Will British people ever think in metric?

Tape measure, scales, pint of beer, scales, bananas, Napoleon

It is 200 years since Napoleon backtracked on his grand scheme to make his empire metric, but today the British remain unique in Europe by holding onto imperial weights and measures. With the UK's relationship with its neighbours under scrutiny, can it ever adopt the metric mindset?

It's an existential question that reveals much about how you make sense of the world. Is your ballpoint pen 6in long or 15cm?

Do you buy petrol by the gallon or the litre? Cheese by the ounce or the gram? And just how far is Dover from Calais - 21 miles or 34km?

Call it a proud expression of national identity or a stubborn refusal to engage with the neighbours. Either way, the persistent British preference for imperial over metric is particularly noteworthy at a time when its links with Europe are under greater scrutiny than ever.

Supporters of traditional weights and measures may have rejoiced in 2007 when the European Commission announced it was dropping its attempts to bring the UK into line with the rest of the EU.

But a looming anniversary is a reminder to decimal sceptics and enthusiasts alike that successful resistance to metrication is not always permanent.

In February 1812, some 17 years after France first went metric, Napoleon I introduced a system for small businesses called mesures usuelles - French for customary measurements. These were based on the old, pre-revolutionary system, in response to the unpopularity of the new decimal codes.

Only after Napoleon's departure did France go fully metric in 1840, using the law to enforce metrication.

Measuring up in the kitchen

Rick Stein

Chef Rick Stein on cooking in a country with two systems of weights and measurements

"I think children are able to learn both metric and imperial measurements.

"It's just like learning a new language - our brains are quite capable of using both systems.

"I'm not fussed that imperial has gone.

"Metric is a lot easier to deal with when it comes to cooking and writing recipes because it divides everything by 10 so it's a much more convenient system.

"When people prefer to use imperial over metric, I believe they are saying the old times were better."

As told to Sophie Robehmed

Rick Stein's Spanish Christmas is on BBC Two on 21 December at 2100

But if the French eventually learned to think in units of 10, the UK, so far, has not. All the evidence suggests that, despite more than decade-and-a-half of goods being labelled in both metric and imperial, the British remain defiantly out of step with their counterparts across the channel.

In May 2011, a survey by supermarket chain Asda suggested 70% of customers found metric labelling confusing and wanted products labelled in imperial instead. In response, the company reverted to selling strawberries by the pound for the first time in over a decade.

According to social historian Joe Moran, author of Queuing For Beginners, the notion that imperial measures embody tradition and reassurance accounts for much of their appeal to the British.

"It may also have something to do with the poetic, concrete names used in the old imperial system, particularly for coins - tanner, half a crown, guinea, etc, that just seem more familiar, friendly and native than metrics."

Nonetheless, the legal requirement to display measurements for most products in both systems means many Britons have become adept at making the mental switch from ounces to grams and back again.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in relation to alcohol. Imperial measurements for spirits were phased out in 1988. Yet it remains illegal to sell beer and cider in any other units than pints.

It is a discrepancy that is reportedly mirrored in the illegal drugs market, with cannabis typically sold in ounces while cocaine is packaged in grams.

However, support for traditional measurements has gone beyond shoppers merely expressing a consumer preference.

In 2001, grocer Steve Thoburn became a cause celebre - if French terms are not inappropriate in this context - after being convicted for using scales showing only imperial weights. The Metric Martyr group's appeals against conviction were rejected all the way up to the House of Lords and, in February 2004, by the European Court of Human Rights.

Given the widespread association in the UK between the metric system and the European Union, it's tempting to view the battle simply as an expression of hostility towards political integration.

For one of the Metric Martyrs, Neil Herron, however, it was primarily concerned with how we understand the world around us.

"It's about the language and vernacular with which we relate to each other," he says. "Even with kids who have been educated in metric for the past 30 years, watching a football match talk about a penalty kick being 12 yards or the striker being six foot tall.

Mixed measures

  • Since 1995, goods sold in Europe have to be weighed or measured in metric, but shops can also label products in imperial
  • Exceptions for pints of beer, milk and cider, and miles
  • So in pubs, beer is sold in imperial pints but spirits are served in 25ml units
  • Petrol stations typically use litres but car manufacturers usually advertise miles per gallon

"It goes to the core of who we are. If we are going to change we will do it organically, with the consent of the people. We won't have it imposed."

Despite its popular identification with European bureaucracy, British attempts to scrap imperial measurements stretch back long before the UK came under the jurisdiction of Brussels.

In 1863 the House of Commons voted to mandate the metric system throughout the Empire, and in 1897 a parliamentary select committee recommended compulsory metrication within two years. In 1965 the Confederation of British Industry threw its weight behind the cause and the government set up the UK metrication board in 1969, four years before the UK joined the European Common Market.

Joining the community meant signing up to directives on standardised measurements, although the deadline for implementation was repeatedly pushed back. Since 1995, goods sold in Europe have had to be weighed or measured in metric, but the UK was temporarily allowed to continue using the imperial system.

This opt-out was due to expire in 2009, with only pints of beer, milk and cider and miles and supposed to survive beyond the cut-off. But ahead of the deadline, the European Commission admitted that persuading the British to accept grams over ounces was a lost cause, and shops could continue to label products in both systems.

To supporters of metric measures, it is a source of frustration that what they regard as a more logical mechanism has never achieved predominance.

Start Quote

In Britain the metric system has been associated with mainland Europe and also, since Napoleon, with European imperialism”

End Quote Joe Moran Social historian

Robin Paice of the UK Metric Association insists there is nothing intrinsically British about miles and pints and, for that matter, nothing inescapably foreign about kilometres and litres.

"I don't believe things are hard-wired into the national mentality," he says.

"The government has done very little to explain why it would be to the benefit of the UK to use the world's system. If people are asked to change the habits of a lifetime without explanation they are naturally quite reluctant. It's very much a failure of leadership."

The UK may have the failure of Napoleon's armies to cross the channel to thank or blame for the resistance of imperial. But it is not the only country to fail to enthusiastically embrace metrication.

Japan's traditional shakkanho system was supposed to have been replaced by metric in 1924, but remained popular. It was forbidden in 1966 but is still used in agriculture.

And of course the US continues to weigh and measure in customary units, a system derived from imperial. According to Moran, the similarities between the two codes has served to reinforce UK Atlanticism.

"Our residual attachment to imperial weights and measures is really to do with a resilient fact about our geo-political position: we are an island with one eye on America and an ambivalent attitude to the continent," he says.

"In Britain the metric system has been associated with mainland Europe and also, since Napoleon, with European imperialism. The Americans used a set of weights and measures that was a variant on the imperial - and Americans coming over here in the war probably strengthened the sense that we had this in common."

Switching between imperial and metric, the UK's approach to the issue may mirror the debate about its place in the world. But whichever way you measure it, the Channel isn't getting any larger or smaller.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    There are only two occasions I use imperial, for miles travelled, and for heights. You'd have to be really obtuse to use km in the UK as the signs are in miles, whilst metric doesn't really work for height as almost everybody's height starts with 1 metre and... so it's easier just to say 6-1 or whatever.

    It does annoy me that my satnav won't let me use miles and metres though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    What I find annoying is manufacturers producing say Milk will now package it in 2 litre bottles yet charge the same as for 4 pints. 2 litres=2000ml yet 4 pints is 2272ml meaning you are losing half a pint everytime

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    It's still relatively early to switch to metric completely. There's still a large proportion of people in the UK that were taught imperial at school or learnt it through exposure within their family. Until this swings the other way, will metric be able to take precedence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I'm 49 years of age. I am British born and bred. I was taught in metric at school and have no problem with using and understanding it, in fact I much prefer it. The opposition to it is similar to the tripe we had prior to decimalisation of our old frankly ridiculous currency. We should've changed 30 tears ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.


    "when I say, "9lbs, 5oz", everyone duly winces"

    So did I!

    Grats on the new arrival! :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Likewise as an almost 40 year old I happily work in both systems and switch as needed.

    But it's also not just a UK thing. If you look on the till receipt from many French supermarkets for example, you'll still see the value printed in French Francs as well as in Euro. Although in the current climate that could I suppose be forward planning as much as harking backwards...

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I only use the metric system and have done for years. If I'm honest, I've not a clue about imperial units bar mile and pint but I couldn't tell you how many yards, furlongs, chains AN Other make up a mile of what units of measurements make up a pint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Our coinage went decimal in 1971 ,the expectation was that the UK would convert to the metric system for weights and measures.
    School children are taught the metric system, shops still show the two systems for weights, it was all suppose to change over a period of 10 years. 40 years later we are still using pounds and ozs.
    Our political class have no moral courage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    As a scientist I use metric in the lab (and for precise DIY measurements at home) because its far easier to work with, especially at nano- & pico- levels of measurement, however for general day to day & conversational use I prefer Imperial... I have a 10 mile drive, I'm about 6 foot tall etc. Using both systems is hardly difficult

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    As Stephen Fry pointed out, one of the oddest examples of the British using both metric and imperial is with temperature.

    When it's hot, we say it's in the mid eighties (Fahrenheit)... yet when it's baltic, we say it's minus 3 (Celsius).

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I believe that much of the confusion arises from the dual system that has been developed. If milk is sold in 1/2 litres then it is natural to think of it in that way (as it is in NI), however when it is arbitrarily converted from pints suddenly the simpler metric system seems so very confusing!

    A case in point is the fact that you state that spirits are sold in 25cl measures (very generous!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I reckon that 0.5 of the popluation already think in metric, the other half doesn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    AKAfred (#25), if you are indeed 178cm, that's not tall ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I was tought in metric to 60's & 70's, but always use imperial today. Don't know why, because metric is much simpler.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    It comes across as being Euro-sceptism for the sake of it. Does anyone seriously think we should revert to shillings and imperial money? It made a lot of sense to change our money so why doesn't it make sense to do the same to weights and measures?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I think those taught metric at school (45 and under) were already metric-minded. My kids and grandkids all think metric.

    There are definite calculation advantages but I still think it is easier to visualise some measures in "old money". A lot of things are a foot long. 30 cms? A gallon rather than four and a bit litres.

    And how many people know the number of decimeters in a decameter?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    The champions of Imperial merely have the loudest voices (measured in Decibels rather than Thunder-Power).

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I'm another one who thinks entirely in metric. I deal with people in the USA a lot, which is still almost exclusively imperial, and I have to keep a conversion table on hand to have any idea what they're talking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    9 Minutes ago
    Inching towards the metric system."

    Genius! But I want to rate this up AND down!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    People of my generation (I'm 25) primarily work in metric but we also adopt a mixture of measures for our older relatives. I have no real idea about ounces, pounds, etc. but I do give my weight in stone as well as measure distance in miles, inches and feet and also metres!


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