Stuck in an imperial past

Ronnie Cohen wonders if nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past is damaging its future.

One buzz phrase frequently used about the UK’s post-Brexit future is Global Britain. But what does it mean? The UK Government has published its vision of Global Britain on its official website. It tells us about an aircraft carrier operating in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, being a force for good in the world and a renewal of trading relationships with Commonwealth countries.

On 3 February 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a speech about the government’s post-Brexit vision of Global Britain, saying:

“We will reach out to the rest of the Commonwealth, which now has some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

It was fantastic at the recent Africa summit to see how many wanted to turn that great family of nations into a free trade zone, even if we have to begin with clumps and groups, and we will take these ideas forward at Kigali in June.

We will engage with Japan and the other Trans-Pacific agreement countries, with old friends and partners – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s.”

Sceptical government officials have privately branded this vision “Empire 2.0”. Commonwealth leaders have told the British to forget Empire 2.0, saying that they do not want to be treated like colonies anymore. The Global Britain vision sounds like elements of Rule Britannia and a longing for a lost empire. The language of being a “force for good” sounds similar to what the British tell themselves about the empire. Not to mention “Gunboat diplomacy”. Hence the Leave campaign’s slogan of “Take back control” may be seen as the desire for the nostalgia of the lost empire. The problem with the trade plans is that the EU is the UK’s main market. The UK exports over four times as much to the EU as it does to the Commonwealth.

The desire to go back to imperial measures in market stalls and shops seems to be related to the same mindset, an attempt to turn the clock back and recreate a lost imperial past. The nostalgia for an imperial past is also reflected in the desire to keep imperial measurements on British roads. The continued visible use of imperial weights and measures in so many areas of British society contradicts ministers’ attempts to promote the UK as a modern, forward-looking country.


20 thoughts on “Stuck in an imperial past”

  1. I must confess, it is still disappointing to see the BBC adding Imperial to the metric units in their reports or even putting Imperial first, and this despite the article below being a “science” article.

    Sad, truly. But I resolutely hold out hope that the younger generation will eventually push for a complete changeover (maybe even before the UK achieves net zero carbon emissions?)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a very sad situation, Ezra, and a lot of the blame lies on selfish ‘boomers’ who refuse to move forward. People born directly after WW2 seem to need the crutch of traditional measurements to feel secure now that Britain’s status in the world has diminished. They’re frustrated. They’ve left work and they don’t have a voice any more. They’re the ones dictating what the BBC does. They seem to feel that they’re at war with younger people and see the adoption of anything new as conceding defeat. It’s very strange behaviour from a generation that sang ‘My Generation’ (hope I die before I get old) and ‘The Times they are a changin’ (get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand).
    The British tabloids are even worse than the BBC. They would put the imperial measurements first and the Daily Mail wouldn’t use SI measurements at all.
    The country needs a forward-looking government that has the interest of the people at its heart rather than just going with the flow to keep in office. I can’t see that happening soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well Ezra, that’s because there are imperial supporters working for the BBC and they input their personal choice into the reports. Maybe in the past the leadership of the BBC put together rules specifying metric, but these individuals who support imperial feel it is their right to free speech or something to rebel against the ruling and use imperial. As long as there is no one to stop them or their editors and bosses agree with their personal choice, they will continue to do so.

    It’s wrong to just blame the BBC, which is an inanimate object. It is living, breathing human beings doing it and as long as they feel empowered to do it and no one stops them, they will continue to do so. Maybe when viewing the report, at the beginning or the end you may see a list of names involved with the production. Such as the reporter’s name or even the editor’s name. These names you need to take note of and if you decide to lodge an official complaint, these names need to be mentioned. Blaming the BBC without mentioning a specific culprit is meaningless.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Daniel, I read somewhere that Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Honorary member of BWMA, was recently put forward as the chair of the BBC. Thankfully he declined due to ill health. To think that someone as reactionary as this person was even considered is quite frightening.


  5. I would classify the Government’s thinking as being “Empire 3.0”, not “Empire 2.0”. They might have forgotten that “Empire 1.0” ended on 4 July 1776.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. @Daniel one theory is that it’s the usual suspects (Wail and Excess) publishing tripe in the hope that enough of their readers will believe it’s true that populist politicians will do it anyway.

    That said, I do wonder if it might be part of a wider plan which seems to be in play to diverge UK standards so much from those of the EU to make it more difficult for a future government to rejoin without massive and potentially unpopular changes to legislation. The impact on our reputation with the rest of the world doesn’t seem to matter.


  7. One of the problems with re-introducing imperial units is setting out the legislation for their use. The technology behind the manufacture of weighing devices has changed greatly over the last 20 years and in particular the OIML has set up an international standard regarding the design and use of weighing devices. If dual units are to be permitted, then the government will have to:

    1. Clarify whether the scales used should display pounds and decimals of a pound or pounds and ounces. If the scales are in pounds and decimals of a pound, how would the shop-keeper deliver six ounces of ham and how could I check what he was delivering?

    2. Specify which units are the authoritative units when setting up any dual-unit scales. A few years ago I saw two products in Tesco at opposite ends of the vegetable display. One was priced at £1/kg (45p/lb) and the other at 99p/kg (45p/lb). Quite clearly the metric unit was the authoritative unit otherwise both would have been the same. For the record, £1/kg is equivalent to 45.4p/lb which, when rounded to the nearest penny, is 45p/lb and 99p/kg is 44.9p/lb which, when rounded to the nearest penny, is also 45p/lb.


  8. Daniel – see also para 502 on page 114.
    It seems incredible that the authors of the report are proposing massive investment in 21st century innovation but want the country to revert to nineteenth century weights and measures. If you visit,a%20meagre%20and%20unsatisfactory%20kind.%E2%80%9D you will see Lord Kelvin’s quote “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”


  9. The taskforce report recommending removing metric requirements in the Weights and Measures Act is sheer folly. It is only even remotely feasible because the USA still has not converted to metric in everyday activities and in the media over here.
    This is also a very unfortunate consequence of the failure decades ago to convert UK road signs to metric only. Both Canada and Ireland have proven that making such a switch permanently establishes kilometers for distance and km/h for speed, which establishes a powerful metric anchor in the minds of the populace.
    Also, the extent to which these Luddites show Scotland that England is stepping back even further from the EU by regressing to using Imperial units will provide even more incentive to the undecideds and the youth to back Scottish independence. If Westminster goes ahead with this regressive step, it will be like going out in the midday sun, which only mad dogs and Englishmen do (as described in the song of the same title by Noel Coward and perhaps inspired by a line in the novel “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. @Daniel – On 2021-06-15 at 11:26 you asked whetehr or not Imperial was about to make a comeback, citing reports in two so-called newspapers.
    On 2021-06-19 at 03:43, you mentioned a further newspaper report. The newspaper concerend named Iain Duncan-Smith as the author of a government report.
    On 2021-06-20 at 12:34 you gave the link to the actual report itself.
    The report itself is heavy on objectives, by light on how the objectives could be achieved – notably on how they would be financed and how the education system should ensure that there are enough qualified people to implement these aims. In light of, I would be inclined to dismiss the report as being political rhetoric rather than being policy.


  11. If the government makes the decision to go back to using Imperial units and phasing out metric units, will prove many things.
    1 Global Britain was a lie
    2 give Scottish independence more support because why would Scotland want to go backwards with Little England
    3 it would create division between the generations as young people will think what is the point of learning metric when older people will just abolish everything they learn.
    4 might create a stronger cause for Irish unity and Welsh independence.
    I hope that the stories about the UK going backwards and imperial units is going backwards, I hope it is a lie.
    The only hope I have is that over time we’ll forget using the EU as an excuse for not changing, and we start using being a Global economy as a reason to go fully metric.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I really don’t think there will be a reversion to imperial. What I see in thise TIGRR report is only a call for a relaxing of the 1985 WMA to allow shops to sell in pounds, something some are already doing and have always done. I see nothing about forcing every industry and business to revert.

    Yet, the media is making it out to be that everything is going to return to imperial. It is unfortunate that the people in the media and the government cater to these old Luddites and ignore the younger generations and their future. These Luddites think only of themselves and not their offspring or the future of their regions and country.

    Maybe all of this is a good thing in the long term. It will assure a total collapse of England as well as the US and a cementing of China in becoming the #1 nation in economy and technology. China is passing the west by in leaps and bounds and I look forward to living long enough to see them sitting on the top. When they rule, the free press will become a thing of the past and none of these Luddites will be able to complain without facing dire consequences.


  13. Even in a place like Australia there are still remnants of the Imperial past. Just saw a news report on VICE News about the resurgence of the crocodile population there thanks to hunting being banned. All the units used by the locals was metric except for one guy who described the bite force of a “croc” in “pounds” (instead of “newtons”). Guess some Imperial bits still hang on in certain specific domains because of legacy information that gets passed around. (I bet he doesn’t understand the technical definition of either “pound-force” or “newton”, but that’s another kettle of fish altogether 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  14. So, it is probably useless to keep hammering on the BBC and its needless use of Imperial, but they still manage to get me upset. Just now I heard the World Service presenter in London talk about the need to limit global mean temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade right after the *American* scientist talked about the same issue but had used “Celsius” instead only seconds before.
    What??? The BBC presenter just heard “1.5 degrees Celsius” from an American. Why on earth would the British presenter say “Centigrade” instead? And don’t get me started on the articles on the BBC News website that still put Imperial first and metric in parentheses afterwards when metric should always be primary if not the *only* units used.
    Quo vadis BBC “World” Service? Another example of “global Britain”? Are they just engaging in not enough “bunny hugging”? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Ezra:
    I’ve written to the BBC World Service (which I listen to quite often and like very much) about their use of imperial units such as ‘miles’ when attempting to convey distances to an international audience. It really is the fault of the journalists who work there, but of course if they are British they will ‘think’ in miles from roads at home and just apply that to anything they see in kilometres. It is very retrograde, but it also smacks of neo-colonialism to me, simply thinking that the British way is always right. You might like to try writing nicely to them yourself!


  16. Hammering on the BBC will get you nowhere since the BBC is not a real person but an entity. You mention the presenter. It was his choice to utter the word centigrade and it is him alone you need to call out. For whatever reason (mostly do to poor teaching of SI) there are those who insist on clinging to the past and in the past the temperature unit was called centigrade. Just like some people can’t move forward and use grams litres and metres, etc others can’t break free of cgs and other old but obsolete metric units, can only use the six prefixes around unity, use made up symbols, etc and not move into SI.


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