Time to stand up to the metric martyrs

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Malcolm Bruce

Press & Journal, 12 December 2002

Do you remember what 3lb 11oz of butter at 7s 3d a lb cost? The answer is £1 6s 9d. Worse still, what is the cost of 3lb 11oz of butter at 79 pence a kilo? Answer £1.32 – at least I think that’s right but it sure is a nightmare trying to work it out and why on earth should I have to even think about it?

Alternatively try this. Approximately how many kilometres is it from Aberdeen to Inverness? (171 kilometres, which is 106 miles.) What is the metric weight of a 16lb Christmas turkey? (7.26 kilos.) How much do you weigh in kilos and what is your height in metres? In my case the answer is 73 kilos (I know, lose a few!) and 1.71 metres – and shrinking!

Here is another. How much carpet will you need to order for a 14ft by 16ft room at £24.45 a metre cut from a 4 metre roll? I give up. I haven’t got time to work it out.

We have always described car engines by ccs – cubic centimetres – once we stopped talking about horse power. We buy our petrol in litres but talk about fuel consumption in terms of miles per gallon.

Are you confused? You should be. Do you really want to go back to the days when we had to work out the cost of 8 articles at 15s 9d each?

Why should a whole generation of young people who have only learnt metric still be confused by old measures of which they have little or no conception? As far as old money is concerned they have no idea of the quaint references to guineas, ten bob, half a crown, a florin or a threepenny bit (unrecognised by my spellchecker).

I have discovered it is not just young people whose lives have been transformed by decimalisation. During the election I had a meeting in a sheltered housing complex. One lady asked my about the euro. I explained the idea behind it and why I personally was in favour of the UK making preparations to join.

‘That’s alright,’ she said, ‘but tell me; how many shillings are there in a euro?’ Her concern was that it represented a throwback to the impenetrably complicated money of her youth. She was quite content with the idea of using euros once she knew there were 100 cents to the euro.

So decimalisation of our currency has been completed and digested. However, the same does not apply to weights and measures.

Whipped on by tabloid newspapers, traders in the North East of England have fought the legal requirement to offer their wares in kilos and insisted on using pounds and ounces only. They have, of course, lost, because the law is clear.

They have been hailed as metric martyrs fighting for the right to use old measures rather than what they see as new-fangled metric nonsense imposed by Europe. Actually the old measures have also been referred to as avoirdupois which doesn’t sound any more English either!

It is currently alright for traders to offer both measures but they must show weights and prices per kilo.

Next time you go into the butcher and ask for a pound of steak mince, spare a thought for the fact that the person serving you has to convert that to 0.454 of a kilo or 454 grams. My wife tells me that the girl on the fish counter in Tesco’s thanked her least week for asking for her fish in grams as it saved her having to do a mental conversion.

So why should these people who defy the metric laws be hailed as heroes when they are adding to confusion and delay in adopting what is the world wide standard?

Their champions of course are the little Englanders of the Daily Mail and Europhobes of every shade.

Apart from the UK only the USA is holding out for old measurements. Americans have the added complication that the US gallon is less than the imperial gallon – 16 fluid ounces instead of twenty.

If you use an American recipe book you have to remember that USA cups are different from standard cups and a stick of butter is subdivided in tablespoons! Get it wrong and your cakes won’t rise or your curry will turn out hotter than you planned.

This eccentricity has cost both countries dear. The UK lost out heavily in our engineering industry by holding out against metric measures for so long. The United States recently lost a satellite because somebody confused inches and centimetres.

The contrast between the two sides of the 49th parallel couldn’t be starker. The USA is also entirely in old measures. Canada is completely metric including distance and speed indicators.

Within the British Isles the same differences are apparent between the UK and Ireland although the Irish have the added problem that they have gone metric but buy their cars built for the British market with speedos still marked in miles while their distance boards are in kilometres.

We have even witnessed the nonsense of holiday towns being criticised for seeking to help foreign visitors for putting the distances to sites of interest in kilometres.

The issue boils down to the fact that a whole generation of school children have become adults on an entirely metric basis. Our standards are based on the metric system and we are positively aiming to complete a transition from old to new weights and measures.

Prolonging that transition merely maintains confusion and disadvantage. There is no obvious virtue in being stuck betwixt and between. It is as if we have adopted the switch to metric in the terms of the joke as to how the Irish would switch from driving on the left to driving on the right by cars changing on Monday and trucks and buses on Tuesday.

Those who are opposing this change do not seem to me to be martyrs – just Luddites stopping a move to a uniform and more sensible system.

This is not a euro plot. It is giving us a simpler system to work and understand and making us more competitive in our exchanges of trade.

Opponents of regional government in England claim this too is some kind of plot to bring is into line with Europe. They see euro plots everywhere and stand common sense on its head.

Metric weights and measures are simpler and more accurate than old measures designed for a non computerised age. Prolonging the confusion is a service to no one. Let’s go fully metric and the sooner the better.