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Rishi Sunak’s Government has, over the Christmas break, quietly and unceremoniously dropped proposed plans to legislate for the large-scale increased use of the imperial system in the UK. It tried to hide the humiliating announcement behind a fanfare of publicity for a proposal to allow the sale of still and sparkling wine in pints – supposedly Churchill’s favoured measure of champagne.
It’s an embarrassing row-back on a project which began in earnest in the summer of 2022. Twenty months ago, Boris Johnson’s Government shared a public consultation on one of the then Prime Minister’s signature “Brexit Dividends” – the greater use of imperial weights and measures in the UK.
The survey was assembled by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), then under the oversight of the minister charged with identifying “Brexit Benefits”, Jacob Rees-Mogg. As many commentators pointed out at the time, the consultation survey itself was poorly constructed and strongly biased in favour of Mogg’s stated preference – increased use of the imperial system. It contained questions like
“If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items:
- in imperial units?
- in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?”
giving no option, for example, to express a preference for metric alone.
Originally, options for responding to the form were also limited, with respondents being asked to download a form, fill it in and email or post it back. Only after a public outcry was an online form made available to allow a more universally accessible way for respondents to share their opinions.
Despite these obstacles commentators were keen to encourage people to make their feelings on this important issue heard. And over the course of the consultation more than 100,000 people felt sufficiently moved to do just that. The feedback received was overwhelmingly in favour of the metric system. Just 0.4% of respondents (400 people) favoured moving to a completely imperial system, while 98.7% were in favour of allowing the use of metric alongside imperial (the current status quo) or metric only.
In the face of such strong opposition, the Government had little choice but to backtrack on their plans. However, the fact that the consultation was proposed and executed in the first place smacks of a government woefully out of touch with their electorate and indeed with the practicalities of modern science and business.
Seemingly the whole affair was never anything more than a plan to stoke an under-fuelled culture war designed to reinforce the divisions introduced by Brexit. The consultation document talks hyperbolically of the “ban on the use of imperial units for sales and marking”, but it has never been illegal to sell products in imperial measurements. The EU Weights and Measures Directive, introduced in 2000, simply required that metric be displayed as well (except in a small number of exceptional cases) and be at least as prominent as the imperial measure.
Upon hearing of the plans being dropped, Jacob Rees-Mogg, champion of the original survey, said “It is hard to see why this harmless little measure is not being implemented, especially as our largest trading partner, the United States, still uses imperial units.”
Setting aside the fact that the EU is still by far the UK’s largest trading partner, Rees-Mogg is also incorrect about the United States using imperial units.
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Whilst it is true that the US remains one of only three countries worldwide not to make extensive use of a metric system, their US customary units are not the same as the UK’s imperial measurements. An imperial pint is 1.2 pints in the US. A US gallon is approximately 0.83 imperial gallons. Either Rees-Mogg knew this and hoped that the rest of the country would buy his weak justification, or he didn’t and was himself ignorant of the difference between the two anachronistic measurement systems.
Indeed, the story of the United States’ Mars Climate orbiter, presents a cautionary tale of the use of mixed measurement systems – US customary units for most everyday usages and metric for science and engineering.
Software controlling the Orbiter’s thrusters was designed to send out data in US customary units. NASA, one of the foremost scientific institutions of the world, was, unsurprisingly, expecting those measurements in standard international metric units. As a result of the mix up, when trying to reach its final altitude, the Orbiter fired its main thruster too vigorously and consequently was sucked too far into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated.
In an echo of the Mars orbiter, the Government’s out-of-touch plans for greater use of imperial units have spectacularly fallen apart. As Conservative MP Alicia Kearns tweeted at the time “This isn’t a Brexit freedom. It’s a nonsense”, but hopefully, in light of the consultation response, a nonsense that won’t have to be dealt with again any time soon.