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!