Yards, metres, gallons or litres

Back to list of articles

Lord Howe

The Expert, spring 2005

As long ago as 1862 a House of Commons Select Committee unanimously recommended the adoption of the metric system – which had already swept across Europe and many other parts of the world. And just a century later, in 1965, the decision was finally taken to go metric over the next ten years.

Since then – and following our original example – the rest of the world has moved on. Australia, Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Jamaica – all cricket-playing, beer-drinking members of what we used to call the British Commonwealth – have completed the change. By the end of this year, Ireland too will have done the same.

In Britain, by contrast, metric conversion has ground to a halt – with the result that we are left in a costly muddle, which confuses shoppers, causes mistakes and accidents, and wastes our children’s education. Only one other major country has yet to complete the process of going fully metric – the United States. And there are at least two solid reasons why even that no longer provides – if it ever did – some kind of anchor for sentimental British “imperialists” to hang on to.

In the first place, the American ton, gallon and pint are all smaller than ours – and Americans weigh themselves in pounds but never in stones. Probably more important still is the fact that about 40 per cent of US businesses have already made the change-over – including NASA and the Pentagon itself. The failure of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999, at a cost of $125 million, because a sub-contractor failed to use metric, dramatically illustrates the danger of trying to live with two confused, competing systems

Just as America provides no kind of alibi for those who yearn to turn back the tide of metrication, so Europe fails to provide a whipping-boy for those who try to blame the whole process of change on “Brussels”. The decision taken in 1965 (and recommended a century before) was taken – just as in every other country that has made the change – by Britons, in our own interests. It was certainly not taken under, or induced by, any kind of pressure from the Common Market, which we did not join until eight years later.

So how have we landed ourselves in this “very British mess” – the title of the booklet recently produced by the UK Metric Association, of which I am a Patron? Let me try to explain. It is because successive British governments have lacked consistency, candour and courage in their implementation and presentation of a policy, which was at the outset rightly supported by a broad majority of all those who had given the topic serious consideration. I was myself a member of two of those governments – and I accept my share of responsibility for the present shambles.

It was the Wilson government which launched the process in 1965 – and the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments which carried it forward in the 1970s.The whole operation was handled, without significant controversy, by a broadly representative quango, the Metrication Board – which was able, in its last Report in 1980, to note that the change was then nearing completion. In the Heath government, as Britain’s first Minister for Consumer Affairs, I was responsible for the metrication programme. The Education Minister who then carried through the syllabus changes, which have ensured that children have since then been educated in metric and not imperial, was Margaret Thatcher herself.

But none of us, in those consensual days, took care to secure the authority of comprehensive primary legislation for the change. So it was only years later, when we started to need agreement from EC agencies for the transitional survival of imperial measurements (that were by then on the way out) that the need began to arise for some kind of legislative cover. By then, however, some emotional opposition to the change had begun to emerge. Moreover, having myself become (in 1979) a penny-saving Chancellor of the Exchequer, I foolishly allowed the Metrication Board to be abolished.

And so the balance of the headline argument has moved away from the rational approach (which has prevailed in almost every country but our own) of “how, how soon and how best are we to finish the job?” to the Euro-scrappy, emotional alternative of “how long and how most chauvinistically can we delay the change?”

This is why it is now so vitally important to liberate this whole debate from the shadow of the wider, and perfectly legitimate, other aspects of the European controversy. We simply cannot afford to go on crippling ourselves with the acceptance of the present mess. Nobody is now so foolish as to argue that we should actually go backwards – and away from the rest of the world. To stay in our present imbroglio will continue consumer confusion, perpetuate safety hazards, obstruct business efficiency.

Perhaps the most depressing consequence of all is, and will be, the widespread and increasing lack of numeracy in the general population, with a resulting inability to perform even the simplest of calculations. As young people have not since 1974 been formally taught imperial measurements, and as their metric knowledge has often fallen into disuse after leaving school, much of the adult population is now ill-equipped for simple tasks, such as working out the area of a room to be carpeted or how much fuel is needed to complete a car journey.

Isn’t it long past time for all responsible opinion-formers – industrialists, consumers, academics and, above all, parliamentarians of all parties – to summon up the wisdom and the will to think and act together, to get ourselves out of the present wasteful, dangerous and literally shameful mess?