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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September 2004, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Will we ever go completely metric?
By Chris Summers
BBC News Online

While children starting school this week will learn the metric system, many Britons remain attached to imperial weights and measures. Will the UK ever give them up?

A generation of children is being taught to give their weight in kilograms, to measure their height in centimetres and to think of their drinks in litres.

Man ordering in McDonald's
"Can I have a 113grammer, fries and half a litre of Coke?"

But even the youngest school starters attending class for the first time this week are likely to find a country which still uses imperial measures when they finally end their education.

Britons raised to use the old standard will continue to give distances in miles, to talk about 18 yard boxes when chatting about football and furlongs when discussing horse racing.

Britain first laid plans to go metric in 1965, but will it ever go the full nine yards (8.23 metres)?

Beer and cider

Many of the UK's traders are already required by law to use metric units, but imperial measurements can also be displayed.

Come 2009, this will no longer be the case, with pounds and ounces set to vanish from supermarkets and stalls.

Plainly we can't stay where we are, with two confused, competing systems
Lord Howe

The only exemptions will be pints of beer, cider and milk; miles, so long as they relate to transport matters, and acres - when used for the measurement and sale of land.

In 2001 Steve Thoburn hit the headlines when he was convicted of selling bananas only by the pound, under an amendment to the 1985 Weights and Measures Act, which stipulated that customers must be told the metric weight of all loose food.

Supporters of Mr Thoburn, who died earlier this year, nicknamed him the "metric martyr" as he unsuccessfully fought the decision.

"If an old lady goes to the greengrocers in 2010 and asks for a pound of potatoes the shop assistant will have to tell her: 'Sorry madam, we only sell by the kilo'," says Neil Heron, of the Metric Martyrs Campaign, which continues to fight for the cause.

'Metric fascism'

The fault lines in the metrication debate are often very similar to those of the euro campaign, and it is no surprise to find the UK Independence Party strongly opposed to enforced metrication.

Schools - children learn metric system
NHS - no central guidance to hospitals, but most use metric
Shops - by 2009 it will be illegal to show price of loose goods using imperial measurements
Pubs - illegal to sell draught beer or cider in anything other than pints. Imperial measures for spirits phased out in 1988
Roads - most traffic signs still use miles and feet

"The two systems have run happily together for many years and this sort of metric fascism is fundamentally wrong," says a UKIP spokesman.

One UKIP member went further when he began tearing down metric-only road signs.

Tony Bennett, who founded a group called Active Resistance to Metrication, was arrested six times, charged three times but only given one conviction, for which he received an absolute discharge.

He says: "Most of these signs are illegal. The rogue highway authorities who were putting them up seem to have stopped now but we will continue to use direct action if necessary."

Under the law as it stands speed and distance signs must be only in miles and yards.


Others want change to be brought about as soon as possible.

In July the former Tory Cabinet minister, Lord Howe, launched the UK Metric Association (UKMA), which called on the government to take action to ensure the "earliest practicable completion of the programme of changeover to the metric system".

Tony Bennett in Maidstone
Tony Bennett got in trouble for tearing down metric road signs

Ideally it wants all imperial measurements - including the pint, mile and acre - phased out by 2009.

Lord Howe said: "Plainly we can't stay where we are, with two confused, competing systems.

"Magna Carta endorsed the need for only one set of standards. And it would be madness to go backwards. The only solution is to complete the changeover to metric - and as swiftly and cleanly as possible."

UKMA chairman Robin Paice says a voluntary switch-over will not work and the government must "bite the bullet" and follow the example of Australia, which enforced compulsory metrication in the 1970s.

The organisation points to decimalisation in 1971, when the UK's currency was swiftly changed and "people grumbled for a few days and then they got used to it".

With such entrenched stances on both sides of the argument, it appears unlikely the debate will be settled any time soon.

A good indicator of future practice may be the UK's fast food restaurants, where McDonald's for one says it has "no plans to phase out the quarter pounder name".

Perhaps a 113grammer just does not have the same ring to it.

Are you confused about metrication? Give us your thoughts on the form below.

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:

Does the current mix actually confused anyone? Has anybody ordered a pint of beer and wondered why you only got given 568ml? Ever had a queue of traffic develop behind you because you were only driving at 30kph? The EU is trying to force this upon us because the fact that British people can work with either system (I am a 20 year old engineer) gives the UK an advantage when it comes to trading with the US, who still use imperial.
Martin Richards, Warrington, UK

The metric system is far superior to the imperial system and far more logical. It ties in with itself well, for example: 1 kilogram is the exact weight of 1 litre of water, which has the exact volume of 1 cubic decimeter. It was designed in the 19th century by scientists who realised that the old system just wasn't logical. It would be easy to change to metric and simply round figures. After all, would people really notice the difference of 68ml going from a pint to half a litre, or the 2kph going from 30mph to 50kph? I think not. Roll on 2009.
Chris Russell, Reading, England

Give them a millimetre and they take a kilometre - doesn't sound as good does it?
Sean, Chesterfield

Give them a millimetre and they take a kilometre. Hmmm, doesn't sound as good does it? I'm off for a pint
Sean, Chesterfield

I was working for Avery Scales in 1965 when metrication was brought in for weights. Why are we still dragging our feet? Are we all dinosaurs? It is easier to count in 10s than 16s.
Alan Edwards, Peterborough

I would be OK with metric if there was an intermediate measurement between the metre and the centimetre. Something about the size of an inch would be about right.
Dave, Cambridge

There's only one way...and that's all the way! If the system's going to be changed there's no use having distances in miles and pints of beer, then having to switch to metric in other places, the government needs to make a decision already!
Fred Stephens, Plymouth, UK

It's pathetic that the older generations have held on to the non-decimal imperial system for so long.
Bob, Paisley

I wrote a thesis on this very subject - people continue to use feet, stone, and other imperial measures because they are a handy, readily perceived unit. Here in New Zealand, which has been metric for 30 years, young adults use a peculiar mix of units, going from centimetres to feet to metres and from grammes to kilogrammes to stone. They even talk about "600 millilitre pint bottles". The same will almost certainly happen in the UK.
James Dignan, Dunedin, New Zealand

Any builder will tell you the imperial system makes sense, ever tried pacing out distances using the metric system? Besides, anything converted to metric invariably means it is under-sized, try getting a modern equivalent for an old one inch floor board, you'll find it is mysteriously thinner than the originals! Leave us alone you metric Nazis, there is room for both systems and both have their place. Buy the way, I was bought up on the metric system.
Fred, Guildford

I wasn't taught the imperial system at school and I started primary in 1974. I think it's pathetic that the older generations have held on to the non-decimal imperial system for so long. I want kilos, kilometres and litres. And as for Neil Heron's comments - what a load of tosh. Imagine suggesting that by converting to kilos, that will be the smallest weight of anything a customer will be able to buy.
Bob, Paisley

Why not just have a 500g "new pound" and a 500ml "new pint" and tell motorists they'll be able to drive a bit faster at 50kph instead of 30mph? Maybe that would stop the imperial fascists squeaking.
Andrew, York, UK

Of course Britain should go totally metric. Our masters have said it is good for us and like good little serfs we should follow without question.
David Szondy, USA (British)

Does it really matter what units we use to measure things just so long as we all get what we want? One of the beauties of being human is the ability to adapt. Where's the fun if you standardise the world?
Pete, Bristol

I grew up in New Zealand and was there in the 1970s when the country converted (very quickly) to the metric system. It wasn't a problem at all. I wish we'd do the same here.
David, Cambridge, UK

Why does buying beer by the pint or seeing distances quoted in miles bother some people so much?
James, Teesside

I really can't see why people are so desperately opposed to speed limits being displayed in mph that they want to spend huge amounts of our public money on replacing them! Why does buying beer by the pint or seeing distances quoted in miles bother some people so much? It seems that it is the metric fanatics who are the narrow-minded ones, not the people asking to buy their cheese by the pound.
James, Teesside

1,760 yards in a mile? What idiot came up with that system? Give me 1000 metres any day!
Martin, Leeds

When my Dad was stationed in Belgium we used to buy things in the market by the livre, aka the pound. It weighed in at 500g or 1.1 pounds. No problem. The only really confusing thing is why it's going to take over 40 years to complete metrication (unlike Canada or Australia).
Crispin, UK

Are we dumber than the Australians, New Zealanders and the Canadians? They have all managed to convert without a fuss. Lets finish the job and convert to metric.
Mark Byrne, Isle of Man

The chance of America changing to metric is non-existent. We would be the only translators!
Jamie, Watford

Just like learning different languages, having a concept of both can only be a good thing. The chance of America changing to metric is non-existent. We would be the only translators!
Jamie, Watford

I would like to see America change over to the metric system, but I do not foresee it happening anytime soon. Good for the UK, the US needs to catch up to you!
Kurt Wahlstrom, United States

Nothing wrong with metric, none of that Imperial BS here in Japan. Some numbers are bigger, some are smaller and that is about it. Occasionally one wishes the UK would get their finger out of their orifice and make up their mind. However, then they might lose their olde worlde charm and arrive in the twenty-first century. Surely the current generation are being brought up by reformed, metric parents by now?
Peter E, Tokyo, Japan

We should switch to metric and we should switch now. I measure my height in centimetres, my weight in kilograms and I drive 16 miles to work at a steady 70mph. I drink pints of beer and buy litres of petrol, I eat 4oz burgers and drink two litres of water a day. What kind of mess are we in?
Nigel, UK

Fine, go metric. As long as I can continue to buy 568ml of milk at a time, or multiples thereof, I'll be happy.
Mark Coley, UK

Fine, go metric. As long as I can continue to buy 568ml of milk at a time, or multiples thereof, I'll be happy.
Mark Coley, UK

Suggesting that the name quarter pounder would be made illegal by metrification is utterly ridiculous and symptomatic of the problems this country faces when serious proposals to make life simpler are suggested. Tabloid sensationalism, which sadly is believed by large parts of the population, will lead to us carrying on with this stupid, outdated system.
Dan Walker, Cambridge, UK

We are a nation of proud people not sheep and do not need to follow the rest of the world in everything
Stephen Moll, London, UK

I went through school with the metric system but even still I estimate distances in feet and inches. I measure my weight in stones. I really cannot see any benefit from changing to all metric as long as people get what they expect when they ask for something in either system. We are a nation of proud people not sheep and do not need to follow the rest of the world in everything.
Stephen Moll, London, UK.

Who are these feeble-minded people who are confused by the concurrent existence of just two systems of measurement? A farmerworker's son, I was taught a range of different systems, each of which was suited to its particular purpose - field drainage, hedging, bagging corn, horse racing, marking up cricket pitches, buying nails.... there was no question of finding this confusing. It meant I could communicate with older generations as well as my contemporaries, understand maps and books several hundred years old. None of the problems adopting a metric only system brings!
Thomas Lessup, Cambridge

I'm in favour of a complete switch to the metric system, just to see what road speed limit signs will say - a speed limit of 48.30 kph sounds much more fun than 30mph!
David Hazelden, Wales

I have only one thing to say to the people of Britain - don't be such a bunch of luddites!
David Francis, UK

The Metric system is far simpler than the imperial system of weights and measures and it's the international standard. So, I have only one thing to say to the people of Britain - don't be such a bunch of Luddites!
David Francis, UK

Why are people so against the metric system? It's so much more logical than the imperial system. That said, at least it's taught in schools in Britain, unlike America, where there appears to be no concept of the metric system whatsoever. If these countries are to be world leaders in technology, they will have to adopt the metric system sooner or later.
Paul, Isle of Man

Throwing away old measurements completely is like losing part of our culture as well
Dave J, UK
Sounds almost like a breach of freedom of speech to make it illegal to display imperial measurements in 2009. The United States still use imperial units for a good few things. Throwing away old measurements completely is like losing part of our culture as well. There's still room for pints and miles along with the new measures.
Dave J, UK

Britain is in a hopeless mess. Our street signs with mixtures of yards and metres on the same sign (bridge height restrictions) are a national disgrace. The yard is so close to the metre, so what's the big deal? And the kilo is just over two old pounds, so again not exactly rocket science to convert.
John Jones

At present, children do not know how to measure in two systems. I have the experience of seeing my own children of 14 yrs struggle to perform simple measurements and they are regarded as above average educationally. The Metrication Board, which was abolished in around 1971, was doing a good job but was not allowed to finish.
Brian Reed, Maidenhead, UK

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