Saturday, 18 September 2021

Made To Measure?

Brexit makes it possible to renationalise the railways, but no one is trying to do that anymore. Brexit ought to be a spur to pursue an independent and peaceable foreign policy. But after a very brief moment of hope, then no one is trying to do that anymore, either.

Instead, we have had blue passports, which we could always have had if we had wanted them, and which look nothing at all like the old ones, since those were black. The new, blue ones are being made in Poland by a company that is French and Dutch.

And now we have the Conservative Party's vague suggestion that it might repeal its own Act of Parliament outlawing some, but not all, use of the imperial system of weights and measures. Have you ever had any trouble buying a pint of beer? Good luck to any licensed premises that sought to revert to the old measures of spirits, since those were shorter.

Practically nothing will change here. Corporate retail giants have absolutely no intention of adopting the imperial system, but, as it should be, small traders will be free to use it if customers wanted it. At a significant markup, I expect. Almost no one under 60 will ask for imperial, since almost no one under 60 has ever been taught it, but by all means let those who wanted it have it. If they can afford it. That's the market. There is no suggestion that it would be taught in schools, since who could possibly teach it?

Although using much of the same vocabulary, the American system is different, because it is older than the imperial system. Far from being Arthurian, the latter dates only from 1824, making it not yet 200 years old. It suppressed numerous customary weights and measures across these Islands and the Empire, replacing them with ones that often bore the same names, as certain customary units on the Continent still have names such as livre, but which had most definitely been devised by a committee. Scottish pints and gallons were more than halved.

Corresponding to the lazy assumption that the imperial system is ancient is the lazy assumption that the metric system is foreign. In fact, it was devised by John Wilkins, who manged to be both a brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell and later a bishop in the Church of England. The first attempt to mandate it in Britain was made in 1818, six years before the imperial system existed. Britain legalised its use in 1875. Numerous industries have used nothing else in living memory, if ever.

Britain joined the EU in 1973. New Zealand has had only metric road signs, which there has never been any serious suggestion that Britain might adopt, since 1972. Was that the work of the EU? Although New Zealanders still sometimes give their height in feet and inches, and by convention announce their children's birth weights in pounds, they have, again since 1972, measured even milk in the metric system, unlike the practice in Britain.

By 1973, all schools in Australia were teaching only the metric system. Was that the work of the EU, too? All road signs there converted to metric in July 1974, and all cars made after that year have had only metric speedometers. Australians now rarely even convert their babies' birth weights into pounds, and such units are employed for trading purposes only when exporting to the United States. Where there is residual use of imperial units in casual conversation in Australia, then it tends to attributed to the cultural transmission of American English.

And so on. Let anyone who wanted to do it buy or sell a pound of potatoes, although that is not an arduous thing to do within the present law. But if this and the complete novelty of blue passports are all that we are getting out of Brexit, then we need a Government in the tradition of those who had always opposed the EU, and not made up of the fanboys of a Prime Minister who had gone off it only when we now know that she had been in her early dotage.


  1. Almost no one under 60 will ask for imperial, since almost no one under 60 has ever been taught it,

    Of course imperial measures are much more natural than metric, as it’s a bottom-up system designed for human use which relates to things we all have, use or live in such as cups, pints, teaspoons, tablespoons, feet, thumbs (inches), paces (yards), rooms (stories) etc, rather than an abstract, arbitrary top-down system with no intermediary measures designed by and for bureaucrats and pointy heads.

    There’s a reason no normal person gives their height in centimetres or orders pints in millilitres.

    1. This is junk history, the stuff of Ladybird Guides. But if you are right, then you will be proved right in the new order.

  2. Un tour de force.