Getting the measure of Brexit

Following a series of newspaper stories over the weekend promising a post-Brexit return to imperial weights and measures, I take a brief look at how likely that really is. I conclude that (no doubt to the disappointment of many) Brexit will not result in any (or any significant) departure from the current metric system.

It is fair to say that the British public has long held an aversion to the metric system, which is popularly viewed as a foreign (mainly French) attempt at ousting the British imperial system. This popular antipathy has been reflected in the policies of successive British governments which have tended to be lukewarm to metrication.

However, the British scientific community was at the forefront of the development of the metric system and many of our greatest scientists are immortalised in the names of metric units (Newton, Watt, Joule and Kelvin to name but four).

British industry has also long championed the full adoption of metric in order to maintain competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace and to reduce the costs associated with a dual system of weights and measures.

Parliamentary discussion of the adoption of metric began more than 150 years before we joined the EU [in this post, I use EU as shorthand for the current European Union and its previous incarnations] and the slow (non-compulsory) adoption of the metric system began with the Weights and Measures Acts of 1864 and 1896.

However, it was not until after the Second World War that the move towards metrication began to gather pace, first with a Board of Trade report in 1951 and, most significantly, a policy decision by the Board of Trade in 1965 to fully metricate the country within 10 years. Commonwealth countries adopted the same policy.

The Metrication Board was established in 1969 with a view to overseeing and promoting the conversion to metric. At the same time, the UK began to phase out the old ‘lsd’ currency in preparation for full currency decimalisation which took place on 15 February 1971.

When the UK joined the EU in 1973, it restated its commitment to full metric conversion. In 1974, schoolchildren began to be educated in metric units and metric packaging was first introduced.

However, no real attempt was made at winning the public over to the metric system and public opinion remained indifferent (or hostile) to it.

Metrication was famously challenged in the late 70s by carpet retailers who reneged on an industry-wide agreement to sell in units of square metres by reverting to square yards (cynically, because it made their carpets appear cheaper to the buying public).This forced the Government to u-turn on its policy of voluntary adoption, by legislating for conversion.

Following Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, the Government u-turned again. Trade Minister, the ‘metric-sceptic’ Sally Oppenheim, announced that there would be no further legislative enforcement of metric conversion. By this time, however, approximately 95% of an average shopping basket of goods was weighed and measured in metric.

As a result, the UK found itself in an imperial-metric limbo where it has been ever since and was at odds with its international partners: the Commonwealth had fully converted to metric and the EU had directed its member states to trade fully in metric.

The UK was then forced into having to negotiate opt-outs from and delays in implementation of various EU directives (such as retaining pints for beer etc, acres for land and miles for road signs). This did not, however, prevent the prosecution of the ‘Sunderland metric martyrs’ for continuing to weigh and sell market produce in imperial units, contrary to EU regulations.

This case (and the press coverage it generated) firmly entrenched the view that metric was a foreign system being foisted on the British people against their will and the prospect of Brexit heightens the anticipation that metric may be abolished once and for all.

This view, however, ignores both the history of metrication in the UK which began long before our membership of the EU (as described above) and also the commercial and legal reality of the modern world.

Whilst it is almost certain that some businesses will patriotically seize the opportunity to sell goods in imperial weights and measures, the sheer cost involved in converting machinery, packaging etc will rule out any large-scale abandonment of metric.

Further, reverting to metric would be contrary to Theresa May’s vision of the UK of a global, free-trading nation. All but three countries in the world (the USA, Liberia and Myanmar*) use metric and even the USA’s non-metric system differs from our own. The British imperial system is no longer used anywhere else (ironically, not even in the countries of the old British Empire). *Myanmar is in the process of metrication.

Any free trade agreement with the EU and other major economies is likely to stipulate the use of metric and no-one under the age of 50 (the business leaders of tomorrow) has been educated in anything other than metric.

I’m afraid, therefore, that the metric system is here to stay and that Brexit will not change that.

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About James Rhodes - historian

History and genealogy buff. Follow me on Twitter @rh0desy
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