Metric Views remembers two announcements made over 50 years ago that came as a surprise to many.
Following the appointment of John Peyton as Minister of Transport after the general election of 1970, an article appeared in Commercial Motor Magazine of 26 June under the headline:
“Surprise choice for transport”
The article began:
“The Prime Minister’s choice of John Peyton as Minister of Transport is a surprise appointment.
Although a former chairman of the … backbench MPs’ transport committee, Mr Peyton’s preoccupations in recent years have been the coal and steel industries.
His only incursion into the transport field which can immediately be recalled was his sponsorship in 1962 of a Bill to amend the road vehicle licensing laws to enable a group of people to legally hire a taxi to take them to work …”
We can imagine the conversation that took place when Peyton first arrived at the offices of the Department of Transport, as it was then known:
Permanent Secretary. “Welcome to the Department, Minister.”
John Peyton. “Er. Yes. Hello.”
PS. Before you start, Minister, there is just one thing I would like to mention.”
JP. “Oh yes. What’s that?”
PS. “Did you know that your predecessor was planning to change all the road signs to metric?”
JP. “Er, no.”
PS. “At a cost of several million pounds….. paid from your department’s budget. Isn’t there something else you would rather have this money spent on? Building motorways? Repairing pot holes?”
JP. “But I thought the metric changeover is a national plan, covering the whole UK economy. Surely road signs can’t be left out. That would cause a muddle, would it not?”
PS. “Oh no, Minister. Road signs can be considered as separate from other economic activity. And think of the money you would save.”
JP. “But in any case, the Government is proposing to apply for membership of the Common Market, which will surely insist we use its measurement system.”
PS. “Ah Minister, I am sure that won’t happen for a long time, and when it does, rest assured, we are confident we will be able to circumvent any requirements.”
JP. “I see.”
PS. “So, Minister, can we say that the Government will not be proceeding with the changeover of the road signs to metric in 1972, as currently proposed?”
JP. “Oh yes, I suppose so.”
PS. “And can we also say you have no other date in mind?”
JP. “Obviously – you have only just raised this with me.”
PS. “Yes Minister.”
When the decision to postpone the changeover to metric road signs was announced in 1970 it came as a surprise to many. It has led to fifty years of procrastination against a background of escalating costs. It now sends a message of British exceptionalism and isolation to the rest of the world. And the problems that were created by that decision remain, making the changeover inevitable whether it comes sooner or later.