Saturday 28 May 2022

Weighed and Measured?

We await much taking of the opportunities of Brexit to pursue an egalitarian economic policy by harnessing the powers of the liberated British State. 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 Boris Johnson is to reannounce the Conservative Party's vague suggestion from last year 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.

The never threatened pint of milk or beer will always be readily available in the Irish Republic, which will never leave the EU. Our own and so many other traditional weights and measures survive for the sale of bread or beer all across Europe because they are perfectly adequate, and even ideal, for the sale of bread or beer. But they are at least arguably too imprecise for anything much more than that, and an international scientific and technological culture could not function without a universally accepted system of weights and measures.

Nor will imperial measures be taught again in schools, because who would teach them? But Britain is the only country in the world where the use of two completely different systems of weights and measures for all official and all unofficial purposes could result in anything other than total collapse. We should cherish the fact that in ordinary conversation everyone gave their height and weight in imperial measures when only the metric system had been taught in schools since before most people had been born.

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.

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. Unlike, I believe that it is correct to say, any part of the imperial system, the metric system was invented by an Englishman. It has a very long history in this country, having been 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 the use of the metric system in 1875. Numerous industries have used nothing else in living memory, if ever. Even leaving aside how long ago Imperial Britain's industrial zenith was, the bald claim that that was achieved entirely by the application of the imperial system does not stand up to the slightest analysis.

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 and ounces, 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 ounces, 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 be attributed to the cultural transmission of American English.

The point should be reiterated that the Americans' system of weights and measures is their own, for all that some shared vocabulary might give rise to confusion. Nor does it ring true that the United States went to the Moon using non-metric units. If, for the sake of argument, that were the case, then it was more than 50 years ago. There is no way that the Americans are doing anything remotely comparable in anything other than the metric system today, even if they were doing so in the 1960s, which itself strikes me as highly unlikely.

And so on. Let anyone who wanted to do so 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment