They’re metric fanatics living in the past
There is some cynicism about the timing of the government’s latest decision to restore the rights of imperial measurements over metric measurements. It is seen as an empty gesture for the Platinum Jubilee and an attempt to distract from Sue Gray’s report.
Skepticism about the timing may be justified, but what about the root of the matter? It is important that the government travels the additional 1.609344 kilometers on this one. It’s time for us anti-metricians to have our 0.45350237 kilos of flesh.
I was surprised to read the opinion of a Sunday newspaper this week that our native measurements were “missed by very few until the publication of the Gray Report”. Has the editor of this newspaper ever sat in a pub in the past 50 years and heard the sweet whisper of this long-standing grievance? As an honorary member of the British Weights and Measures Association, I am delighted to receive their regular newsletter, The criterion, a well-researched publication that led an almost samizdat existence during the long years of Brussels rule. Now we deserve to be in the last furrow (201.168 meters) before victory.
The introduction of the metric system in this country, which began in 1965, has never been popular. It had its fanatics, but they tended to be rationalist science teachers or strong supporters of what later became the EU. Metrication was essentially a political change, advanced in false colors. He had little popular root.
I remember the consternation among my primary school classmates in our village when the headmaster announced the change. We liked our familiar measurements. They seemed to correspond to the realities of life: you could see why a foot or a stone was so called, and understand why an acre (meaning “field”) came from what an ox-drawn plow could handle in a day. . We were amused by the fact that a quintal weighed not 100 pounds, but 112, and the more obscure measurements – rod, perch, ell. We enjoyed the mental arithmetic involved in the work with all their different, non-decimal gradations. I’m sure my grandchildren will enjoy such learning, if only they have the opportunity.
We children reacted instinctively to the fact that imperial measures arose among the people. The metric system, on the other hand, was imposed by bureaucracy – originally by Napoleonic France. Indeed, I wish our measures would not be called ‘imperial’: most of them predate the British Empire. They evolved gradually, some even from classical times. Nor did they necessarily fall with the Imperial retreat. The United States of America was formed in revolt against the British Empire, but still happily uses miles, pounds, etc. almost 250 years later.
There is, of course, some convenience justification for global uniformity, but the need to apply it in daily life is now much diminished by modernity. It is useful that goods traded internationally – for example, medical equipment or precision tools – have common standards, but for ordinary consumer needs little real confusion arises from the difference. It’s a few seconds work for your cellphone to do the conversion if you can’t be bothered to do it.
Our persistent refusal to get rid of miles or pints, to stop judging height in feet and inches, or to flag newborn babies by weight, shows just how meaningful our long-persecuted weights and measures really are. . My usual blood temperature is 98.4 degrees, although it does go up a bit if people try to get me to record it in degrees centigrade.
Merchants should not be forced to exclusively use metric measurements or be penalized for not using them at all. It is only right that the crown is visible again when the pint glass is filled.
The goal here is peaceful coexistence between systems. I would make a comparison with language. In modern times, English has become the language of the world, but few would argue that other languages should therefore be suppressed. It is, in a way, “inefficient” that we don’t all speak the same language, but so what? The human race has many different voices. Why wouldn’t it have many different measurements?
A tricky question
Every time a terrible shooting occurs in the United States, the same arguments come up. This is happening again after the shooting at a particularly terrible school in Texas last week.
Like most Britons, I often wonder with a little complacency why, on this subject, Americans can’t be more like us. But we’re not really trying to answer that question.
It’s worth thinking about what would really happen if gun ownership became as difficult in America as it is here. It seems reasonable to assume that approximately 90% of the 400 million firearms currently owned by individuals in the United States would not be licensed. What would happen to them then? Some – say 50% – could be handed over under a general amnesty, which would presumably involve paying owners compensation for the thousands of dollars that many of them lawfully spent on the guns.
And the rest? They would surely go into hiding. Millions are said to be hidden by citizens who, often with good reason, feel better protected with firearms. Millions more would be held openly by angry people in defiance of a law they oppose. Worst of all, even more millions of weapons would be transferred to professional criminals. Enforcing the law against millions of citizens, many of whom are perfectly honest people, would be an impossible task. There are good reasons why it won’t happen.