Another Rant against the Metric System, by Sean Gabb, 10th December 1997

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet

Issue Number 6
10th December 1997

Another Rant against the Metric System
by Sean Gabb

Queen Victoria PennyOne morning in March 1967, I turned up at junior school with my 9d dinner money and had the first great political shock of my life. I now suppose that some Minister in the Wilson Government had just announced The Day: at the time, I was taken by surprise when my teacher explained to the class that in future there would be no more of these big ugly coins that made our little hands taste so funny. Instead, there would be 100 pennies to the pound, and all the coins would be new and small, and there would be no more arithmetic questions that involved dividing 14/-7d into half a crown. Later that morning, she introduced us to the metre and the kilogramme. As I recall, she was insistently enthusiastic about the simplicity of the new system that we were soon to have.

I spent the whole day wanting to cry. I kept pulling out all the change in pocket and looking at the coins. I had pennies from the reign of Queen Victoria—one of them nearly a hundred years old, showing the Queen as she had looked in her younger days—and a sixpence that described George VI as Indiae Imperator. I had no words then to describe how I felt. But looking at those coins that were temporarily mine gave me a firm sense of being English. They were one with the oath I swore to the Queen every Tuesday evening at Cub Scouts, and with the stories of my relatives who had died in the War, and with the history books I was beginning voraciously to devour. They were perhaps more than that. They were things I could touch. I could imagine the clothes worn by the people who so long before had also touched those coins, and the thoughts in their heads as they had spent them. They placed me within a living tradition that reached back into the mists of time, to King Offa who had first minted pennies a thousand years before—a tradition that I wanted to continue a thousand years after I was dead. As said, I had no words then to express the horror that I felt at the coming violation. But those are the words I would have used.

Though I had several years—at the time, it seemed an age—to prepare myself for the change, I still hated “Decimal Day” as I had hated nothing else. Never once did I believe the claims that this would be an improvement. I despised the new coins, with their crude symbolism. I mourned the passing of a coinage that combined elegance with solidity, and that gave everyone a history lesson in his loose change. I saved all the old coins that came to me before they were withdrawn; and I still occasionally take them from the jar where I keep them, and brood about the collapse of civilisation.

I have seldom wanted to cry since then, but I have loathed every other advance of metrication. Since the present big push began about a decade ago, I have looked on helpless as one ancient measurement after another has been replaced by the new ones. I now live in a country where it is a criminal offence to sell petrol by the gallon and wrapped cheese by the pound, where road signs are appearing to say how many metres I can drive before the road narrows to one lane, and how many tonnes a bridge can support.

The latest imposition—and the excuse for this article—is the change in the width restrictors on the roads in my part of London. To be correct, the restrictors have not changed, but their measurement has. The signs always used to warn me that vehicles more than 7 foot wide had better go no further. They now refer to vehicles over 2.13 metres.

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There are people who wonder at my prejudice against the metric system. I cannot deny its utility as a system of measurement. I am even moved by the harmony of its parts, so lacking in our own. Nor have I found the least inconvenience in adapting to its use in my visits abroad. I lived nearly two years in Czechoslovakia, and drive every summer to spend time with my wife’s family in the Slovak Republic. Never once have I been confused by the metric weights and measures. Even so, my prejudice against it in my own country is insuperable, and it can be justified on two very strong grounds.

First, for all its logical confusion, the imperial system is part of our national identity. It evolved during a thousand years of English history. When I read a book written in—say—the eighteenth century, I find myself in a world very different from my own. For all this, it is a world with which my own is plainly continuous. Anyone who needs a footnote or a glossary to know the meaning of two shillings or seven inches has been deprived of part of that continuity. A further barrier has been erected to that easy communion with past ages that has been known and valued in every great nation. To be cut adrift from the past is always a bad thing. And to be cut adrift from the English past is particularly bad. Metrication is not quite so impassable a barrier as reformed spelling or changed place names have been elsewhere. But it is a barrier that will greatly advance the present decline of limited government and the rule of law.

Certainly, shillings and inches are logically separable from Habeas Corpus and freedom of the press. But in practice, I do not think they are. For every person who can put an abstract case for liberty, there are eleven who regard it as an inheritance from the past. Bring a sudden end to any part of that past, and the other parts will insensibly become less secure. Already, few Englishmen have any historical awareness that goes beyond 1940. I was shocked at the public indifference that attended the third centenary of the Glorious Revolution and the fourth of the Spanish Armada. Last year, I gave some home lessons in English and arithmetic to a couple of schoolboys who had never learned the order of the Tudor Monarchs or the causes of the English Reformation. Metrication can only do more to make the past into a foreign country, inaccessible to any traveller without a mass of explanations of which my own generation had no need.

Second, metrication is unnecessary for any valuable purpose. I accept the need for progress. Much of it, I welcome. The conquest of smallpox and typhus—the fact that few of us now experience the loss of close relatives until middle age—these are blessings. I am writing this article on a personal computer and releasing onto the Internet—these also are immense improvements that already are liberating millions from the lies of our controlled media. At the same time, of course, they are barriers to that easy communion with the past that I so value. But they are barriers that are justified by positive benefits. There are no such benefits to be had from metrication.

Leaving aside the madness of getting into them, did we suffer in the two world wars because our weapons were calibrated in inches? Did the Americans fall behind the Russians in the space race because they measured their rocket fuel in gallons? What disaster has attended the computer industry because of the three and a half inch floppy disk?

For the past few centuries, the English-speaking world has had a reasonably free economy. In a free economy, improvements are adopted because they reduce costs or increase sales. Since the 1870s, it has been legal in Britain and the United States to use the metric system for private transactions. At no time has there been any spontaneous move towards its general use. In every case, metrication has been imposed by authority. Even in France, it was only fully established in the 1830s—40 years after the revolutionaries had commissioned its development—when the Government compelled its use for all purposes. In my own country, unless prohibited by law, the old weights and measures continue in use. There is no requirement to sell unwrapped cheese by the gramme: it is still sold by the ounce. Regulated pharmacists are forced by law to dispense aspirin by the milligramme. My students assure me that free market pharmacists continue to dispense cannabis by the eighth and quarter ounce.

The fact is that most of us still think in the old measurements, and would derive solid benefits if we were left alone to use them in our daily lives. Certainly, since the change from 7 foot to 2.13 metres in the restrictors that limit access to Blackheath Village, I have seen two vans wedged where none was ever stuck before.

As for the greater simplicity of calculating in the metric system, this advantage—such as it is—has been made wholly unnecessary by the development of electronic calculators and computers. I keep my accounts using a program called Quicken. It would work just as accurately in pounds, shillings and pence as it does in pounds and pence.

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The metric system, then, is not something that makes life easier for us. It is instead an imposition by rulers who love nothing more than stamping their rationalistic prejudices on everyone else. It appeals to their sense of order. If it ever becomes feasible, they will probably commission studies into revising the Earth’s orbit to something more decimal than 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and five seconds. They certainly regard the old measurements as yet another local peculiarity to be smoothed away by their project of global harmonisation. They really do look forward to the day when each person in the world is indistinguishable from every other. They have nearly finished with the weights and measures. They have made progress with laws and other regulations. Sooner or later, they will proceed to language. That their chosen language will be mine gives me no comfort whatever. Better that every county in England had its own impenetrable dialect than that all humanity should worship its masters in the same clipped, homogenised English.

Time and inflation have made it impracticable to suggest a return to the old currency in England. But the battle over other measurements has not been lost. We cannot all take up guns and drill to defend ourselves against the New World Order. We cannot all be outspoken against it. But a boycott of the metric system is also resistance. So long as there are still people to demand translations “into English” at the cheese counters and in fabric shops, the enemy has not triumphed. There will remain one corner of the public mind that is forever England.

My readers may laugh—but all this is just another part of my (probably futile) stand in defence of freedom.

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