The 1972 White Paper on Metrication – 50 years on

2022 sees the 50th anniversary of the 1972 White Paper on Metrication – a policy document that set out the Government’s plans for the nation’s metrication programme in the 1970s.

The publication of the White Paper was approved at a Cabinet meeting held on Tuesday 11 January 1972.

The White Paper affirmed that it was Government policy to complete the metrication process that had begun in earnest seven years previously:

“The move to metrication has been taking place over many years, but the Government believe that the time has now come when they must act to ensure the orderly completion of the process.”

Background

In May 1965, the then President of the Board of Trade said that:

“The Government consider it desirable that British industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units, sector by sector, until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole”.
“The Government hope that within ten years the greater part of the country’s industry will have effected the change.”

 
In March 1966, the Standing Joint Committee on Metrication was appointed. After an extensive series of consultations it reported in May 1968. On 26 July 1968, in a statement in the House of Commons the then Government indicated their general acceptance of the report. Among the principal points in the statement were that:

  1. the end of 1975 should be accepted as the general target date for all provisional metrication programmes, with the qualification that if the date proved unreasonable for any particular sector the programme might aim at an earlier or later date:
  2. an advisory Metrication Board should be set up to guide, stimulate and coordinate the planning for the transition of the various sectors of the economy:
  3. they accepted the need for legislation but did not adopt a specific date:
  4. there would be no question of compensation: the costs of adopting metric weights and measures must lie where they fell.

On 5 March 1969, the Government announced that speed limits would go metric in 1973. Speed limits on road signs would switch from miles per hour (mph) to kilometres per hour (km/h).

Government policy in 1970

Fast forward to 1970:

  • the construction industry had almost completed its metrication programme,
  • paper and printing industry had almost completed the switch to metric standards,
  • many schools had switched to metric units in education,
  • after five years intensive preparation industry was now irrevocably committed to metrication,
  • the Commonwealth Games had switched from yards to metres.

But, little of this progress was visible in everyday life – shopping was still in pounds and ounces, and road signs were still in yards and miles. Industry leaders and other concerned parties were understandably becoming jittery at the lack of visible progress on the part of the Government.

1970 saw the election of a new Government, but instead of issuing reassurance, later that year, a series of Government statements seriously undermined confidence in the whole metrication programme:

On 9 December 1970, the Government made the bombshell announcement that it was postponing the UK’s 1973 switch to metric speed limits, stating that it had “no alternative date in mind”.

The Government also promised that no new legislation would be made concerning metrication, until a White Paper could be published that would set out the Government’s policy on the subject. All requests for clarification of Government policy were deferred by reference to the forthcoming White Paper.

A year went by without any sign of the White Paper.

Government documents in the National Archives reveal that matters finally came to a head in January 1972 when the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry issued a memorandum for discussion by the Cabinet, in which approval was sought for the publication of the draft White Paper as soon as practicable.

Memorandum by the Secretary of State for
Trade and Industry – 1972-01-07

CP (72) 2
7 January, 1972

CABINET

METRICATION: DRAFT WHITE PAPER

Memorandum by the Secretary of State for
Trade and Industry

1. The attached revised draft of the White Paper has been agreed with members of the Ministerial Committee on Economic Policy. It takes account of views expressed at the Committee’s meeting on 24 November and in subsequent correspondence, and of recent developments in the European Economic Community (EEC). The Minister of Agriculture, however, has reservations about comparative pricing (paragraphs 68 and 69). Material inserted or substantially amended since November is side-lined.

WHY IT IS NEEDED SOON

2. I consider that a White Paper is necessary and should be published as soon as practicable, for the following reasons:-

a. The present delay is increasing the costed to the nation because it has forced metrication off its “least cost” course: further delay will have cumulative effects. There is mounting indignation and dismay in the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and in many of the more progressive and export-conscious industries. Evidence of this is now appearing in the National Press.

b. We must not go back on our promises made in the House in November 1970 to publish a White Paper setting out our policy on metrication. Since then assurances in the House and elsewhere have frequently been given that this would be done “as soon as possible”. For example, a promise was given to the Party’s Trade and Industry Committee in November 1971 that it would be published soon.

c. Many letters from Members of Parliament and others have been answered by a reference to the White Paper.

d. There is increasing public knowledge of, and interest in, the EEC units of measurement directive, including a specific Parliamentary Question from Arthur Lewis for oral answer on 17 January. We will have to explain our policy on it. We can do this best through the White Paper.

e. We are unable to make overdue Statutory Instruments because of the promise, given in November 1970, to await the White Paper.

f. Further delay, by strengthening the impression that we were “metricating by stealth” and had something to hide, would play into the hands of the anti-Marketeers in the House.

EEC AND THE DIRECTIVE ON UNITS OF MEASUREMENT

3. The EEC agreed a directive in October 1971 under which all community economic and administrative decisions must be in Système International metric units by the end of 1977. This will apply to us as members. However a formula of agreement was reached on 22 December under which all our units would remain lawful until 31 December 1979; some might be retained beyond then. There have been difficulties since in putting this agreement into acceptable terms in the Treaty and we have therefore left the section of the White Paper (paragraphs 3-4 and 30-31) in square brackets in case last minute alterations become necessary, in the light of discussions in Brussels.

COMPARATIVE PRICING

4. We must let into the country metric packs of butter, sugar, etc. by October 1976 (see Annex II paragraph 6). Our manufacturers wish to have a programme of metricating our standard size packets of these groceries principally in 1973 or 1974. However, the public are concerned that food manufacturers and retailers took the opportunity of decimalisation to increase their profit margins. When metrication comes it will he disastrous if we are not seen to be taking firm action to ensure that prices do not go up at the same time. Given this need I know of no other solution than the adoption of comparative pricing as described in paragraph 69 of the White Paper.

5. Our intention to hold prices down should be stated in the firmest terms possible. Indeed, I would have preferred to tighten up the wording in this paragraph to give more reassurance to consumers.

CONCLUSION
6. I seek my colleagues’ agreement to the publication of the White Paper, as attached, at the earliest practicable date.

JD

Department of Trade and Industry
6 January 1972

Cabinet meeting – 1972-01-11

The Cabinet met at 10 Downing Street, on Tuesday 11 January 1972.

The following were present for the discussion on Metrication:

The Right Hon. EDWARD HEATH, MP, Prime Minister
The Right Hon. REGINALD MAUDLING, MP, Secretary of State for the Home Department
The Right Hon. LORD HAILSHAM OF ST. MARYLEBONE, Lord Chancellor
The Right Hon. WILLIAM WHITELAW, MP, Lord President of the Council
The Right Hon. GORDON CAMPBELL, MP, Secretary of State for Scotland
The Right Hon. PETER WALKER, MP, Secretary of State for the Environment
The Right Hon. JAMES PRIOR. MP. Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
The Right Hon. SIR ALEC DOUGLAS-HOME. MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
The Right Hon. ANTHONY BARBER. MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer
The Right Hon. LORD CARRINGTON, Secretary of State for Defence
The Right Hon. MARGARET THATCHER, MP, Secretary of State for Education and Science
The Right Hon. THE EARL JELLICOE, Lord Privy Seal
The Right Hon. PETER THOMAS, QC, MP, Secretary of State for Wales
The Right Hon. JOHN DAVIES, MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade

At first glance, it might seem conspicuous that the Department for Transport was not represented at the meeting. This can be explained by the fact that, between 1970 and 1976, transport responsibilities were subsumed by the Department for the Environment.

The White Paper was one of several items on the meeting’s agenda, and time was obviously too short to cover all of the wide-reaching consequences of metrication, but from the meeting’s recorded conclusions it does seem that the prevailing attitude in Government at the time concerning metrication was to leave making any decision until it became absolutely necessary, and then to make only the most minimal change possible. Of course, the action of delaying a decision is a decision in itself, and is not without negative consequences.

The Cabinet discussion appears to have been narrowly focussed on the fears of possible political consequences from the potential for undue price rises following the planned change to standard package sizes of foodstuffs.

The advantages and opportunities that metrication, and the adoption of other internationally agreed standards, would bring across all sectors of the economy did not feature in the discussion.

The White Paper itself, however, included an excellent summary of the current state of the metrication programme across the whole economy, documenting the long history of the subject, and the benefits that would follow from the completion of the process.

Conclusions of a Meeting of the Cabinet held at
10 Downing Street on Tuesday, 11 January, 1972,
at 11.30 a.m.

Metrication
Draft White Paper

4. The Cabinet considered a memorandum by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (CP (72) 2), to which was appended a draft White Paper on Metrication.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that in November 1970, and subsequently the Government had promised to publish a White Paper setting out their policy on Metrication, and had also indicated that Statutory Instruments on the subject would not be made in the mean time. Evidence was now appearing in the National Press of the mounting concern in industry about the delay in publishing the White Paper; and delay would increase the cost of metrication. There was also growing public and Parliamentary interest in the directive which had been adopted by the European Economic Community (EEC) on units of measurement. A White Paper was the best means of explaining Government policy on the subject, while any further delay would tend to give an impression that the Government had something to hide and would thus play into the hands of those Members of Parliament who opposed United Kingdom entry to the EEC. the draft White Paper appended to his memorandum took account of recent developments in the EEC and of the views expressed on earlier drafts by the Ministerial Committee on Economic Policy. The passage on the EC directive reflected the agreement reached with the Community on 22 December under which all our units would remain lawful until the end of 1979 and some might be retained beyond then: the precise text of this passage might, however, need amendment in the light of the terms in which this agreement was expressed in the Treaty. A particular problem had arisen over the passage in the White Paper dealing with the pricing of groceries sold in standard size packets. It was important that the Government should be seen to be taking firm action to ensure that food manufacturers and retailers did not take the opportunity of metrication to increase their profit margins. In his view, a statement in purely general terms would be inadequate to reassure consumers on this point. The draft White Paper therefore suggested the possibility of requiring these goods to be marked with comparative prices in both metric and imperial quantities, although it also indicated that this proposal would be discussed with the industry and the consumer organisations, and that the Government would be willing to consider any effective alternative method of ensuring that the consumer would not be exploited. If the Cabinet agreed, and subject to any necessary drafting amendments to the passage dealing with the EEC directive, he proposed that the White Paper should be published at the earliest practicable date.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that he fully agreed with the need to help the housewife to get value for money during the period of metrication. This would however be much more difficult than on the occasion of decimalisation. The suggestion that the White Paper should mention comparative pricing had been raised only recently, and such soundings as he had since been able to make in the food industry indicated that even the most efficient members of the retail trade would see serious difficulties in its introduction. If the Government were to commit themselves to this particular proposal now it would be more difficult to draw back later, and the trade would be led to argue both that metrication would be harmful to the consumer and that the Government were responsible for additional costs which were being passed on in higher prices. Full discussion was necessary with the trade before any particular proposal was endorsed, and in the meantime it would be preferable simply to say in general terms that the Government were determined to protect the consumer and would be discussing with the interested bodies how best to achieve this objective. He also did not agree with the judgement in Annex II of the draft White Paper that the food industry would be gravely handicapped if it were obliged to adhere to imperial-sized packets on the home market and he would prefer to see this annex omitted altogether on the ground that its inclusion would exaggerate the importance of food problems in the context of metrication.

In discussion it was argued that the Confederation of British Industry was pressing for early publication of the White Paper and it would not seem practicable to defer publication until after consultations with the food industry had taken place. The inclusion of the proposal for comparative pricing had been intended to allay the fears of the housewife about the effect of metrication on food prices, and consumer interests would criticise the White Paper if it only offered general reassurances on this issue. On the other hand, it was suggested that manufacturing industry was anyway pressing ahead with metrication as quickly as it thought desirable. There was a real risk that metrication would be taken as an occasion by the retail trade to increase prices unduly, and it would be unfortunate if the trade were enabled to argue that this was due to Government action. Retailers would in any case be concerned about the additional work falling on them in connection with the value added tax, and given the concern that would be felt by the public generally on metrication it might be better not to commit the Government at this stage to particular controversial proposals.

The Prime Minister, summing up the discussion, said that the Cabinet considered that the draft White Paper should seek to reassure the consumer without committing the Government to any specific method to protect him against unwarranted increases in the price of foodstuffs. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should consider, in consultation with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord President of the Council and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, how the draft White Paper could best be modified accordingly. Subject to this and to any further minor drafting amendments which might be necessary, the Secretary of State should then arrange for publication on a date to be agreed with the Lord President.

The Cabinet –
Took note of the approval of the Prime Minister’s summing up of their discussion, and invited the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to proceed accordingly.

The text of the 1972 White Paper on Metrication as published is available at the following link:
https://ukmetric.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/met1972.pdf

Summary

If the object of the White Paper was to demonstrate leadership, and commitment to the nation’s metrication programme, it did only the bare minimum.

It was a success, as far as it went, with the subsequent adoption of metric pack sizes for pre-packed foods, and with the full adoption of metric units for education, but if the Government had really wanted to demonstrate that it was fully backing metrication, and to rally the public behind the programme, in a way that was done successfully for decimalisation, then it needed only to have set a new date for the recently postponed switch to metric road signs. Instead, the White Paper included the following statement:

“The change of speed and distance signs to metric units will need to be considered in detail, but not for some years.”

 
Another statement, about costs, ensured that the Department for Transport would resist any plans to replace existing road signs with metric ones for years to come:

“The immediate costs in Government Departments will be absorbed within the normal provisions for management and staff.”

 
50 years on from the 1972 White Paper on Metrication, we are still waiting for the change of speed and distance signs to metric units “to be considered in detail”.

References

Memorandum by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, 7 January 1972
http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/small/cab-129-161-cm-72-1-2.pdf

Conclusions of a Meeting of the Cabinet held at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, 11 January 1972
http://filestore.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pdfs/small/cab-128-50-cm-72-1-2.pdf

2 thoughts on “The 1972 White Paper on Metrication – 50 years on”

  1. The anti-metrication lobby often imply that the EEC as having “forced” the metric system upon the UK. It is therefore instructive to look at the EEC Directive 71/354/EEC. This directive was published in 1971, 11 years after the publication of the SI standard which was to replace the cgs variants of the metric system.
    SI, published in 1960, was the product of many years work by the GCPM to iron out many of the anomalies that had crept into the metric system over the years and to produce a system of units that was consistent across all fields of use, particularly in the fields of science and engineering.

    The directive sought to harmonise the units of measure used for “economic, public health, public safety and administrative purposes”. Its annex contained two principal lists – one of units of measure whose use for the above purposes was to be reviewed by 31 December 1977 and one of units whose use for the above purposes was prohibited.

    The list of units that were prohibited included the kilogram-force for force and the Pferdestärke (PS or Metric horsepower) for power. There were to be replaced by the newton and the watt respectively. Units that were under review included the dyne, the erg and the standard atmosphere which were to be replaced by the newton, joule and pascal respectively. The full list can be found at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:31971L0354&from=EN.

    Directive 80/181/EEC, which replaced Directive 71/354/EEC only came about to accommodate British units of measure such as the mile and gallon. The lists of units that were to be prohibited under Directive 71/354/EEC were not carried over into the new directive because they were no longer used (theoretically) and as such did not deserve special mention.

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  2. It has to be a real irritant to the metric opposition that they don’t have the support of the Commonwealth and despite the resistance in England by these Luddites, the citizens of the Commonwealth have strongly embraced the metric system. Even though metrication was initiated and carried out in all countries after independence, metrication efforts should have been harmonised throughout the Commonwealth to such a point that England would have had to follow entirely the schedules and timetables established throughout the Commonwealth.

    If the Brexit manta of a “Global Britain” means that England is to assert more control over the Commonwealth and attempt to re-establish the empire to some degree, then it will be SI that will be the standard, global system and not imperial. I’m sure that despite the media interference in promising a return to imperial to England, the Commonwealth countries will let it be known, that if this claim is ever taken seriously and an attempt is made for it to happen, trade between England and the Commonwealth and the world will not take place.

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