Imperial dimensions of British exceptionalism

The British retreat on metrication from the early 1980’s, starting with the abolition of the Metrication Board, is a symptom of British exceptionalism. Ronnie Cohen looks at this issue, or should we say problem?

On the metric front, the British secured opt-outs from EU directives on road signs, draught beer, doorstep milk, precious metals and acres for land registration and they got several extensions for the use of supplementary indications until SIs were extended indefinitely. The opt-out for the use of acres for land registration was later abolished.

Backsliding on metrication is part of a wider pattern of behaviour in terms of constant demands for special treatment in the European Union. The resistance to falling into line on metric standards is seen in other areas, for example:

  • Rise of racism, xenophobia and hostility to foreigners, blaming foreigners for many of Britain’s problems.
  • Revolt against globalisation.
  • Opt-out from the European Monetary System.
  • Withdrawal from areas of EU co-operation in justice and home affairs.
  • Steep decline in the study of European languages.
  • Budget rebate on EU membership contributions. The UK was the only member to secure a permanent rebate on its contributions to the EU budget. This issue has been a constant source of tension with other member states.
  • More opt-outs than any other EU member.
  • Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s terms of EU membership, including UK exclusion from the commitment to “ever closer union”.
  • Constant demands to get rid of unspecified EU regulations.
  • Refusal to join the 2011 Fiscal Compact Treaty.
  • Eurosceptic demands to unilaterally veto further EU integration and legislation.

The British had privileged terms of membership that no other state has ever secured and included the derogations (i.e. opt-outs) from some EU directives on metrication, budget rebate, Maastricht treaty opt-outs (the British had more EU opt-outs than any other member), Cameron’s veto of the 2011 Fiscal Compact Treaty and Cameron’s renegotiation to exclude the UK from the commitment to “ever closer union” and restrict migrants’ social security benefits. Alas, these privileged membership terms were not enough to persuade the UK to remain in the EU.

“The United Kingdom’s approach to the European project has from the start been colored by a belief in a kind of chauvinistic otherness — we were happy to be part of the club, but only on the condition we could have a special status within it.

Whether this stems from an island psyche, an imperial history, repelling World War 2 occupation or something else is debatable, but with respect to European integration, successive prime ministers have pursued a policy of “British exceptionalism” — think Margaret Thatcher’s budget rebate.

The policy was articulated last year in a lecture by the U.K.’s former EU Ambassador Ivan Rogers, in which he described David Cameron’s ill-fated efforts to strike a deal with the EU27 that would persuade voters to back Remain in the referendum. “Throughout all his years in office, [Cameron] was defending and enhancing British exceptionalism, and in carving out a permanent niche, within the market project, but outside the monetary, banking, fiscal and political union. He believed strongly that this was in the U.K.’s best interests,” said Rogers.” (Source: “British ‘exceptionalism’ drove Brexit, but EU media aren’t buying it” by James Randerson, 28 March 2018, published by Politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-europe-british-exceptionalism-drove-vote-but-eu-media-arent-buying-it/)

The UK believes it has been a superpower (towering empire) and a plucky underdog (World War 2) – yearning for past glories of Empire (hence Leave campaign slogans such as “take back control”, “regain sovereignty”, etc). The UK had the largest empire the world has ever seen, for centuries ruling big chunks of the world. At its peak, the British Empire ruled about one-quarter of the world’s land mass and population. Many in Britain resented being a side-show, not being top dog in the EU. They often talked about the UK leading Europe. Being just another voice among 27 other members was never enough.

“Of course, no-one who knows anything about the EU would argue Britain lacked influence within it. The country skilfully used its ties to the US and its EU membership to maximise its value to both sides; the EU helped Britain to punch above its weight. Britain was also instrumental in the EU’s embrace of a liberalising economic policy and its enlargement to the East. The latter has helped cement English as the lingua franca across Europe. Britain even managed to negotiate a special status within the EU – part of the single market, but not a member of the eurozone or Schengen. But this kind of influence was never enough. The EU’s institutions never looked sufficiently British.” (Source: “The British and their Exceptionalism” by Simon Tilford, 3 May 2017, Centre for European Reform, https://www.cer.eu/insights/british-and-their-exceptionalism)

On 7 January 2019, Prospect magazine published an article under the heading “The Myth of Brexit as Imperial Nostalgia” (Source: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/world/the-myth-of-brexit-as-imperial-nostalgia, Author: Robert Saunders). A few quotes from this article are relevant to this MV article and are worth repeating here:

  • A number of prominent writers “saw in Brexit a case-study in “postcolonial melancholia,” driven by ‘a nostalgic yearning for lost colonies—and the wealth and global influence that came with them.'”
  • “The Brexit debate spoke to deep-rooted ideas about history, identity and loss, none of which could be easily disentangled from Britain’s imperial past.”
  • “The idea that Britain should lead the EU—widely deployed in 2016—has as strong an imperial heritage as the aspiration to leave it; and in loading membership with unrealistic aspirations, it may have contributed to disillusionment with the European experience.”

A common narrative among Brexiteers is that EU laws have been imposed on the UK and that the British lacked control of our laws. In fact, the British government almost always got their way and were rarely outvoted. Official EU voting records show that the British government voted ‘No’ to laws on only 56 occasions, abstained on 70 occasions and voted ‘Yes’ 2466 times since 1999. In other words, UK ministers were on the winning side 95% of the time and on the losing side only 2% of the time.

The British obtained special exemptions on use of metric units in some areas, just as they secured a privileged membership status on other issues. The only other member state that got similar exemptions on metrication was Ireland but they converted their road signs in 2005. Why were the British unable to do the same?

After the British voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, the British had an inflated sense of their own importance in post-referendum negotiations and overestimated their negotiation strength. Hence, British politicians made claims such as “The day after we vote to leave, we hold ALL the cards.”, “We can have our cake and eat it.” and “They need us more than we need them.”. There was a belief that the UK can get everything it wanted and give up nothing. EU politicians coined a new term for the attempt to keep all the trade benefits without any EU obligations; they called it “cakeism”. Reality turned to be very different in the negotiations.

Only the UK and Greenland held referenda on leaving the EU and both voted to leave by a similar margin. As a dependency of Denmark, Greenland had become an EU member when Denmark joined in 1973. The UK held two referenda on its membership, once in 1975 when a two-thirds majority voted to remain and again in 2016 when 52% voted to leave.

We can only hope that the Government’s much-criticised handling of Brexit and COVID strikes a big blow against British exceptionalism and this helps our leaders to recognise that the UK must join the modern world to secure its post-Brexit future. The UK is alone among all the countries of Europe that insists on using non-metric road signs. Since the French revolution in the late eighteen century, the metric system has spread to all countries in the world, on every continent. Even the USA uses metric for many purposes (e.g. litres for soft drinks, nutrition information, manufacturing, science, etc). Why does only the UK insist on moving away from the rest of the world and going back to the imperial system? Is this about the past glories of the British Empire, when this system was used for imperial trade among the UK and its colonies?

Turing the clock back on the use of metric measures can only contribute to the UK’s decline in influence around the world, and would also cause problems in the British Isles. It would put up additional trade barriers with Northern Ireland (which remains in the EU regulatory orbit), with the EU and with the rest of the world. Global Britain – no chance!

11 thoughts on “Imperial dimensions of British exceptionalism”

  1. What a biased and completely untrue write up. Britain has used the metric system for years,whats this to do with the EU?
    Britain along with other countries use the Imperial system,this was adopted so that industry could expand, the metric system is outdated, however a carefull mix of both is the way forward,we all understand Fahenheit temperature and BTU, and mm and metres miles tons cwt etc. Now that we are rid of the UK (EU) lets recover our British Standards!

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  2. Algeria left the EEC in 1962 as it gains independence from France
    Greenland voted to leave the EC in 1982 and left in 1985
    The UK voted to leave in 2016 and left after the transition period in 2021.
    Algeria and Greenland kept using the Metric system, the UK unfortunately still thinks it’s 1939 and has an empire, can’t wait to see what happens when the US eventually goes metric, but Americans tend to suffer from a similar condition as the British, it thinks everyone should follow them..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The question that needs to be asked is: Where are the pro-metric, pro-progress people and why aren’t they fighting back hard? Don’t they care?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thankfully we still have the imperial system that replace the metric system many years ago. The metric system was not what industry wanted, as a result GB more or less dominated the world market.
    Nowadays we find the metic system,being decimalised is in many ways easier to work with, however, sometimes it is not so easy to understand, I suppose it depends on what you are taught.
    Small measurements we seem to prefer metric, ie mm, metres, or feet, larger it is miles, liquid measure its still pints, gallons as well as litres, temperature its still Fahenheit( that we all understand)
    We have got rid of pouds,shillings and pence(imperial) that we was taught in school
    So the combination is best of both worlds, suits the western world well.
    Lets not get rid of the metric system although it may have been outdated.

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  5. Imperialyes makes a very good point: that the UK is in a hopeless mess when it comes to units of measurement. However, if he or she really thinks this ‘combination’ ‘suits the western world more’, I would respectfully suggest that he or she get out and actually travel around the western world once the pandemic is over. He or she will not find UK imperial used as a system of measurement in any other country, western or otherwise. The whole of continental Europe is metric (even the pipe thread sizes that imperialists like to quote, introduced by British engineers, are made in metric but simply have a ‘fraction’ as a common name for them), Ireland is metric apart from pints of beer, the USA has its own mishmash but is predominantly metric in industry and the customary units do not correspond to imperial units across the board. The Commonwealth is all metric. Go to Australia and New Zealand and see for yourself, Imperialeyes, all metric. Canada does suffer some interference from its neighbour to the south, but its road signs are all metric as are its weather forecasts. What other ‘western world’ do you mean? Japan? Metric? The advanced and developing Asian countries? All metric (Myanmar is getting there, I understand) . But if I take a sentence from Imperialeyes’ second post “Thankfully we still have the imperial system that replace (sic) the metric system many years ago”, I am inclined to think this is midsummer madness, a wind-up.

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  6. Your comment seems to reflect your own views and not facts,it seems that I have touch a nerve somewhere. You should do some research
    I do like features of the metric system,however it only seems to work well alongside the imperial system, at some point in time it may all be metric.
    Such a shame!
    Establishment of the system
    The Weights and Measures Act of 1824 and the Act of 1878 established the British Imperial System on the basis of precise definitions of selected existing units. The 1824 act sanctioned a single imperial gallon to replace the wine, ale, and corn (wheat) gallons then in general use. The new gallon was defined as equal in volume to 10 pounds avoirdupois of distilled water weighed at 62 °F with the barometer at 30 inches, or 277.274 cubic inches (later corrected to 277.421 cubic inches). The two new basic standard units were the imperial standard yard and the troy pound, which was later restricted to weighing drugs, precious metals, and jewels. A 1963 act abolished such archaic measures as the rod and chaldron (a measure of coal equal to 36 bushels) and redefined the standard yard and pound as 0.9144 metres and 0.45359237 kg respectively. The gallon now equals the space occupied by 10 pounds of distilled water of density 0.998859 gram per millilitre weighed in air of density 0.001217 gram per millilitre against weights of density 8.136 grams per millilitre.

    While the British were reforming their weights and measures in the 19th century, the Americans were just adopting units based on those discarded by the act of 1824. The standard U.S. gallon is based on the Queen Anne wine gallon of 231 cubic inches and is about 17 percent smaller than the British imperial gallon. The U.S. bushel of 2,150.42 cubic inches, derived from the Winchester bushel abandoned in Britain, is approximately 3 percent smaller than the British imperial bushel. In the British system, units of dry and liquid capacity are the same, while in the United States they differ; the liquid and dry pint in Britain both equal 0.568 cubic decimetre, while the U.S. liquid pint is 0.473 cubic decimetre, and the U.S. dry pint is 0.551 cubic decimetre. British and American units of linear measure and weight are essentially the same. Notable exceptions are the British stone of 14 pounds, which is not used in the United States, and a divergence in definition of the hundredweight (100 pounds in the United States, 112 in Britain) that yields two different tons, the short U.S. ton of 2,000 pounds and the long British ton of 2,240 pounds. In 1959 major English-speaking nations adopted common metric definitions of the inch (2.54 cm), the yard (0.9144 metres), and the pound (0.4536 kg).

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    The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
    Weights and measures in the British Imperial System
    A list of British Imperial weights and measures is provided in the table.

    British Imperial and U.S. Customary systems of weights and measures
    unit abbreviation or symbol equivalents in other units of same system metric equivalent
    Weight
    Avoirdupois* avdp
    *The U.S. uses avoirdupois units as the common system of measuring weight.
    ton
    short ton 20 short hundredweight, or 2,000 pounds 0.907 metric ton
    long ton 20 long hundredweight, or 2,240 pounds 1.016 metric tons
    hundredweight cwt
    short hundredweight 100 pounds, or 0.05 short ton 45.359 kilograms
    long hundredweight 112 pounds, or 0.05 long ton 50.802 kilograms
    pound lb, lb avdp, or # 16 ounces, or 7,000 grains 0.454 kilogram
    ounce oz, or oz avdp 16 drams, 437.5 grains, or 0.0625 pound 28.350 grams
    dram dr, or dr avdp 27.344 grains, or 0.0625 ounce 1.772 grams
    grain gr 0.037 dram, or 0.002286 ounce 0.0648 gram
    stone st 0.14 short hundredweight, or 14 pounds 6.35 kilograms
    Troy
    pound lb t 12 ounces, 240 pennyweight, or 5,760 grains 0.373 kilogram
    ounce oz t 20 pennyweight, 480 grains, or 0.083 pound 31.103 grams
    pennyweight dwt, or pwt 24 grains, or 0.05 ounce 1.555 grams
    grain gr 0.042 pennyweight, or 0.002083 ounce 0.0648 gram
    Apothecaries’
    pound lb ap 12 ounces, or 5,760 grains 0.373 kilogram
    ounce oz ap 8 drams, 480 grains, or 0.083 pound 31.103 grams
    dram dr ap 3 scruples, or 60 grains 3.888 grams
    scruple s ap 20 grains, or 0.333 dram 1.296 grams
    grain gr 0.05 scruple, 0.002083 ounce, or 0.0166 dram 0.0648 gram
    Capacity
    U.S. liquid measures
    gallon gal 4 quarts 3.785 litres
    quart qt 2 pints 0.946 litre
    pint pt 4 gills 0.473 litre
    gill gi 4 fluid ounces 118.294 millilitres
    fluid ounce fl oz 8 fluid drams 29.573 millilitres
    fluid dram fl dr 60 minims 3.697 millilitres
    minim min 1/60 fluid dram 0.061610 millilitre
    U.S. dry measures
    bushel bu 4 pecks 35.239 litres
    peck pk 8 quarts 8.810 litres
    quart qt 2 pints 1.101 litres
    pint pt 1/2 quart 0.551 litre
    British liquid and dry measures
    bushel bu 4 pecks 0.036 cubic metre
    peck pk 2 gallons 0.0091 cubic metre
    gallon gal 4 quarts 4.546 litres
    quart qt 2 pints 1.136 litres
    pint pt 4 gills 568.26 cubic centimetres
    gill gi 5 fluid ounces 142.066 cubic centimetres
    fluid ounce fl oz 8 fluid drams 28.412 cubic centimetres
    fluid dram fl dr 60 minims 3.5516 cubic centimetres
    minim min 1/60 fluid dram 0.059194 cubic centimetre
    Length
    nautical mile nmi 6,076 feet, or 1.151 miles 1,852 metres
    mile mi 5,280 feet, 1,760 yards, or 320 rods 1,609 metres, or 1.609 kilometres
    furlong fur 660 feet, 220 yards, or 1/8 mile 201 metres
    rod rd 5.50 yards, or 16.5 feet 5.029 metres
    fathom fth 6 feet, or 72 inches 1.829 metres
    yard yd 3 feet, or 36 inches 0.9144 metre
    foot ft, or ‘ 12 inches, or 0.333 yard 30.48 centimetres
    inch in, or ” 0.083 foot, or 0.028 yard 2.54 centimetres
    Area
    square mile sq mi, or mi2 640 acres, or 102,400 square rods 2.590 square kilometres
    acre 4,840 square yards, or 43,560 square feet 0.405 hectare, or 4,047 square metres
    square rod sq rd, or rd2 30.25 square yards, or 0.00625 acre 25.293 square metres
    square yard sq yd, or yd2 1,296 square inches, or 9 square feet 0.836 square metre
    square foot sq ft, or ft2 144 square inches, or 0.111 square yard 0.093 square metre
    square inch sq in, or in2 0.0069 square foot, or 0.00077 square yard 6.452 square centimetres
    Volume
    cubic yard cu yd, or yd3 27 cubic feet, or 46,656 cubic inches 0.765 cubic metre
    cubic foot cu ft, or ft3 1,728 cubic inches, or 0.0370 cubic yard 0.028 cubic metre
    cubic inch cu in, or in3 0.00058 cubic foot, or 0.000021 cubic yard 16.387 cubic centimetres
    acre-foot ac ft 43,560 cubic feet, or 1,613 cubic yards 1,233 cubic metres
    board foot bd ft 144 cubic inches, or 1/12 cubic foot 2.36 litres
    cord cd 128 cubic feet 3.62 cubic metres
    This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
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    Middle Ages, the period in European history from the collapse of Roman civilization in the 5th century ce to the period of the Renaissance (variously interpreted as beginning in the 13th, 14th, or 15th century, depending on the region of Europe and other factors).…
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  7. The pipe thread you mention is BSP known throughout the world inc UK.
    Not only USA but Canada also uses feet inches yards miles,lbs and tons.
    Widespread use in Nova Scotia. and Alaska.
    So dont be so arrogant and quick to through out the system that got the world production to where it is today.
    Please dont confuse decimalisation with metricfication.ie dollar and cents is not metric,neither is our money system.
    There is strong opposition to some metric measures,especially now that GB is out of the EU, but sadly, one day it may well be all metric. When we joined the common market is was Europe that dictated to us to adopt the metric system,that how the mess started.

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  8. Imperialyes repeats the myth that accession to the European Common market in 1973 was the reason for the UK’s adoption of the metric system as its primary system of measurement. In fact, it was an answer by a minister to a written question in the UK Parliament in 1965 that started the ball rolling. Douglas Jay, President of the Board of Trade, announced that industry would convert, sector by sector, with the aim of finishing the job by 1975. The UK Metrication (no “if” please) Board was set up in 1968. I was working in construction at the time and I remember being given a metric scale and a set of metric design tables, both of which I still have.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. @imperialeyes – Alaska is part of the USA so hardly a surprise that they use the same measurements as the rest of their country. And as has been mentioned Canada does suffer to some extent from the influence of it’s southern neighbour and, as any visitor there will tell you, even outside Nova Scotia there are still many examples where US customary measures are used but the country is still predominantly metric regardless.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear, oh, dear! It seems this is not a wind-up at all on the part of Imperialyes. He means it! Well, if ever proof were needed of what nonsense the imperial system is, the text he has copied from the Encyclopaedia Britannica does the job very nicely. So thank you for that. The imperial system is in terminal decline in the UK. It deserves its place in the history books as a warning to future generations.

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