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.