Sunday, June 5, 2022


In 1974, the metric system supplanted Imperial measurements as the primary system taught in UK schools, following a process of gradual metrication across the country symbolised by decimalisation of the Pound in 1971. Relying on voluntary action by businesses, with a separate Metrication Board providing encouragement instead of direct Government involvement, this process was ended in 1980 without being completed. Subsequent European Union directives require most items sold by weight to use the metric system, although prices in Imperial measurements can be quoted alongside them.

Today, people of a certain age are happier using Imperial measurements, while younger people may view acres, gallons and yards like someone has thrown a French or Latin phrase into their conversation, requiring a split-second to translate its intended meaning... and yet, everyone is used to buying pints of draught beer or cider in pubs, quoting their weight in stone, and road signs continuing to display distances in miles, because these were never changed, and because everyone subsequently knows that a mile is about 1.6 kilometres, 2.2 pounds equal a kilogram, and a pint works out to 568 millilitres. This is the maths that British people do without realising.

The UK Government has been threatening to change this for a while. On Friday 3rd June, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy opened a consultation on the “Choice on units of measurement: markings and sales”. Its purpose is to “identify how we can give more choice to businesses and consumers over the units of measurement they use for trade”, according to the consultation document, with its questions asking businesses if providing a choice is a priority for them, if people would be more likely to shop if offered Imperial measurements ahead of metric ones, and if there is an impact on the cost of trading if any changes are made. 

It has been a long-held ambition for the Government to use the legislative freedom from Brexit to reverse European Union directives, with the Weights and Measures Act 1985 having been amended in June 2020 to reintroduce various, more obscure Imperial measurements like roods, minims, drachm and quintals, to use supplementary to the metric system. However, EU laws copied into UK law upon Brexit included maintaining the use of the Imperial system on road signs, draught beer and cider, and in selling precious metals in troy ounces, and the Government’s consultation this time around includes the line, “There is no intention to require businesses to change their existing practices and so this will not place greater costs on businesses.” We have already arrived at the right balance of two measurement systems without creating more confusion.

What is not often considered, however, is that if I go to a supermarket to buy fruit and vegetables, I will most likely buy a bag of apples, a punnet of strawberries, a cucumber, a bunch of bananas...

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