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July 15, 2014

Why Britain should go metric

The Rt Hon. The Lord Howe of Aberavon on why Britain should go metric

(This article also appeared in the July edition of the MC800th’s newsletter)

We celebrate here the 800th anniversary of Britain’s first charter of human rights, the Magna Carta, which included the proclamation that there should be “one measure of wine throughout our whole realm…and one measure of corn…and one width of cloth”. Before then and ever since, every civilized society has recognized the need for one set (and only one set) of standard measures.

Even after all those 800 years, British weights and measures are in a mess. We still do not have that single set of standard measures for all purposes. We have litres for petrol and fizzy drinks, pints for beer. There are metres for athletics, but miles per gallon for cars. We use the metric system for work and school and yet, all too often, feet and inches and pounds and ounces are still in general use.

Many people describe their weights in stones and pounds whereas doctors and nurses in the NHS will have measured and recorded those same weights in kilograms. Petrol and diesel are sold in litres but, since road distances and speed limits are based on miles, most people have difficulty working out the fuel efficiency of their vehicle.

This muddle does matter. It can increase costs, confuse shoppers, lead to misunderstandings, cause accidents, but especially it wastes our children’s education which can put them at a disadvantage in later life.

So how did Britain get into this mess? Because we’ve been dithering for almost 150 years! As long ago as 1862, a House of Commons Select Committee unanimously recommended the adoption of the metric system. A century later, in 1965 the decision was taken to go metric over the next ten years.

In 1979, alas, the Government (of which I was a member) foolishly decided to go slow on the whole process. So we’re still stuck half way and the rest of the world has moved on. Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, India, Jamaica have all completed the change.

Plainly we can’t stay where we are, with two confused, competing systems and it would be madness to go backwards. The only solution is to complete the changeover to metric – and as swiftly and cleanly as possible. It is long past time for us to summon up the will to get ourselves out of the present wasteful, untidy mess.

The 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta can provide the incentive to re-energise the adoption of the ‘one measure’ doctrine. King John and the barons would all have approved of that.

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