British Expat Newsletter:
12 September 2007

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Metric martyrs
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

The news this week is that British traders have finally forced the Eurocrats to cave in and allowed them to continue trading using Imperial measurements. Great stuff, eh?

Well, actually that isn’t the news at all. There’s far more to it than that.

For starters, it wasn’t the EU – or even the EEC – that decided that Britain should move entirely to metric measurements in the first place. That decision was taken by the British government under Harold Wilson, back in 1965. And even that wasn’t the first move towards metrication; over a century earlier, back in 1864, Parliament had decided to allow the use of metric measurements for overseas trade.

Nor is the proposed EU Directive necessarily going to allow traders in loose goods (fruit & veg, meat, sweets and all that sort of thing) to revert to selling exclusively in Imperial measure, as they were allowed to do before 1999. That decision’s to be left to the British government, which has shown no signs of wanting to reverse the changes in the law. So all the decision means is that the continuing exemptions (“derogations” in Eurospeak) will remain in force for as long as the UK government chooses to allow them to remain. In other words, you’ll still be able to buy pints of milk, beer and cider; road signs will continue to show miles, yards and inches; and gold can still be sold in Troy ounces.

The European Commission undertook a major consultation exercise before making its recommendations. (Big surprise for those who believe the Europhobes’ accusations that Brussels pays no attention to public opinion.) A wide range of local and national governments, businesses, teachers, NGOs and private citizens decided to comment. Unsurprisingly, most of the respondents were British. Also unsurprisingly, most teachers supported a move to metric-only, arguing that since only metric measurements have been taught in schools for the last 30 years, a large part of the British public didn’t understand the Imperial ones. Perhaps a little more surprisingly, the majority of the public who commented favoured metric too – on the basis that the uniformity made it easier to compare prices.

However, the view of governments and businesses was almost unanimous; they supported the maintenance of dual-labelling. Their main reason wasn’t to protect the older consumers who weren’t familiar with metric measure, though – it was to enable industries to continue selling in the US market. Although the US federal government’s apparently been trying to move to metric-only labelling for the last 150 years, it’s still banned in four of the 50 states and, ironically, for products covered by federal law.

So the UK and Ireland will be allowed to keep their local exceptions for as long as they want – not least because the Commission report found that the differences haven’t adversely affected companies from other EU states wishing to trade there. As it is, though, the Irish have already moved to metric measurements for road travel; and both countries have stopped using the acre as a measurement of land area.

The only people not happy with the compromise, it seems, are the two UK NGOs with a big interest in the issue. The UK Metric Association’s chairman regretted the “proposal to prolong the current muddle of metric and imperial units”, but said it would “only delay but not stop the inevitable move toward all-metric shopping”. The British Weights and Measures Association were less optimistic, complaining that “If a trader tries to conduct his business in just imperial measurements that will be illegal.”

I don’t have any great problem with the Commission’s decision to wash its hands of the UK’s weird measurements. I’m comfortable enough working in miles or kilometres; the main thing is that I should know what it translates into in travelling time. And converting between pints and litres is no great problem – especially once you’ve lost track of exactly how much you’ve drunk and it doesn’t really matter anyway.

But I can’t help viewing the BWMA (and the three UK retailers who favoured retaining Imperial measure or leaving the choice up to the individual retailer) with a certain amount of cynicism. The pro-Imperial camp do have some valid arguments to offer; for instance, many of the Imperial base units are naturally easy to estimate, and in principle it’s no more difficult to calibrate precision instruments to imperial measurements than it is to metric ones. But they undermine them by appeals to emotion and to tradition for its own sake, and by a whole slew of lies and half-truths dressed up as fact – just like the ones in my opening paragraph.

Besides, it’s so much easier to bamboozle the unwary consumer using Imperial measurements. After all, if you were offered the choice between grapes at £1.00 a pound at Shop A when Shop B just down the road is selling them at £2.10 a kilo, it might be obvious to you that one of the two shops is giving the better deal by 10p a kilo – but if you think of the pound as “about half a kilo” rather than 453 grams, you might not realise that the cheaper shop is actually Shop B. Likewise, if you’re being offered potatoes at 40p a pound but the shop’s offering the same spuds at “only £24” for a half-hundredweight sack, unless you know that there are 56lb in half a hundredweight you might not be aware that by buying in bulk you’re actually being ripped off for £1.60 extra.

By all means give people measurements in Imperial as well as metric if that’s what they feel more comfortable with. But don’t pull the wool over our eyes, please.

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

You can read all the arguments in favour of metrication at the UK Metric Association’s website.

The British Weights & Measures Association’s site is good for a chuckle at their rants, if nothing else…

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • strip tease bar varsaw
  • kuala prostitute photos
  • c m m sheetmetal
  • 8gb flash fat
  • british manual coffee grinder
  • dog going blind after rat poisoning
  • relocate gay younger
  • herring gutters
  • modern architecture goose rocks beach
  • obsessive vinyl collector

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat Magazine


“A measurement is not an absolute thing, but only relates one entity to another.”

– H. T. Pledge, author of Science since 1600 (HMSO, 1966)


Weights and measures

2,240 pounds of Chinese soup = won ton

Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond

365.25 days of drinking low-calorie beer because it’s less filling = 1 lite year

Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon

1,000 aches = 1 kilohurtz

1 million million microphones = 1 megaphone

1 million bicycles = 2 megacycles

2,000 mockingbirds = Two kilomockingbirds

1 millionth of a fish = 1 microfiche

10 rations = 1 decoration

This entry was posted in 2007 by Kay McMahon. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kay McMahon

Kay has been an expat for nearly 30 years. She set up the British Expat website back in early 2000, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)

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