Parallels with the Brexiteers – winning against the odds

During the Thatcher government of the 1980’s and the Major government of the 1990’s, the Eurosceptics were a fringe movement with few supporters. At the time, UK withdrawal from the EU was unthinkable and few called for the UK to withdraw from the EU, even among the Eurosceptics. Over the years, there were a number of trends that helped the Eurosceptics to gain public support for their cause and Euroscepticism grew in the media and in the Conservative Party. UKMA did not take sides in the Brexit referendum in mid-2016 and takes no position on Brexit or future UK-EU relations. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the fact remains that the Brexiteers have won against all the odds. Brexit was achieved when the UK left the EU at 11pm GMT on Friday 31 January 2020. How did they achieve this against all the odds and what can UKMA learn from them?

Opposition to metrication has become an article of faith for virtually all Brexiteers and you would be hard-pressed to find one who is pro-metric. They tend to see the European Union as the villains who imposed the metric system on the UK through various EU directives on measurement usage. Hence very little progress has been made on metrication in the UK in the 21st century because the whole political establishment has been too afraid to tackle this flawed narrative. Most Brexiteers are no friends of ours and their cause is unrelated to metrication.

Former PM Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988 sowed the seeds for the growth of Euroscepticism in the UK. In this speech, she expressed her opposition to what she saw as socialism by the back door and the development of a European super-state. While she became increasingly Eurosceptic in the last couple of years as PM, she was never a Brexiteer and never advocated British withdrawal from the EU.

The British press became increasingly hostile to the European project and political movements such as the Anti-Federalist League, UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Referendum Party emerged to demand a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership and to campaign for Brexit. Rising support among voters and politicians helped the Brexiteers and put pressure on former PM David Cameron to eventually promise an in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU.

I see numerous parallels between where we are now and where the Brexiteers were in the last century when they were among the Eurosceptics. Back then, there was no word to describe supporters of British withdrawal from the EU. The term Eurosceptic applied to those who opposed further European integration and included those who wanted the UK out of the EU. Euroscepticism has had a long history in the UK. The following BBC article describes the history and milestones of the Eurosceptic movement in the UK: 1

Parallel 1: Hostility

They faced a great deal of hostility from the Establishment. They were called “swivel eyed loons”, “cranks and political gadflies” and “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Look at where we are now with hostility to metrication from the mainstream media and politicians.

Parallel 2: Few Friends and Supporters

The Eurosceptics used to consist of a relatively small number of MPs and there used to be no support among mainstream national newspapers for British withdrawal from the EU and no equivalent of UKIP in the 20th century. These days, it is hard to find politicians who raise these issues publicly in the Houses of Parliament. The late Lord Howe of Aberavon was a notable exception.

Parallel 3: Unpopular

The Brexiteer cause was once very unpopular and hardly anyone in the mainstream media and among politicians openly advocated British withdrawal from the EU in the 20th century. There are too many populists who seek to maintain the status quo while some seek the imperial nostalgia of the past.

Parallel 4: No Media Support

During the Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was no single national newspaper that advocated Brexit, the term for British exit from the EU. We have few allies in the press, though there are several anti-metric national newspapers.

Parallel 5: Establishment Opposition

Brexit has been opposed by almost the entire political Establishment. According to one survey by the Press Association, 480 MPs voted Remain and 159 MPs voted Leave in the Brexit referendum that took place on 23 June 2016. 2 I wrote about the opposition to metrication among leading figures from the three main political parties and UKIP, a pro-Brexit party, in a previous MV blog. 3 There has been little support for metrication among politicians and it is hard to find any who will raise their heads above the parapet to speak out about the case for metrication.

Parallel 6: Unheard Voices

For many years, the Brexiteers struggled to make themselves heard. For several decades, their demands to get Britain out of the EU were not taken seriously by most politicians or the national newspapers. How much coverage does UKMA get in the media? Very little. We only get limited BBC coverage on metrication because the BBC has a duty of impartiality. At other times, we barely get any coverage at all.

Parallel 7: Unthinkable

It was considered taboo to call for Brexit during the last century and was regarded as the views of a fringe movement. In those days, hardly any Eurosceptic politicians openly called for the UK to pull out of the EU and preferred to demand reforms and put a brake on further integration. At the time, it was unthinkable that the UK would leave the EU one day. Completion of the metrication programme that began in 1965 is considered a taboo subject these days that politicians would prefer to avoid. Hence their silence on this subject.

Parallel 8: Compromises

Years ago, most Eurosceptics did not openly call for the UK to pull out of the EU but concentrated on demanding EU reforms, safeguards against more EU integration, more opt-outs, vetoes, reclaiming powers from the EU, more concessions and renegotiation of British terms of EU membership. While UKMA would like to see the completion of metrication in the UK, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve in the short term. Hence UKMA has concentrated on aligning product descriptions with rules on supplementary indications on packaging, enforcement of existing weights and measures regulations by trading standards officers, and some other limited reforms that have a good chance of adoption in the short term. During the last year, UKMA has spent considerable time fighting the reintroduction of imperial units for trade and the Retained EU Law Bill. While UKMA maintains its long-term objectives to complete metrication in the UK, immediate demands on transport ministers to implement a complete metric changeover on British roads continue to get short shrift.

Parallel 9: Numerous Setbacks

Over several decades, the Eurosceptics suffered many setbacks from their perspective, including:

  • The two-thirds majority to stay in the European Economic Community (as the EU was then commonly known) in the 1975 EEC referendum.
  • The resounding defeat of Labour leader Michael Foot in the 1983 general election, who ran on a manifesto to withdraw from the EEC.
  • The federalist vision of Jacque Delors, former president of the European Commission, leading to further European integration.
  • Huge extension of qualified majority voting under the Single European Act.
  • Passing of the Maastricht Treaty by the Major government in the early 1990’s.
  • Denial of the promised referendum on the European Constitution, that later evolved into the Lisbon Treaty.

UKMA has had numerous setbacks, such as the defeats on the continued use of Supplementary Indications, failure to end imperial-only vehicle dimension signs for many years before dual signage became mandatory in 2016, failure to end loopholes on exclusive use of imperial units in product descriptions and advertising and lack of progress on road signs and other official public signs.

Parallel 10: Long Haul

Many Brexiteers have spent a lifetime campaigning for Brexit, spanning several decades. It took them several decades of perseverance to win. Similarly, UKMA was founded by Chris Keenan in 1999 and has been campaigning to complete the metric changeover for over 20 years. There is no quick victory in sight. With no end in sight to the very British measurement mess, we are in for the long haul.

Parallel 11: Communications with the Few

For years, the Brexiteers gave talks that few people heard and published papers that few people read.

Parallel 12: Lack of Progress

For much of the 20th century, there was a lack of progress from the Brexiteers’ perspective. For much of the time, nothing seemed to be happening while the EU, with British support, was making further steps towards further integration (e.g., Single European Act, Exchange Rate Mechanism membership, Maastricht Treaty, Lisbon Treaty, etc.), going in the opposite direction to the Brexiteers’ destination.

For UKMA, there have been long periods where there has been a lack of progress. We are currently in a stalemate situation where the status quo prevails. Despite sporadic calls to return to pints, pounds and ounces, there have been no actual changes in legislation to put this into practice since the EU membership referendum of 2016 though the Retained EU Law Bill threatens to change that.

These days, it seems that there is not much happening on the metric front, we have suffered numerous setbacks, remain on the margins with few friends in high places and little prospect of further progress in the near future. We can learn from the Brexiteers about perseverance, using significant milestones to our advantage, continuing to get our message across, overcoming Establishment opposition and building momentum. They have proved that numerous significant obstacles can be overcome to triumph in the end. We can win.

UKMA is neutral on Brexit. Even though UKMA neither supports nor opposes Brexit, we ought to think about what lessons we can learn from the Eurosceptic movement and how we can apply them to the cause of metrication. So, what can we learn from the Brexiteers? Metric Views would be interested to hear what readers have to say about the lessons we can learn to win against all the odds.


  1.  “Mavericks to mainstream: The long campaign for Brexit”, BBC News website, 29 Jan 2020 (Link:
  2. “How did my MP vote in the EU referendum?”, Daily Mirror, 3 Nov 2016 (Link:
  3. “Positions of main parties and politicians on metrication”, Metric Views, 27 Apr 2017 (Link:

15 thoughts on “Parallels with the Brexiteers – winning against the odds”

  1. Brexiters won by cynical populism and brazen, persistent lying over a number of years. I hope the UKMA is not planning to adopt the same approach?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One advantage to reversing Brexit by rejoining the Single Market and the Customs Union would be business requirements to adhere to EU rules for packaging and standards, which would all be in metric. That could kill any Imperial for trade, which would be helpful. This might even spill over to road signs if the EU could claim a basis for a change-over due to road safety considerations. Just a thought.


  3. I think Steve’s post here contains considerable perhaps unintentional wisdom. Insulting people only hardens attitudes. So I suggest at the very least that the UKMA does not suggest that imperial unit users are those influenced by “cynical populism and brazen, persistent lying over a number of years”.


  4. I was referring to the politicians as the cynical liars of course, not the people taken in by them. History proves that skilful conmen can fool virtually anyone, and their skill in convincing countless struggling, poor people to vote to make themselves poorer was certainly impressive in that regard. I’m afraid that in the current nationalistic, xenophobic political atmosphere in the UK, where foreign = evil, and therefore anyone supporting ‘foreign things’ is a traitor to the Fatherland, sensible and rational policies like metrication have no chance. There are precious few engineers or scientists in the House of Commons, and even those politicians who recognise the economic benefits of metrication will not expend scarce political capital on making a stand about the issue, when there are far greater problems to deal with. So for now I think the UKMA can only continue doing what it’s doing: sticking up for rationality, trying to get more politicians and ordinary citizens on board, etc. Can we come up with a catchy 3-word slogan? They seem to be the key to political victory these days. “Metric makes sense”, “Make mine a Metric” etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. @Steve
    A good three word slogan is a great idea. Should we run a contest? Could be very inspiring! 🙂


  6. One of the biggest problems about publicising the metric system is the British public’s lack of numeracy and thus good arguments are in effect “casting pearls before swine”.

    I am attending a talk on Friday entitled “Probability and Parliamentarians”, sponsored by a local science and technology group. The key line in the description of the talk is “About a year and a half ago, the Royal Statistical Society tested the statistical skills of a sample of MPs with three questions. The results were mixed.” I await the talk with baited breath as statistics also involves numeracy skills and I wonder the degree to which the RSS findings apply to metrication.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Martin, around a quarter of the UK adult population are functionally innumerate. I’m pretty sure that, egged on by certain politicians, the majority of them will be cheerleaders for imperial measurements – even though metric is far easier to use! Never confuse rationality with politics – they are completely independent concepts.


  8. @Steve says: 2023-04-30 at 21:14
    “– even though metric is far easier to use!”

    That is the reality. When someone says that learning metric is too difficult you pretty well know they have never even tried or are brain dead, it is quite simply so much easier. That fact was the main reason I was so keen to change long before it even got talked about.
    My long gone mother had great trouble with decimal currency back in the day. I realised years latter that she quite simply did not understand the concept of decimals. Though she could mix denary pence with shillings and pounds, that did not translate into all decimal currency.
    Lack of education in 1910 should not still be a problem in 2023. Even in my days I think decimals were late in being taught, I have no idea what they learn these days but it is obviously not working.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I attended school during the imperial unit days. I recall that when we were being taught long division at the age of eight or nine, some pupils put a dot when subtracting two numbers that were almost the same rather leaving a leading blank space. The teacher advised the pupil not to do that because putting a dot there had a special meaning which we would learn about the following year (or the year thereafter). Nowadays, pupils are taught to have columns for “hundreds, tens, units” and once they have mastered that, for “hundreds, tens, units, tenths and hundredths”. At the same time they are taught about pounds and pence (why “pence” but not “cents” was a bit of short term bit political propaganda during the Heath/Wilson era)


  10. Neutrality on Brexit should not mean silence on the outcome. The UK has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (usually just called TPP) which is currently exclusively metric, the US having resigned from the earlier incarnation of this alliance. The UK’s qualification for membership is its rule of Pitcairn Island and the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory – both imperial, the latter having been de-populated apart from the well-known US base.

    If the UK is to gain anything from its membership – ideally, easier access to export markets, and tariff-free imports – then it will mean UK industry and commerce need to deal in metric. Imperial will be of no use.


  11. When you say the BIOT was “de-populated” are you aware that that meant that the UK govt rounded up the entire population and summarily deported them from their homeland with little (for most people, no) compensation, abandoning them first in slums in Mauritius and then 3 generations of limbo and poverty in Crawley, refusing to give them British passports even though they were from a supposedly British territory?

    I imagine sadly that as one of the larger economies in the TPP, the UK will have the leverage to wangle an exception for the use of imperial measures.


  12. Hi Steve, I am fully aware and that was the exact reason I chose that form of wording. Not just saying the area was de-populated but also calling it the “so-called BIOT”, the term BIOT never having been agreed by the people on the islands and certainly not by the Mauritian government. The UN protocols on decolonisation explicitly forbade splitting up colonial possessions as a part of restoring independence and this is perhaps the most blatant violation of that rule.
    I would hope that the UK gets no exception on imperial measures and although it may be one of the larger economies in the TPP it is definitely an outsider.


  13. OK fair enough 🙂

    I don’t see TTP providing any impetus towards metrication though. At the end of the day, apart from relatively small trade with the USA, all of our international trade is done in metric anyway, but that hasn’t stopped the xenophobic/nationalistic government from trying to roll back the clock internally.


  14. My MP, pro-Brexit, spoke enthusiatically recently in our local paper, about the UK’s impending joining the CPTPP. If this is regarded as a “replacement” for the EU, then it would nullify the argument that we can go back to Imperial measures because the EU is forcing metric on us. We know that that is a fallacious argument, but it is one that is sometimes presented, even at Government level as we have noted.

    Note that the three largest Commonwealth countries are members of the CPTPP. Also Japan and South Korea – two very progressive countires. Good company?


  15. Absolutely it’s fallacious. But remember that skilful conmen can convince almost anyone of almost anything – for example, that sending our goods halfway around the world is much better economically than sending them a few hundred kilometres across the Channel, or that measurement systems based on 3, 12, 14, and 16 are far better than dirty foreign measuring systems based on 10. Sigh.


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