Britain still imperial

Published on 11 September 2007 in , ,

BBC News had an article on the website today about how Britain is going to be allowed to keep its imperial road signs, and how the pint is safe.

No doubt some “Metric Martyrs” will be having 568ml to celebrate, although in reality they’ve won nothing and Britain has lost everything. When it comes to measurements, this country is frankly in a ridiculous mess.

Plans for a metric UK were first drawn up in 1965. Forty years later and we’re still not finished.

Metric began to be taught in schools thirty three years ago. When I was at school in the mid-1980s, mere lip service was paid to imperial. Yet as soon as I got out on the roads with my driving licence, kilometres were useless because everything is in miles.

True over the decades we’ve got closer and closer to metric conversion. The last big bastions are the pub, the milk float (and how many people use milk men these days?) and road signs.

One of the arguments I’ve heard in favour of keeping the pint in the pub is that it’s “just the right amount” which is frankly the most absurd thing you can ever be told given that it’s only 68ml more than half a litre which is so ridiculous amount to quibble over. And hey, you don’t even have to get rid of the pint – you just redefine it legally, either as half a litre, or as a legally defined 568ml if we really need to. France has the metric pound. Things can be done.

As for road signs, well there’s no denial that it’s going to be an expensive changeover when (and it will happen one day) it happens – even if you do nothing other than shove stickers over the old half-mile exit approach signs to say 800m instead. And of course there one of the key arguments is that “everyone can visualise a mile”. Well of course we can. We’ve had the thing drummed into us for decades. It’s hard to visualise a kilometre because no one uses them – we’re not allowed to use them on a day to day basis.

Conversion isn’t easy, but the current system is just a mess. How long is it going to go on? How many generations of children have to go through the metric process at school before we as a national finally decide that we’re intelligent enough to cope? How many years – no, how many decades – is enough?

And will we still be having this ridiculous conversation in 2065? Is a hundred years after it was first mooted, enough time to wait?