Should the UK have one measurement system or two? We highlight a paradox in UK government policy.
In 1789, France was sliding towards bankruptcy. In the preceding two years there had been three ministers of finance, none of whom had been able to obtain agreement on a way forward. In desperation, the King agreed to call a meeting of the Estates General, an assembly of representatives of the nobility, of the clergy, and of those who were members of neither. But in April, as the representatives headed for Versailles, finance was not the only issue on their minds. In particular, many were asking for standardisation of weights and measures.
This is not surprising. It is estimated there were about 800 different names for measuring units in France at that time. Each town and county had its own units, so that, with these regional alternatives, there were around 250 000 variations.
In contrast, in England Magna Carta had established in 1215 the principle of a single measurement system. It said, translated from the Latin, “Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale, and one measure of corn …; and one width of cloth … .” This principle had then been extended to Scotland in the Act of Union of 1707. Trade and industrial development benefited immeasurably. However there has always been a tendency for new measures to appear, not least because traders often prefer confusion despite customers preferring clarity. By 1820, it was clear an overhaul was due – there were, for example, eight different gallons – and the Weights and Measures Act 1824 resulted. This initially applied to Great Britain and Ireland, but was quickly adopted throughout the British Empire – in trade, it helps if both parties are using the same measurement system.
Meanwhile, after its adoption by the Low Countries in 1820, the metric system had made steady progress around the world. By 1900, it had been adopted by scientists everywhere, and by the middle of the twentieth century was in use in most countries for most purposes. Then, in 1956, India announced it would be adopting the metric system. Imperial measures had outlived their usefulness, and had become a handicap not an advantage in trade and manufacture. In April 1965, the UK Government announced that the UK was to go metric with a target of 10 years. The 750 year-old principle of a single measurement system was upheld: metric would replace Imperial.
Most Commonwealth countries followed the UK’s lead and then pushed on to complete their transitions to metric measures. In contrast, successive UK governments dithered – the job was “too difficult”. So now in the UK we have a two-system measurement muddle and a Prime Minister who boasts in his New Year Message that he intends to add to it.
So here is the paradox. The present UK Government, English Nationalist in all but name, says “Let there be two measures” and pursues a very un-English policy of permitting the use of a mix of two systems.
An example of a muddle of measurement systems created by successive governments is described in the Metric Views article “Inconsistent motorway emergency features”, posted in December 2021. Our potential trading partners around the world are probably looking on with bewilderment and disappointment, our competitors with glee, and the French with a shrug.