This Metric Madness

A.J.P.Taylor in the Sunday Express

NEXT February [1971] we shall be plunged willy-nilly into decimal coinage. We shall lose the shilling which divides conveniently into two, three, four, and six. Instead we shall have 5p which does not divide at all.

All sixpenny and ninepenny charges will go up to a shilling, as the fares of London's Underground have already done. The rise In the cost of living will be fantastic. We shall have no unit between the new penny and the pound, an intolerable arrangement.

And all for what ? All to please a few faddists who packed a committee and persuaded the late Government that decimal coinage was somehow more modern. No, we are told, there can be no going back.

But there is still time to fight against a far crazier change. We are threatened with metrication of everything. The Labour Government accepted this. The Tory Government has not repudiated it. Our only hope is a promised parliamentary debate In the autumn.

Now is the time to protest and to ensure that the debate throws out metrication before it starts. For consider what is involved:

All our linear measure will be changed. The centimetre will take the place of the Inch. The metre will take the place of the yard. The kilometre will take the place of the mile. The foot, a most useful measure, will simply disappear.

New maps

Every map showing miles will be out of date. Eight million motorists Will have to buy new maps.The Ordnance Survey will have to start afresh. Every road sign and every milestone will have to be changed. Speedometers which show only miles an hour will be useless.

Every furnishing shop and every tailor's estabishment will have to be re-equipped. The carpenter and the plumber will have to change his tools.

The cost will be beyond all reckoning, and all for the whim of & few unknown cranks. We are told that foreign tourists are used to kilometres. But the Americans are our most profitable visitors, and they use miles. Instead of feeling at home. they will be bewildered.

This is only the beginning. Our liquid measures are to be changed also. The pint, the quart, and the gallon will be replaced by a single unit, the litre.

Now the litre is a useless measure for any practical purpose. A nineteenth-century duke said of the goose : " A silly bird. Too much far one, and not enough for two." We can say exactly the same about the litre.

Take our two commonest liquids on sale, milk and beer. The pint bottle of milk meets all domestic needs. Everywhere on the Continent milk has to be sold in two alternative bottles - half-litre and litre. So it will be here.

Again the pint and half pint are perfect measures of beer. No one except the Germans wants to drink a litre of beer (which is nearly a quart) at a go, yet a half litre is too little. As to a quarter litre, it is too small for the most modest thirst.

In Continental countries they replace it by the third of a litre glass. which makes nonsense of the metric system. And the French bottle of wine does not relate to the metric system at all.

So here we are, abandoning a measure which has satisfied generations of beer drinkers for one which is largely disregarded even in metric countries.

Think once more of the cost. Every milk bottle in the country withdrawn, and two manufactured for each one in use now. Every glass, mug. and tankard of beer scrapped and replaced by three, all unsatisfactory, for the two used now.

Most beer drinkers and milk users will switch from the pint to the half litre. But the half litre is not a pint It is onIv four-fifths of a pint. But you can be certain that we shall pay the pint price. In other words the cost of beer and milk will go up by a quarter, and in order to pay for the new measures probably more.

Think of another liquid: petrol.

Every Pump in the country will have to be changed. Many of them will have to be scrapped. Once more this will not please the Americans. They use gallons just as we do, even if theirs are not quite the same as ours.

Turn finally to weights. Here too we have an admirable and most flexible system - ounces pounds, hundredweights, tons.The metric system offers us nothing except the gram and the kilogram. The gram is minute - a thousand to a kilogram. The kilogram, which is something over two Pounds. .. too large for ordinary use and ridiculously small to take the place of the hundredweight or the ton.

As a result the kilogram is disregarded even on the continent. Go into any grocer's shop In France. And what do you hear ? Housewives buying butter or cheese, by the pound or half pound, even though these are treated as 500 and 250 grammes.

No escape

The metric system has been in use in France for nearly 200 years. Yet the commonsense of ordinary people still rejects it, and they go on using weights whIch were supposedly abolished two centuries ago.

Yet there is to be no escape for us. The scales will have to be changed in every food shop. All existing weighing machines will have to go.

Now here is a gigantic change of habits and equipment imposed on the entire nation without either warning or discussion. No one wants it except the obscure members of a forgotten committee.

Scientists and engineers do not want it. They can use the metric system in their technical work without disturbing the lives of ordinary people - and their own. I have certainly never met the most abstruse scientist or the most aloof mathematician who refused a pint of beer.

The only argument in favour of the decimal system is that we have ten fingers. But we do not count on our fingers after we leave primary school. For any other purpose ten is a very bad number, dividing only into five and two. Twelve is a good number. Sixteen is a good number. We have them both and we should stick to them.


Of course if we want to be really scientific we should go over to two as the top number. Scientists do in their most advanced work. But it is an impossible system for ordinary purposes.

We are now being driven into a system of weights and measures which has no advantages except perhaps printers who will have to set lots of noughts. It has innumerable disadvantages and will cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

Democracy has a last chance to work in this matter. Our MPs are just as much In the dark as we are. Few of them are enthusiasts for metrication, but they will all vote as the Whips tell them, unless a more powerful voice is raised on the other side.

There is such a voice. It is the voice of the people. We want our pints and our miles. Write to Your MP and tell him to vote against metrication when it comes up for debate. If you fail to write, then don't complain when you get less beer and pay more for it.