Over the weekend, various news items announced (again) that it was the Government’s intention for us to return to the use of imperial units.
The number of times that this move has been announced is now probably outnumbered only by the number of times that the Government has threatened to breach the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement. Announcing the return of “traditional” measurement units is in danger of becoming a tradition itself.
This time, however, the announcement was worded in such a way as to imply that the return of imperial units would form part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It remains unclear at this stage whether Her Majesty has sanctioned this announcement, which seems unlikely, or whether she was even consulted about the link to her Platinum Jubilee.
It is clear of course that there can be no realistic possibility of abondoning metric units where they have already been adopted, and that the need to complete the metrication process remains, especially regarding road signs. This does however leave open the possibility of the Government introducing legislation to allow the return of a dual-unit mess in the retail trade, where market traders might be permitted to price goods in different units from supermarkets – given a choice, supermarkets are unlikely to want to incur the costs of switching back to imperial units, or dual units.
To some, giving traders the ability to choose units might seem to be an increase in freedom. But it is important to note that in such circumstances it is always the seller that gets to choose, and never the customer.
Having a single system of measurement for all trade purposes is “Consumer Protection 1.01”. In the modern world, the universal use of the metric system is the only way that this can be achieved. This principle has been with us since at least 1215, when Magna Carta stated,
“Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely “the London quarter”; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.”
If traders are free to choose different measurement units, consumers lose the ability to compare prices:
Today, many customers will have no knowledge of how to compare a unit price in £/lb in one shop with a unit price in £/kg in another. Some may still remember the rough conversion of two pounds being equivalent to about one kilogram. This rough conversion contains an error of about 10%, and it is this fact that unscrupulous traders prey on given any opportunity to do so. A price point of 99p/lb looks deceptively cheaper than a price of £2.15/kg, but in fact it is more expensive. Fooling customers into making poor purchase decisions is the last thing we need during a cost of living crisis.
Appealing to a false sense of nostalgia seems to rank high as one of the reasons behind this announcement. One can imagine that our Victorian ancestors might be proud of such a move. Fortunately, there is no need for us to speculate what Victorian politicians thought of imperial weights and measures, and what they hoped for the future. What they said on the subject is a matter of record in Hansard:
1864-07-21 : Weights And Measures (Metric System)
“… in short, nothing could be more confused than the present system. The adoption of the metric system would cure this want of uniformity, and would substitute for that which was inconvenient and difficult to learn a system which was simple and easy to be acquired. The adoption of this system would save half the time which was at present occupied in making calculations.”
“… a boy could make the same progress in arithmetic taught according to the metric system in ten months as would according to the existing method take him two years and ten months to accomplish.”
1881-03-29 : Coinage – Decimal System
MR. ASHTON DILKE rose to move – “That, in the opinion of this House, the introduction of a Decimal System of Coinage, Weights, and Measures ought not to be longer delayed.”
“… Our scientific men had not used anything but the metrical system for the last 40 years; and the great accuracy now acquired in mechanical work, such as the casting of guns and the like, was only to be obtained by the use of the decimal system.”
“… Again, one of the most strenuous upholders of the decimal system, either as to value or as to weights, was the late Sir Rowland Hill, the author of the penny post reform. The actual saving of clerical labour which would attend the change would be very considerable.”
1904-02-23 : Weights And Measures (Metric System)
“… While I look forward to the time, and no distant time, when they will adopt the change without difficulty and without repugnance, I should like to see private enterprise do more than it has done up to the present to show that the change can be adopted without inconvenience, and that it carries with it all the benefits which I, in common with you, firmly believe to be attached to the metric system, and which it is hopelessly impossible to associate with the arbitrary, perverse, and utterly irrational system under which we have all had the misfortune to be brought up.”
Anyone wanting to respect the hopes and wishes of our Victorian ancestors should be looking to continue their same enthusiasm for progress, and not seeking to retreat into the past in search of a golden age that never was. What better way to do this could there be than completing the centuries-long process of fully adopting the metric system.
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