A few months later, an executive Decimal Currency Board was set up to engineer the transition. The board introduced early on two new decimal coins, which ran alongside pre-decimal coins of the same value, and it organised a massive pre-decimalisation publicity campaign, one that accelerated gradually as time went on. By February 1971 a major event had all but transformed into a non-event. Fortunately, there was virtual consensus among politicians and commentators on that issue. Controversy was minimal. Few were prepared to defend the old currency. The only serious argument revolved around the issue of whether the new currency’s basic unit should be the pound or some smaller unit, probably one with a value equivalent to ten shillings – half a pound – in the old money. But the argument was settled quickly in favour of the pound sterling and, once settled, it stayed settled. Administratively, decimalisation was a triumph.”

Does the success of decimalisation provide indications of where the change to metric measures – now in its 55th year – went wrong? Readers may wish to speculate.

In a future article, Metric Views will look at an historic blunder which, some would say, led directly to the UK’s current measurement muddle, namely the first report of the Commissioners Appointed to Consider Weights and Measures, dating back to 1819.

# “The Blunders of our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, published in 2013 by Oneworld Publications.

7 thoughts on “Not a blunder”

  1. My continental wife learnt about the pre-decimal ‘English’ currency, counting in twelves and twenties, at school. She says she and her classmates were always baffled as to why a country would inflict such a counting system upon itself. She says the same thing today about imperial units of measurement!


  2. Decimalisation was not as aggressive a change as it may seem. For one, the base unit of currency, the pound was retained. Other countries like Australia and New Zealand changed to the dollar. There were only two coins that changed and they were equal to existing coins. So, thinking still in old money could still be done and I’m sure many continued to think in old money until they died.

    Despite the success of decimalisation, there are still Luddites, the same that oppose metrication, crying for a return to old money.

    Don’t be surprised if the Luddites not only scream out for a return to EEU (Evil Empire Units), they demand a return to old money as well.


  3. I was at school in South Africa when, in 1961, that country adopted a decimal currency system. Britain adopted a decimal currency system ten years and a day later. There were a number of big differences. First of all, South Africa had a high degree of illiteracy and secondly, the South Africans chose to make the Rand (10/-) the basic unit of currency. Unlike the UK, the South African pound was not a world currency which is, I understand, the reason why the pound was retained in the UK. As a result, things were much simpler in South Africa.

    In the first phase of decimalisation, all the bank notes and coins, apart from the farthing, half-penny and penny were retained with very similar designs (on the reverse side at any rate – on the obverse side the head of van Riebeeck replaced the head of the Queen). The change-over was accompanied by strict price-controls to prevent profiteering, particularly at the expense of anybody who was illiterate. In contrast, the British Government led the way in introducing postage price rises on decimalisation day of up to 50%. That, I think, was the biggest mistake of the British Government. As a result, what little trust the British Government had with the public went out of the window while in South Africa, despite the policy of Apartheid, the Government earned a degree of trust in those matters.


  4. What about the tax on tea in the American colonies?
    Would that qualify as a British government blunder?


  5. Ezra,

    There were hundreds of little things that added up to one big blunder. But, the US followed the English when it came to blunders. Not metricating is one, allowing the institution of slavery to continue on and only ending it with a civil war. Then after the war not integrating non-whites equally into the general population. Blunders that still bring harm to the US to this very day.


  6. Daniel Jackson:
    Glad you included the link to the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail is the go-to online newspaper for Luddites. This populist rag is not content with just being xenophobic and racist. It runs an almost fetishistic campaign to denigrate modern measurements and replace them with archaic units with a ‘proud history of defiant insularity’. I can imagine Daily Mail head office with a panel of Taliban-like elders sitting around a table striking out all offending ‘Napoleonic’ measurements with a quill and substituting them with what they consider to be superior units of ‘romantic charm, history and tradition.’ I have seen articles in the Mail where a 300m tall building becomes a 300 yard building further down the page and even a 300 foot building in the same article. Facts don’t matter in that paper. The important thing with the Mail is to keep pushing the things of the past. It gives their readers a warm fuzzy feeling. It doesn’t matter that people under the age of forty can’t visualise what a 1640ft hill looks like. How much a gallon of petrol weighs or the value of five and sixpence halfpenny. Their mission is to force the ‘snowflake’ youngsters to learn the ways of the past by excluding the things of the present. It makes the older readers feel superior. To the Mail and its disciples modern systems of measurement or currency are only for ­the political and intellectual elite. How many furrows a horse can plow in a day is obviously far more important to the common man than an interconnecting network of measurement that is easy to use and merely works well.
    Changing to the metric system of money and changing to the metric system of measurement in Australia followed the same process. A cut-off date was announced and using the old units past the cut-off date became illegal. No supplementary units were allowed. The press had to conform just like commerce and industry. A paper like the Daily Mail would not be allowed to push its reactionary views. The biggest blunder of the British government was to not make the changeover compulsory. Seat belts in cars and helmets for motorcyclists were made compulsory. I imagine the Daily Mail objected to those edicts at the time but thankfully nobody took any notice.


  7. Cliff,

    I don’t think the Daily Mail gets too much financial support from its Luddite readership. From time to time they send you a pop-up begging for money. As for being on-line I can’t see too many of their readership going on-line seeing computers and the internet are too modern for a people clinging to old measurements and thinking in old money.

    I can’t imagine what their feelings are for the native English speakers who are descendants of English colonists living in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and other places who abandoned not only pre-decimal counting when it comes to currency and measurements but have forsaken the pound for the dollar and the rand. It has to irk them to no end when they see videos on other news services showing common people freely giving distances in metres and kilometres, giving volumes in litres and masses in grams and kilograms without being forced to. Their response seems to simply ignore the people and the situations.

    Let’s just be grateful that the Commonwealth doesn’t hold old money and old units close to heart and rejects the attempts of institutions like the Daily Mail to hold on tightly to the past.


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: