Ronnie Cohen looks at the story of the UK’s metric changeover during the half century following the establishment of the Metrication Board in the late 1960s. If any other country needs a lesson in how not to do the job, this is it.
Ever since the British started their own metrication programme, our politicians have made a succession of errors and this is why we have ended up in a measurement mess today. They include the voluntary approach to metrication, encouraging imperial conversions, giving in too easily to opponents, failing to make the case for metric units and blaming EU directives when implementing legislation on metric measures, and a failure to provide information to the general public. Here, we take a look at major events that blighted the UK metric changeover during the past half century.
There was a major setback when the Conservatives won the 1970 election. The plan to metricate speed limits in 1973 was promptly dropped by the new government. On 9 December 1970, the Minister for Transport Industries announced this in Parliament and added that the Government had no alternative date in mind. It has never been reinstated. Half a century later, British road traffic signs for speed and distance are exclusively imperial; little progress has been made to convert other traffic signs to metric units.
Late in 1975 there was a voluntary initiative for retailers to convert to the use of metric units. However, one market failure brought all voluntary initiatives to a halt: a major carpet retailer reverted to the use of square yards for selling carpets. It gained a huge commercial advantage because consumers refused to believe that a carpet sold for £10 per square yard and a carpet sold for £12 per square metre were almost the same price. So consumers bought the apparently cheaper ones and there was a complete reversal of the metrication of carpet sales. In response to this, business organisations called on the government to set a compulsory cut-off date for use of imperial units in the retail trade.
The Board of Trade drafted the necessary Order in 1978 for a cut-off date. This was supported by a large range of organisations representing many diverse interests and the vast majority of MPs. Then there was a loss of nerve of the Labour government, worried about the General Election expected in 1979. The Secretary of State for Trade, Roy Hattersley, hesitated for several weeks and did not put it to a vote in Parliament, hoping to implement a cut-off date after the election.
The Conservatives won the election. Sally Oppenheim, one of the few persistent critics of the metrication programme, was appointed junior Minister of Consumer Affairs at the Department for Trade and Industry, and metrication was added to her portfolio. She refused to compel the retail sector to use metric measures and saw to it in 1980 that the Metrication Board was abolished. The changeover lost momentum. As a result, it took another 20 years to complete the changeover in retailing.
In the early 1970s, before the UK joined, the European Union, then known as the European Economic Community, introduced directive 71/354/EEC to standardise units of measurement in member countries. After joining, the UK asked for derogations (i.e. opt-outs) to permit the continued use of imperial units for particular purposes, including supplementary indications (i.e. voluntary use of imperial units alongside the required metric units). These derogations were extended repeatedly until the European Union decided on an indefinite extension.
In 1989 the UK Government secured a derogation permitting the UK to “fix a date” for the conversion of “road traffic signs, distance and speed”, but there was no indication of what that date might be nor even of when the date would be fixed. Indeed, in response to the publication of “Metric signs ahead” in 2006, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) made it clear that it had no plans to fulfill the commitment, which a spokesperson described as “a waste of taxpayers’ money”.
In 2007, the DfT requested the European Commission to remove the obligation to fix a date for converting road signs to metric. The Commission duly obliged, partly on grounds of “subsidiarity”, and the resulting amendment to the Directive was finally agreed in 2009. Of course, signs that are not road traffic signs may use metric units. You can read about this at https://ukma.org.uk/road-signage/are-metric-signs-legal/ and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2002118.stm. Currently, the UK is the only major country in the world whose road sign regulations do not include metric units as options for distances and speed limits.
The option to use metric units alongside imperial ones on height, width and length restriction signs was introduced in the traffic sign regulations in 1981. For years, successive Transport Ministers and the DfT resisted making dual units (metric and imperial) mandatory even when consultations showed strong support from industry and studies indicated it would also be cost effective. Finally, dual units on new restriction signs became mandatory in 2016.
Compulsory metric labelling was introduced for pre-packaged goods between 1975 and 1995, but not until 2000 did price labelling and weighing or measuring of “loose goods” in metric units become a statutory requirement. When Ministers implemented EU directives on measurement, they failed to make the case for a single, simple and logical measurement system used for all purposes, and encouraged the belief that this was purely an EU matter. And in response to resistance by market traders (fruit and veg priced in imperial seem to be much cheaper than those priced in metric – just as with carpets but thirty years later), the Government encouraged relaxation of enforcement of weights and measures legislation.
Of course, where prices appeared to be less, as with the switch from gallons to litres for fuel in the 1980’s, there was little resistance to the changeover. Contrary to media claims, the use of pounds and ounces has little to do with tradition and everything to do with market advantage. But for almost fifty years, no UK Government has willingly made the case that a single measurement system is essential for consumer protection – a lesson learned many centuries ago and set out in Magna Carta in 1215.
At the beginning of this article, we suggested that if any country wished to see how not to carry out the metric changeover, it need look no further than the UK. Is it too much to hope that when a UK government has the courage to complete this job, began by one of its predecessors over fifty years ago, it will start by studying some of the many successful examples to be found around the world?
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