Metrication – let’s get on with it

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Consumers Association

Which? Inside Story, June 1978

We have been going metric inch by painful millimetre over the last 100 years or so. Things hotted up slightly when the government of the day, in 1965, announced its support for the adoption of the metric system, and when the 1972 White Paper on metrication was published. But every now and then, when the next step in the changeover is proposed, some people start asking questions like: shouldn’t we forget the whole thing?

Whatever the intrinsic merits and comfortable familiarity of feet, yards, ounces, gallons, and other Imperial units, the inescapable facts are that:

  • we are a trading nation, depending for our livelihood on trade with other countries
  • the only countries in the world which aren’t already metric (or going metric) are Brunei, Burma, Liberia, the Yemen Arab Republic, and the People’s Democratic Republic of the Yemen.

So, at Which?, our efforts have been directed less at commanding the metric tide to go back, more at ensuring that metrication happens in a way that causes as little confusion as possible.

It must be a bad thing, in our view, if for a long period have to try to compare brisket at 85p a pound and at 182p a kg, or butter at 25p a ½lb and margerine at 17p for 250 g. So it was more than five years ago when we first told government that we wanted the change to be as swift as possible and orderly as possible. Traders told us that this would not happen if the change was to be voluntary. Events have proved them and us right. Parts of the do-it-yourself trade are hopelessly confused, the carpet trade has reverted to Imperial measurements after starting to go metric, even fabrics are still sold by the metre and by the yard. In Australia, they have come to the conclusion that final cut-off dates for sale of goods in Imperial quantities must be set.

Two years ago, we decided to get the views of members. We asked a random sample of members when they thought the process of changing over to metric would be completed. We analysed 800 replies: more than half said ‘between 1976 and 1980’; of these, half thought this was ‘about right’, a quarter ‘too late’. Of those who thought the conversion would spill over into the eighties, nearly half believed that this would be too late. Three-quarters did not think it would be good to have the two systems running side by side.

This was the background to our decision to tell the government publicly, in April, that we supported the proposal to give statutary backing to an agreed timetable for phasing out the Imperial system – including its use in the sale of fresh foods – by the end of 1981.

© Consumers association 1978