Overview —

A response to the UK Government’s proposal to “bring back” Imperial measurements and allow goods to be sold without an equally prominent metric equivalent weight or measurement marking.


Craig Dalzell

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Before and since the 2016 Brexit vote, the UK has struggled to come to terms with its identity as a medium-sized, post-imperial state, alone in a world of increasingly strengthening multi-member trade blocs and with wrestling with the consequences of such a state leaving its nearest trading bloc, the European Union. One of the symptoms of this identity crisis has been to seek marks of distinction away from that previous EU membership and one of the political pushes to achieve that has been an appeal to the pre-EEC/EU history of the UK. The Government has claimed that EU regulations have prevented merchants in the UK from selling goods weighed in imperial measurements.

This is a misleading simplification in that the EU does indeed mandate metric measurements for goods but it does allow for imperial measurements so long as they are displayed alongside and not more prominently than metric equivalents. Thus no legislative change is required to allow for, say, flour to be sold in a 500g bag, a 500g (1.1 lbs) bag, a 453.59g (1lb) bag or even a 1lb (453.59g) bag. What is not allowed is for the flour to be sold in a bag to be sold only marked in imperial measurements without the metric equivalent or for the metric equivalent to be less prominent than the imperial one. The UK Government recently consulted on a post-Brexit legislative change to allow for this kind of imperial-only measurement for domestic trade (the consultation explicitly rules out applying the change to internationally traded goods on the basis that almost the entire rest of the world is fully metric).

Metric does indeed have some disadvantages when it comes to measurement. Its basic units of measurements were historically arbitrary (as all historic measurements were) but are now based on fundamental physical concepts (the metre being defined as the distance travelled by light in a vacuum in the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the hyperfine levels of the unperturbed ground state of the caesium-133 atom). Opaque definition aside, what the metric system gains in accuracy and precision it does lose somewhat in the “human-ness” of its scales. The imperial system is scaled for a human world of manipulating objects by hand. A pound mass of organic matter (such as food) is about the size of an average handful and can be held in one hand comfortably. The foot was once literally measured in relation to the synonymous human body part.

However, the world of the 21st century is now one of advanced, precision manufacturing, globe-spanning logistics chains and the provision of volumes of goods on a scale that would have astounded merchants once used to weighing their personal “merkat stane” against the local tron before a day’s trading.

Beyond an illusory appeal to patriotic revanchism, the UK Government must demonstrate that a policy fundamentally affecting the trading weights and measures of the nations of the UK will have tangible economic, social and environmental benefits. That benefit has not been demonstrated and cannot be found in any inherent or intrinsic superiority of the imperial measurement system over metric and thus this submission opposes outright the proposed legislation.

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