The mess we're in

British weights and measures are in a mess.

On the one hand, the international metric system (SI) is the official, legal system for most purposes in the UK. Yet, at the same time, much of British everyday life remains untouched by the metric system and continues to use imperial units. Consider the following examples:

metric imperial
Most of British industry and government, including major companies, the NHS, the armed forces, the police and local authorities, use the metric system in their internal operations and in some of their public or official communications. In everyday conversation, many British people freely use feet, stones, acres and miles per gallon, while even people who use metric units in their work (e.g. as designers, maths teachers or engineers) feel faintly uncomfortable or embarrassed at using metres, kilograms or hectares outside the workplace. Much of the non-specialist media gives primarily imperial units (rarely with metric equivalents).
Schools teach mathematics and science primarily in metric. Outside the maths or science lesson, many schoolteachers continue to use imperial units.
Some British sports (including rugby union, athletics and swimming) use metres and kilometres. Football commentators refer to "the eighteen yard box".
Roads are designed and buildings constructed using exclusively metres. Regulations for the dimensions of parking bays, and road markings are given in metric units. Commercial vehicles are required to be equipped with tachographs which record using kilometre-based measurements. Distance signs and speed limits are exclusively in miles, yards and miles per hour, whilst feet and inches predominate in height and width restrictions.
Court orders to restrain the movement of an individual are specified in metres. Descriptions of criminals wanted by the police are given by the media exclusively in imperial units.
All British meteorological measurement, whether temperature, rainfall or visibility, uses metric units. Many weather reports and forecasts in the media give temperatures wholly or mainly in degrees Celsius. Holiday brochures often give summer temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit.
Most shops (especially larger stores and supermarkets) give prices per kilogram or litre. Many market traders and some small shopkeepers display weights in pounds and ounces - sometimes (in defiance of the law) without their metric equivalent.
Planning applications and permissions must be expressed exclusively in metric measurements. DIY and garden supplies are sold in metric quantities. Estate agents give floor space in square feet and room and garden dimensions in feet and inches.
Ordnance Survey maps give distances and heights in kilometres and metres respectively.
A convenient range of scales are used e.g.
1:25 000 (4 cm to 1 km),
1:50 000 (2 cm to 1 km),
1:100 000 (1 cm to 1 km)
Road atlases usually have dual scales but with kilometre based grid lines (though not explicity marked as such).
Ratios are quoted as so many miles to an inch but are in fact only approximated e.g.
3 miles to an inch when the actual scale is 1:200 000 (5 mm to 1 km) corresponding to 3.16 miles to an inch.

How did we get into this mess?

How has Britain got into this mess? And why have successive British governments been so reluctant to bring the changeover saga (which began in 1965) to a conclusion? Why has it been so difficult to persuade British people to accept the obvious benefits of the changeover?

Regrettably, the answer must be that successive governments have lacked the political courage to carry through a necessary reform.

  • By failing to argue the case for what they knew to be right, by pretending that the change could be made voluntarily without overt government backing, by sheltering behind European Directives, they have allowed opposition to grow and misconceptions to fester.
  • They have done nothing to counter the mistaken perception (encouraged by the media and now very widely believed by the general population) that the metric system has been imposed on Britain by an undemocratic, foreign bureaucracy.
  • They have failed to publicise adequately the truth - namely, that the decision to go metric was taken by the elected British government as long ago as 1965 (well before our entry to the EEC), that the European Directives were freely agreed by British ministers in the European Council, and that the necessary legislation (both primary and secondary) has been passed by the British Parliament.
  • Furthermore, even when making decisive changes, such as introducing metric labelling on packages in 1995 and metric weighing at the point of sale in 2000, governments have chosen not to organise significant information campaigns to prepare the public for change. As a result the public has often been ill-prepared and has felt that the changes were introduced by stealth.
  • Lastly, the failure to make changes in a well-coordinated and rapid way has meant that the British public has not benefited from the consistency of the metric system. There was no rationale for introducing metric labelling on packaged food in 1995 and waiting five years for metric weighing of loose food in 2000. There was no sense in introducing the sale of petrol in litres in the late 1980s and keeping road distances in miles. In both examples the consumer has been left struggling with two systems at once.

The result of this feeble reliance on a voluntary and gradual approach has been that progress has been excruciatingly slow - and in some fields virtually imperceptible. It is not too much to say that the voluntary approach has failed - a failure of government.

Read UKMA's report 'A very British mess'

For a more complete analysis of Britain’s measurement unit mess and how to fix it, read UKMA’s report. A very British mess, which was launched by Lord Howe of Aberavon on 8 July 2004, is available in an attractive hardcopy format. The report is printed as a 64 page paperback in full colour and is also available as a free pdf download or on a CD. The report draws attention to Britain's measurement unit mess caused by failing to complete the conversion from imperial to metric units. The report explains how Britain got into the mess, why it is important and how to get out of the mess.

A very British mess brochure

Click here for details on obtaining a copy.