Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Weighing Up Imperial Attitudes

This post is not about neo-colonialism. It is about the British obsession with the imperial measurement system, this is still in use in part in the USA (though not in the same form as it is in the UK, we use stones where they use pounds and our gallons are a different size), but has not been used in most of the world since the early 19th century. It covers measures such as inches, feet and miles in length; acres in field sizes; pints and gallons in liquids; onces, pounds, stones, hundredweight and tons (as opposed to tonnes) in weight and so on.

The key problem is that each measurement relates to the other differently even when measuring the same thing. For example there are 12 inches in 1 foot; but 12 feet make 1 yard and 1760 yards (or 8 furlongs) make 1 mile. 2 pints (larger than the US ones) make a quart and 4 quarts makes a gallon; 16 onces make 1 pound, 14 onces makes 1 stone and 8 stones make 1 hundredweight and 20 hundredweight make 1 ton (which is slightly heavier than 1 tonne). Unsurprisingly this makes calculations very difficult and error creeps in. As a result, since the 1970s every child going to school has been taught the metric system and fortunately all things in shops now are shown in these measurements. However, street signs, pints of beer, etc. all use the medieval, imperial system, much to the confusion of visitors. Aside from Liberia, Burma (aka Myanamar) and the USA (though they now permit metric road signs and most products have metric as well as imperial labelling) every other country in the world uses metric.

Despite almost 40 years of teaching children about the metric system (and I believe all schools now do this, though I know in the 1980s some private schools still taught the imperial system) yet again in the media there has been calls to stop 'Europe' (by which people in the UK means the European Commission of the EU) from imposing metric measures on market stalls. The EU has given in and this is portrayed as a 'victory' for the British. It is only a victory for those who perversely want to keep us stuck with difficult, archaic methods of doing things. One reason why traders fear the change is that using imperial measures makes it harder for British people to compare costs with other countries. In the UK food (cars, rent, etc.) is very expensive but having to go through into metric conversion, calculate in the Euro, etc. makes easy comparison hard.

It is argued that the imperial system is a distinct part of being British. Well, it shows how stuck in our ways the British are, which is certainly a characteristic. More embarrassingly (and I will return to this obsession with history in the future) it suggests that they only thing the UK has to be proud about is all in the past; that there is nothing in 2007 Britain that we can point to and say 'we did that; we're proud of it'. So, ironically, all of those who bang on about keeping imperial measures are not really patriots. This attitude has long persisted. It took until 1971 for the UK to move to decimal coinage, before then there had be 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in 1 pound, so 1 pound consisted of 240 pence. The only countries not having decimal coinage are Mauretania and Madagascar, hardly economic giants of the world, and even they worked on multiples of 5 rather than 12 and 20. The British obsession with holding on to old things meant that even the sixpence (actually worth 2.5 pence under the new system) was not withdrawn until 1980.

Imperial measures are difficult, confusing and are not something to be proud of. The British obsession with them does not help the UK economy at all. It might make us distinct, but not for something positive, rather for something which is peculiar and eccentric. These things are fine as tourist attractions but tens of millions of people have to work with these things on a daily basis in order to live their lives. Anyone 40 years old or younger has been trained in metric, so stop old fashioned attitudes and a mistaken sense of what is worth being proud about, hold back the UK any longer.


Anonymous said...

Really you're entitled to your opinion. If you feel metric units are easier for you then by all means use them. Nobody's stopping you. But there are those of us who cordially disagree with you. I'm a mathmatician by training. And the metric system is, really, pretty crummy because the number ten is a really poor number to choose as a radix. Why was it chosen? Well, of course, we've got 10 fingers.....but, hang on, isn;t that exactly the metricationist aobjection about using feet, and other old fashioned things relating to body parts? But let's agree you prefer metric. Well, sorry, but I don't. And who are you to trample all over my preferences, simply because you think you know better? Please, a little tolerance here. I am happy for you to go metric as much as you want. However, the converse to that is, please be so good as to stop ramming metric down my throat? Fair?

Rooksmoor said...

Anonymous, it is ironic that you feel that those in favour of metric are ramming anything on anyone, given how little progress there has been in metrification in the UK in the past four decades.

No child in the state education sector has learnt imperial measure for close on 40 years. Around 600,000 children start school each year in the UK. Let us consider that since February 1971 when decimal coinage came in, around 18 million pupils have been through the state school system (I know some private schools have stuck with imperial). Other people have to use metric for their businesses and so we are moving to a situation where at least a third of the population, probably far more if you include the population educated abroad, about 10 million people (taking immigrants to make up 17% of the UK population) has known nothing else. That level increases by 500-600,000 people each year.

Despite this, I am 41, I learnt metric measures in the early 1970s and now, thirty years on, I still have to cope with signs and measures all over the place in imperial measure. I have seen one metric road sign in the UK in all my travels.

You may argue I am still in a minority but I am in a far larger minority than those people who speak Welsh and yet there are thousands of road signs in Welsh. Your attitudes are a policy of discrimination against millions of people in the UK.

I accept your points about the issue of the use of 10, but imperial measurement does not even adhere to multiples of 3 or 12 but mixes in others like 20 and 16. You would have a stronger argument if everything worked on a duodecimal system. Your argument logically leads to suggesting reform of imperial measures themselves.

In addition, you must recognise that the base which is used for imperial multpiles is not the basis on which most people attack metric measure in the UK. It is often overly bound up in some desire to be odd and eccentric because the UK feels it no longer has anything else to be proud about. Due to the chauvinism at work in the UK at the present we are left with a painfully hybrid system that is difficult for people to use. We do not even have the same imperial system as the USA.

The other thing is that we live in an electronic age and a lot of our behaviour is now shaped by what machines can handle. They deal better with 10 and do not come back with the issues of binary and hexadecimal, you know I mean the front facing elements of computer systems. We might not like the impact electronic machinery have on us, but they are a fact of life. Perhaps anyone who favours imperial measure should move to some kind of reserve where there are oil lamps and horse drawn vehicles. That is the context in which it fits. Even there it was a challenge which is why so many countries even in the 19th century moved to metric measure.

You say that we can metrify as much as we like, but that is not the case. Every minor gain in terms of moving to more rational measures (and imperial measures are irrational) is strongly contested in the UK on nothing stronger than sentiment for the past. Arguing that we can use imperial measures alongside metric ones is little different from saying that I should be able to spend a groat or a noble as well as pounds and pence when I got to a shop. You cannot have preferences when you need a universal system. Britain has lingered on with this fudged system (as with so many things) for so long and it is damaging to us and our economy. Let us be proud of what we can do well, not that we are simply quirky people wedded to odd systems.

The imperial measurists have been too powerful for too long. Their system is archaic and needs to be eliminated for good. That is 40 years overdue. Until we shake off medieval behaviour in our measurement we are always going to find it difficult to shake off medieval attitudes in so much else of British life and that is going to keep on leaving us ill-equipped to deal with life in the 21st century.

You tell me to stop ramming things down your throat, in fact you are currently on the winning side and yet it is your kind who are the most aggressive as headlines this week have shown. Invest your time and effort in something you can really be proud in rather than simply whining and clinging to things that should have gone forty years ago, if not earlier. Such behaviour is fine if you are in a historical reconstruction club, but is damaging to so much in the UK if applied to day-to-day economics.