Measure for measure, a comedy of errors

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Geoffrey Howe

The Times, 10 February 2001

The villains responsible for the ‘persecution’ of the Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn – the so-called Metric Martyr – have been widely identified as ‘Brussels bureaucrats’, ‘European tyrants’ and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. The guilty men (and women) are here in Britain.

Mr Thoburn’s plight has been caused by the cowardice, lack of candour and irresponsibility of most of our political leaders over the past quarter of a century – and by even greater recklessness on the part of most of the media. Even our business and academic leaders have played an inglorious part in the Martyr’s Tale. I am ready to accept my share of responsibility.

The story begins more than 200 years ago, when Britain declined an invitation from Napoleon’s revolutionary predecessors to join in the planning which would lead to the creation of the metric system. But over the next half century, the new system swept across Europe and to many other parts of the world.

By 1862 a Commons Select Committee on Weights and Measures had concluded unanimously that ‘the best course to adopt is, cautiously but steadily, to introduce the metric system’; because ‘no country, especially no commercial country, should fail to adopt the metric system, which will save time and lessen labour’. Nine years later a Bill providing for a complete change to the metric system (coinage as well) was defeated by a mere 82 votes to 77. And in 1904 the House of Lords voted in favour of a Bill to the same effect.

Almost half a century later, in 1950, the Hodgson Committee recommended unanimously action, ‘in concert with the Commonwealth and the USA’, to abolish the imperial system over a period of 20 years. In 1965 the Wilson Government, in response to a request from the FBI (later the CBI), announced that metrication should be substantially completed within ten years. Four years later the Metrication Board was created to co-ordinate the changeover.

In 1972, with metrication under way, I joined the Heath Cabinet as Britain’s first Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, responsible for the metrication programme. We were then still in the first wave of Commonwealth countries to have embarked upon metrication – not surprisingly, as the only one about to join an entirely metric single market. Yet today we are the only Commonwealth country not to have completed it.

We must surely be about the only country where the motorist sees the roadsign ‘Birmingham 51 miles’ and, a moment or two later, ‘Roadworks 500 metres’, where he buys petrol by the litre and yet compares fuel consumption in miles per gallon.

Only one major country now remains to go fully metric – the United States, where about 40 per cent of businesses have made the changeover. America provided a dramatic demonstration of the folly of trying to cope with both systems simultaneously in 1999 when the Mars Climate Orbiter took the wrong course and disappeared – all because one programme was written in imperial rather than in the metric units, which NASA has been using for years.

So why is Britain almost alone in still being stuck between two worlds when our schoolchildren have been learning and working in metric for 30 years? There is one important factor. The system we have adopted was designed not by or for citizens and consumers but by and for Space Age scientists and mathematicians. We don’t use the everyday metric system in a way that works so well on the Continent.

The Metric Sense Campaign (championed almost single-handed for years by Clement Attlee’s daughter-in-law, Countess Attlee) has tirelessly explained the cause of the problem: many industries in Britain do not express measurements in centimetres, or even metres, preferring to use huge numbers of millimetres instead. So a bathtub is 1,700 mm long, instead of 1.70 m. Liquid measure, too, is more difficult in Britain because we usually drop centilitres and don’t use 1/2. For example, a bottle of tonic water is marked 500 ml, instead of 50 cl or 1/2 litre.

But the main reason Britain is still in a metric no man’s land is the obtuse willingness of too many politicians to resist and obstruct the process of change, which they – which we, I should say – had set in hand.

I have to acknowledge, for example, that within six months of being elected the Thatcher Government abolished the Metrication Board, whose job it was to oversee the completion of the change. I went along with this, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, because it represented a (very) modest saving of public expenditure.

We made the implausible excuse that the board had very largely completed its work. There was little complaint from our political opponents. Mrs Thatcher, it has to be said, positively rejoiced in the change.

And so it was that the former Education Secretary, who had (with private reluctance) once helped to steer our schoolchildren into the metric world, became in due course one of the leaders of a ‘heroic resistance movement’, which has since fought every inch, foot, yard and mile of the way to ‘prevent Brussels imposing upon us’ a modernisation of weights and measures to which, in our own national interest, successive British governments had at last had the courage to commit themselves.

Had the process been properly managed and explained – in the same way as decimalisation of the currency, for example – then Steve Thoburn, and his customers, would have had time and the means to know exactly where we were going and why – and how. I dare say that one or two ‘martyrs’ might still have volunteered. But, as in the rest of the Commonwealth, they would have had less excuse and much less sympathy.

Oh, what a shameful way to govern a country!