Contrast Britain’s Decimal Currency and Metric Conversions

In the mid 1960s, Britain was different to most other countries by having Roman-style non-decimal currency and measurement units still in use.

Predecimal coins

shilling = 12 pence

florin = 2 shillings

half crown = 2 shillings and 6 pence

£1 = 20 shillings = 240 pence

In Britain, and other Commonwealth countries, it was realised that there were major advantages to be gained by adopting decimal currency and a modern system of decimal measurement units.

Decimal coinage in use today

Decimal coins

While Australia successfully linked both transitions, Britain is remarkable because its highly successful transition to decimal currency was combined with its failure to pull off a similar success in adopting metric units. Indeed when adopting metric, Britain has acted in completely the opposite direction to those policies that made introducing decimal currency such a success.

This divergence is strange when both Britain and Australia saw that the benefits of adopting decimal currency were linked to those of adopting decimal measurement units.

UK v Australia on decimalisation and metrication

Although the majority of Britons who remember the currency changeover in 1971 recall a smooth process, many fears were expressed by the Decimal Currency Board, politicians, the news media and the public. These included:

  • Inflation caused by the change
  • Outright rejection by the general public
  • Problems with converting coin-operated machines
  • Bus crews might refuse to use the new coins
  • Factory workers might strike over new decimal-priced drink machines
  • Market traders objected to smaller coins

These fears were addressed by good contingency planning and a well planned programme of public information. The benefits of decimal currency were explained to the public and most people accepted the change as an important modernisation. On the changeover day 15 February 1971, Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) Lord Fiske was able to tell reporters: "The general picture is quite clear and the smooth and efficient changeover so many people have worked for is now in fact being achieved."

Fear of change is a key reason why some Britons are not keen to complete the transition to the metric system. Unfortunately the benefits of change from imperial to metric have not been explained to the public and effective practical information has not been distributed to the man and woman in the street.

Contrast decimal currency and metric conversions

A good summary of Britain's currency decimalisation is given in Malcolm Levitt's summary. A quick comparison between Britain's approach to adopting decimal currency and adopting metric measurement helps show why we are in our current mess.

Decimal currency conversion Metric conversion
Change and date announced on 1 March 1966 Change and date announced on 1 March 1966
Decimal currency board established December 1966 Metrication board established in 1968 but given very limited charter. The board was precluded from advocating metric units to the public and focused mainly on industry.
Rapid & compulsory changeover (planned (within 6 months of 'D-day'). In practice the conversion was completed within 2 months. For decades a gradual & voluntary changeover approach used. Tendency by governments to seek further delays and opt-outs. Compulsory changeover in retail sector accompanied with exceptions and 10-year period permitting dual labelling.
Major focus on D-day event during which most changes would take place. 'Clean break' changeover philosophy.

The 1971 White Paper on Metrication proclaimed "there will be no 'M-day' for metrication". While it would have been difficult for industry, transport, education and trade to completely synchronise conversion and retooling, it is strange that no guidelines or target dates were set.

Indeed some changes that affected the public were deliberately introduced separately e.g. making measurement of packaged food compulsory in 1995 but loose food only from 2000.

Effective publicity:

  • 24 months before D-day booklets for retailers (2 000 000)
  • 21 months before D-day booklets for teachers
  • 18 months before D-day public campaign addressing business
  • 14 months before D-day leaflets for public in libraries
  • 12 months before D-day booklets for every household
  • Final months had TV and radio campaign

Changes perceived to have been done by stealth. Limited number of leaflets produced (Hansard 4 April 2000):

  • 275 000 leaflets for retailers
  • 860 000 leaflets for shoppers
  • 140 000 wallcharts

Bar chart of leaflet distributions

However leaflets focus on conversions to imperial rather than practical advice.

Effective planning:

  • Long period of planning
  • Retailers and other stakeholders involved early
  • Frequent surveys on state of preparation

Guides for public tested over 18 months to prove suitability.

Piecemeal, stealth approach
Decimal Currency Board survey showed that 99% of businesses converted within 6 weeks! After more than 45 years (and counting) since the original announcement, the completion of Britain's metric conversion is not in sight!

Lessons

For Britain there are clear lessons to be learned. Many people have said that Britons are incapable of accepting changes like the conversion to metric units. History shows that this is not the case. Britain has coped well with change when it is well planned and rapid.

It is not too late to learn from the D-day experience. The Government could make up for their shameful failure to inform the public when introducing metric units to shops. An information campaign would help most people to accept change – particularly if it were accompanied by phasing out imperial units. Keeping information in two systems is not only costly but creates a disincentive to change.