Selling England by the decagram

“We gave away shillings and pence in 1971, then we had to switch from gallons to liters in 1995. Gradually we’ve been forced to give up Fahrenheit for Celsius.. Pounds and ounces we are going to keep.”
     — Tony Bennett, U.K. Independence Party

“This goes together with red buses and pillar boxes, warm beer and cricket. It’s what England is all about.”
     — Stephen Alambrites, Federation of Small Businesses spokesman

“If it’s good enough for Tony Blair to have his new baby weighed in pounds and ounces, then it’s good enough to sell fish in… We are losing our heritage. We’re being Europeanized through the back door. Pounds and ounces is just the tip of the iceberg, I tell you.”
     — Neil Herron, Sunderland fishmonger

Hello? Are we on drugs? I will admit to being a great fan of Europe in general, with its more relaxed attitude to anything from extended licencing hours to pornography. I have little time for the isolationists who would rather see us waving farewell, as an integrated Europe steams off into the third millennium. But even given this, comments like the ones above just leave me shaking me head in wonder: haven’t people got anything better to do with their time than campaign for the retention of a system of weights and measures that dates back to medieval times or beyond. Never mind the third millennium, some people seem to be having difficulty leaving the first one.

Imperial measures are an anachronism, borne out of an era when balance scales meant a base-16 system e.g. sixteen ounces in a pound meant for easy division, and measurements were based upon items like the length of the king’s arm or three “round and dry” barleycorns (for those unfamiliar with regal limbs or cereals, that’s the yard and inch). Nowadays there’s absolutely no reason for them to be this way: the decimal system is used for almost everything else figured in numbers save time, and there’s no doubt it makes calculation much easier.

However, the quotes above prove it is now also a symbol of Britishness, standing against the tide of centralised bureaucracy that is perceived as washing over us from Brussels and the rest of the Euronation. But, really, what difference does it make? We abandoned the rod, pole and perch without civilization collapsing into anarchy and chaos – though the small-minded probably blame that for the loss of the British Empire. I can see conceivable arguments for not joining the European Single Currency, but these depend on hardcore economics, rather than woolly bleating about losing our “Britishness”. As long as I get enough money to keep me in badfilm and curry, I don’t mind whether it’s paid to me in pounds, euros or sea-shells. And I care even less whether I get a pint of beer or 568 ml; it won’t taste the slightest bit different.

Until recently, the stance of this merry band of metric-martyrs seemed quaint and irrelevant. But recently, Tesco decided to tear down many of its recently introduced kilo signs and replace them with imperial measures as well, after a survey of 1,000 customers found that more than 50% found metric measurements “confusing”. And how will reverting to the old system help them cope? Wouldn’t helping them to learn to handle metric amounts have been more useful? But, hey, that wouldn’t have been worth so many jingoistic points in the tabloids. Sheesh, it’s bad enough when the government dances to the newspapers’ tune, but between this and the GM food panic, it seems the supermarkets want to boogie too.

I can’t help having a nasty suspicion that a large part of this hyper-resistance to metricity, which has been going on since an EU directive in the mid-80’s, is pure xenophobia. It’s a French system, created not long after the revolution there, and I suspect that if the British had come up with the idea, there wouldn’t be nearly as much resistance to it. Perhaps Napoleon was right when he said “England is a nation of shopkeepers”. He just forgot to add that they only use pounds and ounces.