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
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: