Which system is better?

If it is accepted that the continued use of two mutually incompatible systems is unacceptable, then clearly the only way to resolve the situation is to standardise on one single system and cease using the other system. The question which then arises is: which system should the UK standardise on?

In theory, the UK could choose either system. We could revert to using exclusively the imperial system and discontinue the use of metric units – that is, go back to the pre-1965 situation. Alternatively, we could complete the changeover to the metric system and discontinue the use of imperial units.

In practice, because there is already extensive “unseen” metric usage within industry and commerce, to revert to exclusive use of the imperial system would cause considerable problems:

  • Industry would have to redesign many of its products and invest in new machinery, increasing production costs.
  • British subsidiaries of foreign-based companies might be reluctant to change and could simply close down their British operation and relocate to metric countries.
  • British-made goods would cease to meet international specifications, and exports would suffer – possibly catastrophically.
  • Defence co-operation within NATO would be jeopardised.
  • International obligations would have to be renegotiated – provided that other governments were willing to agree.
  • A considerable part of the population would need to be educated in how to calculate using imperial units.
  • Most mathematics and science textbooks and other teaching material would need to be replaced and syllabuses revised.

The reality is that reversion to exclusive use of the imperial system is not a practical alternative. If the current muddle of two systems is to be resolved, it can only realistically be done by completing the changeover to the metric system and ceasing to use imperial units.

Completion of the changeover would have many benefits in addition to resolving the current muddle.

Once understood, the metric system is simple and easy to use. This is because:

  • It is primarily decimal (thus avoiding the need to calculate in multiples and submultiples of 3, 12, 14, 16, 20, 1760, 5280 etc – not to mention the squares and cubes of these values).
  • It handles orders of magnitude consistently: the prefixes such as “k” (meaning kilo- or thousand) and “c” (meaning centi- or hundredth) have the same meaning for all weights and measures.
  • It handles dimensions consistently: For example, there is a clear relationship between metres and hectares (a hectare is the area of a square 100 m × 100 m) while there is an obscure relationship between yards and an acre (an acre is one chain x one furlong or 22 yards × 220 yards). There is a clear relationship between the litre and cubic centimetres (1 : 1 000) while there is no clear relationship between pints and cubic inches (1 : 34.66) – or between pints and a cubic foot (1 : 49.95).

Britain would be using the same system as most of the rest of the world (apart from the United States of America). This would benefit both British travellers abroad and overseas visitors to Britain – both of whom would no longer need to keep converting.