Imperial measurements for independent Britain | Alexander Masir

When people talk of new opportunities that will follow Brexit, they usually have laws, new bilateral deals, or border control in mind, but there is something else that is hopefully on the way – imperial units. There is ample reason for the reintroduction of pounds and ounces, and even more for the retention of inches, feet and miles. The decades-long erosion of British units of measurement and their subsequent substitution with metric ones had its time and left many disadvantages; not only does it take away from national character, yields confusion and upset, but logic and mathematics, two reasons constantly mentioned by metric advocates, also seem to stand on the old units’ side.

Walking 1.609344 kilometres to the barber to have 2.54 centimetres of his hair cut off, dropping by a grocer’s on the way to buy 454 grams of orange marmalade or 340 grams of mustard, and to finish the day with 568.26 millilitres of beer is a conceivable enough Saturday in the average Briton’s life, who is 178 centimetres tall and 83.6 kilograms heavy. A matter so trivial barely deserves notice or discussion, were it not for the fact that I just have potentially confused most of the people reading about it because of the measurements I gave. The first thing we have to realise is that there is no need to “go back” to anything – one of the most dangerous arguments against the imperial units is the ridiculous claim that they have now been superseded and it would take someone wildly regressive to dig them up from a time strange, less comfortable, and, nowadays, barely recognisable, for ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. The truth is that imperial units live with us, despite of laws forbidding their use and schools not teaching them anymore; their efforts only resulted in experiences ranging from mild inconvenience to tragedies. The UK Metric Association themselves admit that our considerable national numeracy problem might stem from the dual system, since though the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths use the metric system, geography and sports classes, and more importantly, real life is still in imperial. Their answer, of course, is to force teachers to use metric everywhere in schools, but they forget that their older siblings, parents, and grandparents would continue to use imperial. Allowing children not go get immersed in either system will only increase confusion. The threat of losing touch with national identity is there too, and while now most people find themselves able to deal with the Dickensian ha’penny or Chaucer’s quarts of ale, were we to eradicate imperial units from everyday life all previous literature would become strange, foreign, and unfamiliar to the people whose identity it is supposed to define. The most vivid illustration of this is probably the pub scene in Orwell’s 1984:

'You telling me you ain't got a pint mug in the 'ole bleeding boozer?”
'And what in hell's name is a pint?” said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the counter.
''Ark at 'im! Calls 'isself a barman and don't know what a pint is! Why, a pint's the 'alf of a quart, and there's four quarts to the gallon. 'Ave to teach you the A, B, C next.”
'Never heard of 'em,' said the barman shortly. 'Litre and half litres - that's all we serve. There's the glasses on the shelf in front of you.”

In an essay, he explains that “[t]here is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your bearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.” Orwell was right, and even today, Norman farmers sell their butter by the pound and eggs by the dozen.

And while generations are thus inconvenienced, a group of people experienced worse in their personal lives – Britain’s metric martyrs. This group of people had to endure trials, pay large fines and acquired criminal records for selling meat, fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces. Although the shame and the fines are bad enough, one amongst them has relatives in the United States, and she will never be able to visit them there. They are still waiting for a royal pardon. It is noteworthy that the previous system did not outlaw metric measurements; if a trader wanted to sell carpets by the square metre or cider by the litre, he could do so without harm, since the 1896 Weights and Measures Act. The unity and popularity of the old system didn’t rely on the judiciary, but on custom, handed down from generation to generation, and the people’s interest in being able to adhere to measurements of their choice was stronger than government visionaries’ will. It was, like common law, discovered, rather than declared and then enforced relentlessly.

Many put forward the argument that ‘science’ would be served better by metrification, but scientists themselves can’t seem to argue what units to use – each field and division have their own system to fit their lives best. This is very reasonable, and if geology, astronomy and physics need different units and systems, it would be most logical for a system to be there for everyday life – we must not forget that the overwhelming majority of the British public does not encounter situations where the shortcomings of imperial become apparent, like when calculating the energy used to heat up a gallon of room-temperature water. Informatics uses various numeral systems, including the binary (base 2), the octal (base 8), and hexadecimal (base 16) system, where numbers run from 0 to 9 and then from A to F. While imperial units may seem strange to someone unacquainted with them, ‘science’ offers equally unusual and strange solutions. If computer scientists are right to use ‘2F’ instead of ‘00101111’, so should we be able to say 6 foot 2 inches instead of 188.976 centimetres. Theoretical physics uses Planck units, a system that is not even a human construct, derived from the properties of free space. The decimal system, and SI units are one contender for the system of everyday life, of course, but their usefulness is very limited. The problems with base 10 are manifold. Its lack of submultiples is the most glaring, its meagre 2 and 5, prime numbers that are not easy to deal with. Base 12, a much friendlier system has twice that many, namely 6, 4, 3 and 2. Unlike in base 10, one can divide things by three and expect reasonable numbers. Germanic languages have special words for ‘eleven’ and ‘twelve’ for a reason. The calendar and the hours of the day still aren’t metric, and the French experiment with ten day weeks, ten hour days, 100 minute hours and 100 second minutes lasted about 12 years for a reason; it decreased the time of rest for workers and, by design, went against religious freedom. A serious metrification advocate, however, will have to answer what principal difference there is between the irregularities of “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November…” and “12 inches make a foot, three feet make a yard, 22 yards make a chain…”. If they are convinced that there is an intrinsic problem with the imperial system, the calendar, the clock, and the 360 degrees of the circle ought to be reformed too.

David Davis meets the Metric Martyrs

Standardisation is a very serious matter in a global age, and the return to the full imperial system would still provide just that. If people are bewildered by ‘feet’ or ‘gallons’, they should take a look at a truly confusing matter, the old English units, varying from shire to shire. A ‘gill’ is half a pint in the North, a quart in Devonshire and a pint in Cornwall. A Northumbrian peck is one third of a Winchester bushel, but a Craven peck is half a Winchester bushel. In Norfolk, a hundred crabs is actually 240. No-one can be reasonably expected to deal with all this in an age where we almost never end up living in the place we were born, or schooled in. Burns’s ‘lang Scots miles’ are perhaps right to be short English ones in 2016. The troy system, although handy for small amounts because of its crowns, half-crowns, shillings, florins, ha’pence and farthings, is no longer useful, for there are very few things in life a pound could buy us nowadays, let alone its smaller subdivisions. People also like being able to directly relate percentages with pence, and we have reasons to doubt the current education system would be capable of imparting the necessary skills to deal with 240 pence a pound. Conservatives should not strive to bring back the unsustainable, the unfamiliar, or the unconventional, and in this case, our only duty is to remind metrification advocates of Chesterton’s adage “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Retaining, or slightly expanding the imperial system could close the generation gap, create a more intuitive and relatable system for estimates, and would preserve the connection with the millennia behind us. Let’s do our bit to save it.


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