Imperial madness

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Ross Clarke

The Spectator, 20 February 2001

Ross Clark will shed no tears for the metric martyrs in their defence of a system that helped destroy the British car industry

By the time you read this, Britain may very well be engaged in a civil war. Imperialists may be barricading streets, metricators lobbing petrol bombs, Europhobe brother slaying Europhile brother. At the time of writing, Steven Thoburn, a market stallholder from Sunderland, sits in the dock facing criminal charges for selling a pound of bananas on a set of scales which the local authority’s weights and measures men had previously forbidden him to use. The reaction to his plight, he says, has stunned him. The Los Angeles Times has carried his mugshot; a host of celebrities, including Ian Botham, Sir Tim Rice, Patrick Moore and Jilly Cooper, have signed up to his cause; and local sympathisers have raised £30,000, partly through a fundraising dinner at £70 a head – not an easy task in one of Britain’s poorest cities.

It is not hard to see why the ‘metric martyrs’, as they have styled themselves, should be arousing such passion, even if the presence of the Tory spokesman Alan Duncan in Sunderland is the most disgraceful piece of bandwagon-jumping yet: it was the government of which he was a member that decided to make it a criminal offence to breach the European directive insisting on metric units. The sight of a greengrocer, let alone one with a dazzling, peroxide-blonde wife, possibly going to jail for disobeying a Brussels directive tugs at the heart-strings. And does the word ‘imperial’ not stir national pride, speak of tea-clippers surging through the ocean froth, and remind the world just who established the banana plantations in the first place?

It is just a shame that Mr Thoburn’s martyrdom is in such a lousy cause. There are many things worthy of defending against the bureaucrats of Brussels – and Whitehall – but imperial weights and measures are not one of them. It is fortunate for Mr Thoburn that the computations he has to undertake in his professional life are limited to working out the price of bunches of bananas at such-and-such to the pound. Were he making camshafts at Sunderland’s Nissan plant, on the other hand, it is unlikely that he would now be sacrificing his freedom to preserve what he perceives to be an essential part of Britishness.

The fact is that imperial weights and measures – they hardly make up a system – are completely ridiculous. They are confusing, inconsistent and make calculations vastly more complex than they need be, which is why you won’t find many builders – hardly the champions of progressive values when it comes to such matters as wolf-whistling at female passers-by – echoing the sentiments of Mr Thoburn.

I have in my shed a 12-inch steel rule, given to me by my late grandfather, who had used it in his work making Lagonda motor cars before the war. It might be straightforward enough to use if the inches were subdivided into consistent graduations, but they are not. For some of the way, the rule is measuring eighths of an inch, then it changes to measuring sixteenths, then thirty-seconds, and then tenths of an inch. When finishing a shaft on a lathe, Lagonda workers were expected to use measuring equipment graduated in ‘thous’ – that is thousandths of an inch. Yet, if a thread then had to be put on that shaft, it might well be measured in sixty-fourths of an inch. No wonder the poor machinists who had to work under such conditions made so many mistakes that my grandfather used to speak of them carrying out waste engine-blocks under their coats and dumping them in the nearby Thames, for fear of losing their jobs. And no wonder the British car industry faded away because of low productivity.

The gill was even sillier: it was either one quarter or one half of a pint, depending on which town you happened to be in. One might at least expect a mile to be a mile. But no. How many of these who complain they are confused by grams and milligrams, have had to pore over a map and convert statute miles into nautical miles (by the handy device of multiplying them by 0.868)? How many have had to scratch their heads and wonder whether the quantity of fuel they have been asked to put into an aeroplane fuel tank is in UK gallons or US gallons (the latter being 0.8326 of the former, and possibly the difference between reaching your desired air field and plunging into the sea)?

Imperial measurements aren’t even particularly British; it is just that we have one-headedly persisted in using them for longer. A mile was a Roman measurement, supposedly equivalent to 1,000 paces, though it must have been a very long-legged soldier who was used to define it. Mr Thoburn’s beloved pound is also derived from the Roman unit of weight, libra. Both were used throughout Europe until the French Revolution. The British variations on Roman measurements tend to be the ones that have long since fallen into disuse: if the metric martyrs really wish to be patriotic, they should be campaigning for road signs to be converted into rods and perches.

If the metric martyrs could go back a couple of centuries, they wouldn’t find too many defenders of the good old British pint, which is excluded from European legislation in order to appease pub bores: beer-sellers were happily selling beer by the tankardful – whatever size the tankard in question might happen to be – until the hated weights and measures men stamped out the practice. Yet for some reason imperial units have been adopted as a symbol of manhood by the sort of blimps who scour every hardware shop in the land for a pot of lead paint with which to poison their doorpost-chewing grandchildren.

Pounds and ounces are part of the England of cold showers and pointless ‘character-building’ exercises on the parade a ground. They are part of a world-view in which it is a virtue to make things difficult for yourself, and in which children don’t know what life is if they haven’t had diphtheria.

If Mr Thoburn and his supporters have an emotional need to continue to deal in old units, I don’t see why the law shouldn’t tolerate them, though I would put them in the same bracket as somebody who insists on filling in their tax return in Roman numerals. For most us, the metric martyrs’ stance is as pointless a piece of bravado as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

If I find myself in Sunderland suffering from a sudden pang for some tropical fruit, I shall go up to Mr Thoburn, assuming he isn’t in jail, and ask him for ‘six bananas, please’. I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss what his scales are graduated in.