Ronnie Cohen remembers how the loss of consensus on both the reform of the UK’s measurement units and on its membership of the European Community changed the course of history.
The UK joined the European Economic Community, forerunner of the European Union, on 1 January 1973. Just two and a half years later, the Labour government held a referendum on its membership in June 1975. At the time, all three main political parties and all the national newspapers supported Britain’s membership. In the referendum campaign, there were a few dissenting voices but most of them were on the left of the Labour party. Notable opponents of membership on the left of the Labour party included Tony Benn and Michael Foot. The public voted decisively in favour of continued membership. The referendum was won with over two-thirds voting to stay in the EEC.
There was also a consensus that the metric system was a good thing in the 1970’s. There was a market failure that halted all voluntary retail initiatives. This occurred when a carpet retailer gained a significant market advantage by going back to selling carpets by the square yard. Consumers would not believe that a price of £10 per square yard is the same as a price of £12 per square metre and bought the apparently cheaper carpets in large quantities. As a result, metrication in carpet retailing went into reverse. The Board of Trade drafted the necessary Order in 1978 for a compulsory cut-off date for use of imperial units in the retail trade. It had universal support among businesses and almost unanimous support in the House of Commons. There was dithering for several weeks and then a loss of nerve by the governing Labour party so it was never put to a vote. It would have passed with overwhelming support.
In 1979, there was a change of government. The Conservatives won the general election and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Sally Oppenheim, one of the few persistent critics of the metrication programme, was appointed a minister in the new government and metrication was added to her portfolio. She refused to compel retailers to use metric units. In 1980, the Metrication Board was abolished. There was growing hostility to the adoption of metric units and the government repeatedly sought derogations (i.e. opt-outs) from EEC Directives on metric units.
In November 1980, Michael Foot became leader of the Labour party. He led the Labour party into the 1983 general election on a manifesto that advocated Britain’s withdrawal from the EEC. The British contribution to the EEC budget was seen as excessive and disproportionate so Thatcher negotiated a permanent budget rebate at a European summit in 1984 and got it every year until it left the EU in 2020. In the 1980’s, there was growing hostility to the EEC. There was considerable opposition to president of the European Commission Jacques Delors’ plans for a more federal Europe and a single currency. Thatcher made her famous Bruges speech in 1988 to express her opposition to these plans.
Why was there a breakdown in the consensus on metrication and EU membership at roughly the same time? The consensus on both issues disappeared by the early 1980’s. Hostility to the EU and metrication appeared to grow in tandem. Why were the fortunes of both linked in the minds of so many despite the fact that they are separate issues? The way we measure is surely separate from membership of a supra-national organisation. Why was the metric system seen as an EU imposition on the UK despite the fact that British ministers agreed to go metric when the UK joined the EU and supported the early EU Directives on metrication?