Taking us back to the 1970’s

There are a number of similar phenomena between our post-COVID times and the 1970’s. One of them is the Government proposing to allow traders to sell using imperial-only again, forcing customers to once again have to resort to conversion calculations to compare prices.

These similar phenomena include soaring oil prices, rampant inflation, the prospect of widespread strikes, wages falling behind price increases, low unemployment (at least in the first half of the 1970’s) and various crises. Back then, the UK went through the oil crisis, power cuts, the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent, the IMF bailout, rubbish pile-up in the streets and stagflation. Now, we are going through the cost of living crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the mental health crisis, record NHS waiting lists, the housing crisis and the energy crisis.

If that is not enough, the Government is planning to add legalising sales in imperial-only again to this list of similarities. The Government has announced its plans on several occasions to remove the requirement to display metric units alongside imperial units for trade.

This will take us back to the 1970’s: customers will be forced to use conversion calculations again to compare prices.

They use the language of “freedom and “choice” as their justification for these proposals. It is important to note that it is always the seller that gets to choose, and never the customer. If you want to know what is wrong with these proposals, you only have to refer to past reports and papers on this issue.

1951 : Hodgson Committee Report

In 1951, the Report of the Committee on Weights and Measure Legislation, better known as the Hodgson Committee, reviewed the existing Weights and Measures legislation at the time over a two-year period and came to the unanimous conclusion, in their Report published in 1951:

“that the metric system is, in the broadest sense and in the interests of world uniformity, a ‘better’ system of weights and measures than the imperial; that a change from imperial to metric for all trade purposes is sooner or later inevitable; that a continuance of the present option to use either the metric or the imperial until the inevitable comes about will cause in the long run more inconvenience than an ordered change within a specified period; and that the long-term advantages which would flow from an organised change in the near future would far outweigh the inconveniences of the change itself.”

Report of the Committee on Weights and Measure Legislation. Cmd.8219. HMSO, 1951

The same Report also said that:

“… it is obviously illogical for there to be two separate systems in a world which is, from the trading point of view, becoming rapidly smaller; and the advantages of a decimal system are such that it is highly unlikely that any country not now using it would adopt the non-decimal imperial system.”

1972 : White Paper on Metrication

The Conservative Government led by PM Edward Heath reviewed the current usage of imperial and metric units and published the 1972 White Paper of Metrication. Here are two relevant quotes from this White Paper that tell you what is wrong with the current Government proposals:

“Meanwhile the more industry adopts metric units, the more will the general public become involved in the whole process. The range of products covered will grow and there will be no clear boundary between metric and non-metric parts of the economy. In these circumstances to attempt to keep imperial units for the individual shopper while industry was on metric would be both confusing and costly. It would also deny us the very real savings which stand to be gained when turning over completely to metric.”
“The Government recognise that the period during which some foodstuffs are sold in imperial quantities and some in metric will present problems for many shoppers.”

Historical Perspectives by Jim Humble

https://ukma.org.uk/press/articles/jhumble/

Jim Humble was the last Director of the UK Metrication Board, which was abolished in 1980. He expressed his personal observations about the problems with a dual system of measurement for trade.

“Prepackaged food changed but the really difficult issue to emerge affected retailers of “loose weight” products. They needed to be reassured there would be an agreed cut-off date for their transfer from imperial to metric. The retail problem was that metric prices would always appear to be more expensive than their nearest imperial equivalent. Voluntary transferees to metric found themselves commercially disadvantaged. This is because viz. 4 oz is smaller than 125 g, one pound is smaller than 500 g and a pint is smaller than a litre. Prices are correspondingly lower. The issue of how best to explain the position to consumers dominated much of the Board’s creative thinking.”

Hence the preference for pounds rather than kilograms among many market traders and small shops. Pounds are smaller than kilograms. Unsurprisingly, there is no desire to bring back the use of gallons at petrol stations. Petrol and diesel have been sold by the litre for the last 30 years. Litres are smaller than gallons.

Jim Humble tells us how voluntary metric usage in the retail sector led to a market failure:

“The product which brought all voluntary retail initiatives to a full stop was the experience of the floor covering and carpet retailers. Their 1975 change to sales by the square metre started well, but in 1977 one of the major High Street retailers found enormous commercial advantage in reverting to sales by the square yard. Consumers could not be persuaded to believe that goods costing, for example, £10 per square yard or £12 per square metre were virtually priced the same. Consumers bought, in very significant volume, the apparently cheaper priced imperial version. Metrication of carpet sales entered into full scale reverse and the Chambers of Trade and retail associations pressed for firm Government leadership, i.e. compulsory cut-off. With hindsight one of the Metrication Board jingles may have helped spread the “carpet” misunderstanding. This was the jingle “a metre measures about three foot three, just a bit longer than a yard you see”. Consumers understandably couldn’t relate an e.g. £2 per square unit price difference with the Metrication Board’s “just a bit longer”. Then the political nerve began to fail.”

This lesson has clearly been forgotten. How many more market failures will the Government tolerate? As a result of this market failure, there was a broad consensus that there had to be a cut-off date for imperial units. In Jim Humble’s own words:

“Board of Trade Ministers Shirley Williams, Alan Williams and later Roy Hattersley and John Fraser supported metrication. They seemed to recognise the setting of a cut-off date was unavoidable. They had had, by this time, the benefit of analysing the results of successful metric changes in all the Commonwealth countries. There was a wealth of information within the Department of Trade to show that a clear retail cut-off date was both desirable and inevitable … exactly as 19th century parliamentarians had foreseen. The necessary Order, drafted by the Board of Trade in 1978, was agreed by a huge range of retail trade, industry, engineering, consumer, trade union, elderly person, sporting and educational organisations and … the overwhelming number of parliamentarians. A small number of critics, in each political party, did voice opposition to the element of compulsion but this seemed to come from a relatively small minority within the Eurosceptic movement.”

Since then, it took over 20 years to complete the metrication of the retail trade. After a change of government in 1979, there was a lack of political will to act. The metrication of the retail trade only happened after the implementation of EU Directives, which were agreed with British government ministers, that mandated the use of metric units on pre-packaged goods in 1995 and on loose goods in 2000.

Allowing traders to sell using imperial-only again will take us back to the 1970’s and cause the kinds of problems that we had before. It will undermine price and consumer protection. It will alienate huge swathes of the British population who have no familiarity with imperial units. If the Government want to know what is wrong with their proposals, they should see what has been said and written about this issue before.

You can find the Government consultation called “Choice on units of measurement: markings and sales” at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/choice-on-units-of-measurement-markings-and-sales

18 thoughts on “Taking us back to the 1970’s”

  1. It would be really interesting to know the names of: (i) MPs who support the completion of metrication in the UK,
    and (ii) members of the House of Lords who support the completion of metrication in the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my opinion, the reason this problem persists is because the powers to be in England since the 1970s refused to make one important change that countries that metricated a hundred years earlier did. History has shown that it takes at least 100 years to rid the economy of the vestiges of the old units. 50 years have passed and imperial is nowhere close to dying out.

    The one important change I’m referring to is to recycle the old unit names to rounded metric values. These recycled unit names could fall under the classification of “market units” to distinguish them from their former definitions. For example, the pound as a trade descriptor in the market would be equal to exactly 500 g. As in the continent of Europe, China and elsewhere if someone asks for a “pound” they get 500 g weighed out on a kilogram scale. The pound is not legal for trade in any of these countries, but the assigned value of 500 g eliminates all of the struggle and confusion over scales and pricing.

    Where the metricated definitions came about, there was no resistance to metric scales nor metric pricing. It was a perfect compromise for those who didn’t want to use the new measuring words. It prevented confrontation, resistance to progress and with each new generation the use of these old unit words slowly disappeared from use.

    What England did was to add fuel to the fire by allowing the old definitions to be used in the market. If the pound was 500 g for use in the market this issue would not be happening at this point in time. Metric only scales and pricing would be universal.

    This could also be extended to ounces (30 mL and 30 g), pints (500 mL for all items except beer which would be 570 mL or 600 mL as Australia), quart ( 1 L), gallon (5 L), etc. These units are not as affected as the pound as most of these are never asked for in the same sense as the pound is asked for.

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  3. @Daniel, I think redefining old units in terms of rounder metric values has two problems. Both of which would have made matters worse.

    1. It would have stopped people from thinking in terms of metric units. e.g. in multiples of 100g, rather than in quarters of a “new pound”.

    2. It would have resulted in three systems, instead of one or two. Market traders would still have used the “old” imperial units as supplementary units – unless supplementary units would have been banned – which brings us back to the issue of compulsion.

    In the UK, we are 22 years into the use of metric-only units in supermarkets, so the whole issue now is one that is being deliberately re-ignited by politicians seeking to create another culture war.

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  4. I think the problem here is that there is no problem with metric, bar this current governments desire to create one (or several). Even in that it comes down to just a few influential individuals.
    The whole fiasco could be solved by simply completing the change over in the only outstanding area, road transport. I think even the railways are grinding to at least a pretence of going metric.
    Rather than knowing the names of those in favour of metrication, far better to name those showing an active interest in going back to some imagined time of imperial glory.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One of the other problems we face is that it is almost impossible to buy metric-only measuring devices and those that have dual units favour imperial units rather than metric units. For example, a right-handed person holding a measuring jug sees imperial units, with the metric units on the back of the jug (OK for the 10% of the population that are left-handed). South Africa (and I believe Australia) did not have this problem because they prohibited the sale of measuring devices calibrated in imperial units.
    Since such a prohibition would be politically unacceptable in the UK, one solution would be to remove VAT on rulers, tape measures, thermometers, kitchen scales and bathroom scales that are calibrated in metric units only. I believe that following BREXIT, such an arrangement would be legal and that the cost to Goverment would be less than £10 per household per annum.

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  6. Martin,

    What do the people who are in construction and manufacturing do when they use metric on the job? Do they struggle using the back side of the tape or are they given metric only tapes? If they are given metric only tapes, then the ones available in the shops must be for the home owner. But, what if they are renovating a metric only house with metric only materials? Are they forced to measure everything in feet/inches? How does that work out when the materials are metric? It seems to me there are a lot of costly mistakes being made.

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  7. A sign of BBC sanity? High temperatures in the heat wave given only in Celsius! No Fahrenheit! A sign of things to come? One hopes. (The text of the linked-to article at least as of this moment of posting has no Fahrenheit. I pray that it stays that way. 😉

    https://www.bbc.com/weather/features/62001812

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  8. Ezra: I’d give the BBC full marks if they actually included a degree symbol too! I see a difference between saying in a weather forecast on TV, for example, “twenty-five Celsius” (though that should be “twenty-five ‘degrees’ Celsius”, or just plain “twenty-five degrees”) and publishing the temperature values in an online article without a degree symbol. I know this is just info for the general public but it is actually wrong and sets a bad example.

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  9. Ezra & metricnow,

    It isn’t the BBC as much as it is particular reporters or editors. You just happened to stumble upon a reporter or editor or both who may be pro-metric and have made a personal decision not to include foreignheat units. Someone else on the other hand who opposes metric would make sure foreignheat units are included.

    It may just be a sign of things to come if this is the result of older reporters/editors who favour imperial retiring and being replaced by younger reporters/editors who weren’t educated in imperial and have no affection for imperial units. It also could be possible that individual reporters/editors who in the past supported SI units but were silent are now coming forth in open support as a form of resistance to certain individuals in the government trying to go backwards and that effort is negatively affecting their lives and livelihoods. Something good coming out of something bad.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. m,

    You said: “1. It would have stopped people from thinking in terms of metric units. e.g. in multiples of 100g, rather than in quarters of a “new pound”.”

    I disagree. We have to admit that there are those particular individuals who for whatever reason absolutely refuse to think in metric terms. They want to say their pounds. It doesn’t matter to them if the pounds are 400 g, 450 g or 500 g. As long as the seller hears them say pound and gives them an amount that looks and feels like a pound to them.

    Right now, these special customers are struggling with increments of 454 g and making enough noise to force some vendors to price in pounds. When the other countries went metric they fixed the market value of the pound to 500 g and forced the sale and pricing to grams. Everyone got used to the new 500 g value and the ease of calculating a pound from 500 g prevented pressure on government officials and shops from having to price in pounds. They never went through what the English marketplace is having to endure now.

    You said: “It would have resulted in three systems, instead of one or two. Market traders would still have used the “old” imperial units as supplementary units – unless supplementary units would have been banned – which brings us back to the issue of compulsion.”

    I disagree again. As in these other countries, recycling these old units became somewhat of a compromise. The customer could ask for a pound per se and that would be interpreted as 500 g. 500 g is not that much different from the “old pound” to squabble about. It made it easy for both the customer and seller to figure out how much to weigh out in grams for quarters and halves, etc. These would be 125 g and 250 g. With the old pounds, the metric scales that can only weigh in 5 g increments cannot do 227 g and 113.5 g. Eventually as time goes on the need for pounds dwindles. Either with the customer passing away and/or the next generation just asking in gram amounts.

    Yes, by making 500 g the new marketplace pound in effect bans the use of the old pound. At the same time the 500 g compromise fixes permanently the use of gram only scales and gram pricing. England will for a long time to come have to endure the war between the pound and the gram as long as the pound keeps its present value.

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  11. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of those F words in the media recently, including the BBC. It still seems to swing back and forth, maybe with the weather, but it this case maybe that ‘going back out of control’ issue.

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  12. @Daniel. My late father-in-law was a window surveyor. If you ordered double glazing, he came around to your house and measured everything up to the nearest millimetre and drew up the plans for the factory. The salesman’s measurements were just approximations and were used solely to calculate costs.
    I inherited most of his tools including five tape measures, all with both metric and imperial units. I also inherited two telescopic measuring rods that were entirely metric. When in transit they were 1.2 metres in length, but you could extend them in one metre steps up to four metres.
    In answer to your question then, most tools are dual unit (electronic tools such as laser distance measuring devices might have a metric/imperial switch), unless their construction is such that they cannot be dual unit devices.

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  13. Martin,

    I was asking more about using metric units with a dual device where the metric was on the side that some would consider inconvenient. How did they work around the inconvenience.

    Years ago when i was in México, I had the opportunity to see people use a dual tape measure where the millimetre and inch were on the same side. When holding the tape in the right hand the inch would on the top and the millimetres on the bottom. When holding the tape in the left hand the millimetres would be on the top, but the numbers were all upside down.

    The people I worked with were all right handed, but they held the tape in their left hand and used their right hand for making measured marks. Even though the numbers were upside down, it was easier to hold and mark this way. Even if a person who would prefer to use the inch side held the tape in their right hand so the numbers would be right side up, marking or writing with the left hand is awkward.

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  14. Daniel, metric only measuring tapes and rulers are readily available in UK. There is no need for anyone to work with dual tapes except by choice or hardship. The problem comes when, for whatever reason, one has to measure an imperial item in imperial to understand the thing.
    The same cannot be said for ‘more technical’ instruments though. Made in smaller quantities and generally quite expensive, making them with different scales is probably impractical. In this instance choosing and using the correct scale becomes a chore that leads to using the primary scale which is not the preferred one.
    A world solution would be to use only SI and take a one-off hit and get over it.

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  15. Daniel,
    You are very likely correct about the BBC. Here is a *SCIENTIFIC* article about a new dinosaur find that is almost exclusively in Imperial (with only a single instance of metric and in second place at that). Oh, and the fossil was found in Argentina. What are the chances the local scientists and news media used Imperial in their announcements?

    https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-62088874

    The BBC should be ashamed of itself. All the old fogies need to die off first, I guess, before metric finally reigns supreme there.

    On a happier note, a British mathematician has a nice YouTube video on what a number is. Metric shows up in his video exclusively. And his message to viewers who prefer Imperial? Close the window (and go away, presumably). This fellow I like very much! 🙂

    Cheers, y’all. I still am keeping hope alive I will live (at 72) long enough to see the UK fully convert. As for over here in the good old USA, the changeover will be for the youngsters here to make happen, I guess. 😦

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  16. No surprise that the BBC is all over the place with metric. Some editors (as folks here have pointed out) must be really pro-metric and others not so much.

    One happy instance is this article on the coming heat wave in the UK which (as of this writing) had NO references to Fahrenheit of any kind:

    https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-62117348

    Yes, there is no space before the “C” symbol and no degree symbol, but I will take this kind of article any day of the week over Fahrenheit units in any form.

    Room for optimism or at least hope at the BBC? Fingers crossed!

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