Comparison with Australia

In Britain, it is common for both politicians and journalists to treat Britain’s metric conversion in isolation from the rest of the world. However, the fact is that other Commonwealth countries have successfully moved from imperial to metric without the mess that Britain has created. It is instructive to compare the very successful metric conversion in Australia with the unsuccessful approach adopted by the UK.

Conversion rationale in Australia

In 1970 there was virtually no metric usage in Australia, but by 1981 most of their conversion was complete. The UK announced its metric conversion in 1965, and more than half a century later the completion is not in sight.

The Australian government has identified the key elements for their successful conversion. The following table contrasts the Australian and British approaches.

Australian approach British approach
Australia’s metric conversion was announced by Prime Minister J G Gorton in January 1970 Britain’s metric conversion was announced by a relatively junior minister Douglas Jay in May 1965
It was realised that the maximum benefits of metrication could only be realised if the conversion is planned across all sectors of society. An industry-only conversion was rejected. A Metric Conversion Board was established with a broad charter and with joined-up government. Britain decided to adopt the metric system following strong pressure from British industry. However the focus of the conversion was on industry only. The Metrication Board was not given wide-ranging cross-departmental powers. Today, there is no joined-up approach with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Transport adopting quite different approaches to measurement units.
Unequivocal commitment by Federal and State Governments After some initial progress made by the Metrication Board, the board was abolished before its work was complete. Further metrication was deliberately delayed by negotiating derogations with the European Union.
Involvement of key stakeholders in metrication in planning the conversion sector by sector. Principle of conversion not for negotiation but stakeholders encouraged to help plan the change and maximise its benefit. Following the abolition of the Metrication Board, there was no forum for British stakeholders to participate in further change.
Government support for sector plans including amendment of legislation and codes of practice to ensure successful changeover. Government identifying ‘front runners’ to help drive the change. British metric measures such as the introduction metric labelling on packaged goods and metric measurement at point of sale introduced by minor changes to regulation. Some retailers have ruthlessly used regulatory loopholes in rules to take advantage of measurement confusion.
It was realised that use of dual units and conversions hindered the public’s grasp of metric units. Emphasis was therefore placed on practical usage. The meagre information on metric provided to the public has focused strongly on conversions to imperial with virtually no practical information.
The most effective change is usually a fast one. If the change is rapid, the public is motivated to take it in their stride. Despite the success of the rapid changeover to decimal currency in 1971, the opposite approach has been taken for metric conversion. Conversions have frequently been delayed and accompanied with very long periods when dual units are permitted. As a result few people have bothered to change.
The entire metric conversion was done with a population unschooled in metric. The schools converted in parallel with other sectors of society. Government assumes that the public can only adopt metric once a substantial proportion of the public has been schooled in metric.
The metric conversion was portrayed as being beneficial to all. Active measures undertaken to ensure that the benefits are realised. No Government minister since the 1970s has explained the benefits of metrication to the public. As momentum has slowed the ‘big lie’ has emerged that Britain is being forced to change by the European Union. Benefits have not been realised in full due to incomplete conversion.
Conversion largely complete 11 years after initial announcement After more than 50 years (and counting) since the original announcement, the completion of Britain’s metric conversion is not in sight!

Fear changes to public support

The UK has suffered from extraordinarily insular thinking on metrication. Successive governments have systematically refused to learn from successes in other countries. British politicians who are too timid to deal with the metric conversion challenge in the UK would do well to read the following quote from Australia.

‘Resistance to the metric change is mostly due to fear of the unknown. Few realised it could be a simple, non-traumatic experience so that, with the general public, support for the change can only be expected after it.’

Just as many British politicians faced an anxious and sceptical public before adopting decimal currency in 1971, then were surprised at the smoothness of the transition, Britain could happily complete metrication if a better approach were adopted. If an imperial-schooled Australian public could adopt the metric system there is no reason why the British public cannot.