Brexit, it turns out, wasn’t just about screwing the economy - last June’s vote has also ignited a fully blown culture war.
One of the early salvos in this war has been the suggestion by some dinosaurs on the political right that we should bring back “traditional” imperial weight and measures, rather than use the ghastly, Napoleonic metric system. That’s right - there are actually people out there who want to turn the clock back to an imaginary 1950s - or the 2970s to use the more traditional, non-European, pre-Roman Celtic calendar.
In February, Andrea Leadsom, Minister for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as erstwhile Tory leadership candidate said: “Once we have left the EU, we will get the opportunity to look at how we can change rules that will be better for the United Kingdom and whether that’s on weights and measures or issues like teaspoons, those are things for the future.”
Just last Sunday, commentator Simon Heffer wrote a column titled “Now that we are to be a sovereign nation again, we must bring back imperial units”.
It should almost go without saying that this is an obviously crazy idea.
And Gizmodo UK can exclusively reveal that it isn’t just us - and everyone else under the age of 50 - who thinks so. Thanks to a Freedom of Information Request with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we’ve seen the experts, umm, weighing in, on this most ludicrous of proposals.
The Weight of Public Opinion
One group that refuses to speak in half-measures is the UK Weighing Federation. This is the trade association for manufacturers of weighing equipment (which would all need to be replaced if we switched back). They claim to represent 75% of the weighing industry (which is a thing) in the UK.
You might expect them to support such a change. Wouldn’t it be a lucrative payday for manufacturers of weighing machines? But no, even they think that bringing back imperial would be “hugely detrimental to UK consumers and industry”.
In the letter, the reasons they give are pretty damning of this whole stupid proposal:
- "All our trading partners, with the exception of the USA, use metric units
Metrication occurred on 1st January 2000 and all trade approved weighing instruments manufactured since then operate solely in metric mode
- No manufacturer now makes imperial weighing instruments, and it would be impossible to convert current machines to imperial measures in a cost effective manner. As an example, there are at least 100,000 scales in the supermarket sector alone, and these would have to be replaced at a cost of around £50m
- A return to imperial measures for business transactions would have a detrimental effect on consumers. The main audience for imperial units is in the over 50 age group and the majority of people below this age have been educated in the metric system
- The costs to implement such changes or run a dual system will inevitably be passed on to the consumer, causing a rise in the cost of all goods sold by weight
- An uncontrolled choice of either metric or imperial weights and measures would create a chaotic situation. In practice some customers continue to order in imperial (eg 2Ib of mince) but receive their goods in metric
- The only country that now uses imperial units is the USA, however their 'customary' system is not the same as that which was used in the UK"
A letter was also sent to Andrea Leadsom in February from someone works in the industry. Annoyingly their name was redacted - but the force of the words (measured in metric Newtons, not Imperial “Pound-Force”, whatever that is), were not.
This was from someone who is a qualified Inspector of Weights and Measures. In other words, someone who works for Trading Standards and who is actually tasked with checking that goods are being sold correct and ensuring consumers are protected.
Image Credit: here.
The letter essentially debunks Leadsom’s comments - pointing out that for a start, the EU isn’t the reason we went metric, and we could switch back any time. It makes the point that only two countries internationally use Imperial measures: the USA and, er, Burma - and the States doesn’t even use the same Imperial system as us (they have 18 fluid ounces to the pint, we have 20). On this front “a return to imperial units would isolate the UK internationally and it would create a trade barrier for both exports and imports” it argues.
Perhaps the most damning section though - on the assumption that Brexiteers have already demonstrated that they don’t care about isolating the UK internationally or creating trade barriers - is a section in which the writer points out what a massive pain in the arse converting back would be.
"There are major practical issues with a return of imperial units after a gap of twenty years:
1. Most local authorities have retired or got rid of their old imperial standards and testing equipment. I have calculated that to properly resource a local authority Trading Standards Service with new imperial weights and measures would cost over a million pounds per authority. Authorities would face a doubling in their annual cost of equipment maintenance. Any Weights and Measures Inspector who qualified post-2000 would need to be retrained and recertified by the National Measurement Office as fit to test imperial equipment.
2. Nearly all the Certificates of Approval issued by the National Measurement Office in relation to imperial trade equipment have now lapsed. This means manufacturers would have to pay for the re-certification of this equipment. The approval process can cost thousands of pounds per item under examination. This would place huge additional costs on UK trade equipment manufacturers.
3. Self-verifying manufacturers no longer have imperial test equipment. The cost to the industry of retraining self verifiers and maintenance engineers would be huge. For example, a weighbridge test unit costs over £100,000. Due to UK road weight limits, a single weighbridge test unit cannot carry both metric and imperial weights. To test for metric and imperial weigh bridges would mean both local authorities and equipment manufacturers purchasing new HGVs and employing additional drivers.
4. UK schools have not taught the imperial system of measurement since the mid-1970s. You have to be over 50 to remember being taught imperial units. Increasingly, imperial units are becoming obsolete for the vast majority of UK consumers."
“A return to imperial is impractical both in terms of financial cost and in practice”, it argues - and again, this is someone who would actually be tasked with implementing the return of imperial units, if the government were mad enough to legislate on it.
The letter writer also says they are a qualified food standards inspector (trading standards people must be people of multiple talents). So letter ends by commenting directly on Leadsom’s suggestion that teaspoons could be used as a unit of measurement.
“A move to declare sugar by the teaspoon is, quite frankly, bonkers”, it says.
"The teaspoon is not a standard measure. Over recent years we have had huge problems with different food manufacturers and supermarkets using different RDAs in relation to nutritional information. The use of the traffic lights system has never been properly agreed and consumers have not had consistent or accurate information as to the nutritional content of their food.
That changed in November 2016, when the Food Information Regulations 2015 standardised the nutritional information on pre-packed food labels. The regulations also made nutritional labelling compulsory when previously it was only required on food which made specific nutritional claims or which was fortified.
Before issuing press releases about food labelling, I suggest you speak to your departmental officials or to the Food Standards Agency, After all, your statement about sugar labelling directly contradicts legislation enacted by your government only four months ago."
The government did actually respond to this letter - and gave the sort of bland non-response that sort-of recognises that the letter writers have a point.
“The Government is committed to providing a fair and accurate measurement system both now and in the future. This is vital to a competitive economy as it gives consumers and businesses the confidence to buy and sell goods, allowing businesses to grow”, the government says in the letter, also adding that “The metric system is the international system of measurement and its use in the UK allows British businesses to compete effectively in international markets.”
“As you will know from your experience as an Inspector of Weights and Measures, being able to compare prices and quantities is a fundamental principle of fair trade. Having a single system of units of measurement allows UK consumers to easily compare between different brands and sizes.”
So it appears that despite the worrying signs, the government isn’t about to give up on science and modernity at the behest of the Brexiteers. Michael Gove might have said before the referendum that people have “had enough of experts”. But hopefully this is one instance where the government might recognise that the experts should be listened to.
We’ve reached out to BEIS to find out whether they’re mad enough to take any of this nonsense seriously - and will let update this piece if they get back to us.
Update (12:07): BEIS has got in touch with the following statement:
“Businesses can already use imperial units alongside metric, or on their own for draught beer and cider, bottled milk and road traffic signs. This is national legislation and there has been no change to the law since the referendum result.”
So why not head down to the market now and buy half a pound of fresh "Give Way" signs?
James O'Malley is Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and tweets as @Psythor.
The scales image at the top is from Chris Potter on Flickr.