The Telegraph went full-on Nigel Farage on Tuesday, in an editorial piece about life in the UK after Brexit. The right wing newspaper declared (again) that “Now we can take control” following the referendum vote on 23 June. But this time it cited how we weigh and measure as one of the positives to emerge from the Leave vote, saying we should return to pounds, ounces, feet and inches.
A beef with burgers?
The newspaper was discussing comments made by Lord O’Donnell of Clapham, a former head of the Civil Service. He implied that many of the laws related to the EU should be kept, as they are justifiable. But instead of debating, say, the Working Time Directive which stops employers forcing people to work more than 48 hours a week, The Telegraph chose to discuss metric measurements.
In the article, The Telegraph said that:
Because Britain is still, for now, an EU member, our laws forbid traders to sell goods measured solely in pounds and ounces. The EU demands the metric scale be used, regardless of the fact that many British shoppers still think in imperial measures – including many of the younger generation. The customers of fast-food chains have grown up ordering their burgers by the quarter-pound, not in 113-gram servings.
People do indeed order ‘quarter pounders’, not ‘113 grammers’. But The Telegraph’s assertion that British shoppers still think in pounds and ounces is not strictly true. A survey in 2015 for YouGov showed that 75% of 18 to 24-year-olds used metric weights when cooking. This was compared to 28% of over-60’s. Also, nearly two-thirds of those under forty used metres as a measurement of distance. And more than half said metric was the better system.
Nothing new under the sun
But many people still used the imperial system for other measures. Over 80% still use miles to measure long distances and feet and inches in terms of height. But more people knew their weight in kilograms than in stones and pounds. Perhaps what the survey results show is that we are a nation who likes a choice.
And a choice is exactly what the EU gave us. The Telegraph stated that:
This was a classic example of bureaucracy run amok. Rules inhibiting imperial measures should be scrapped as soon as possible. Consumers, not bureaucrats, should decide which measures they prefer … But that is not the point. The point is that such matters should be decided in Britain, not Brussels.
Standardisation of the British system actually began in 1824 with the Weights and Measures Act which made gallons the preferred method to measure liquid. In 1965 a national changeover to the metric system began. This was not due to pressure from the EU, but from British industry. As Douglas Jay MP, President of the Board of Trade told parliament in 1965:
The Government are impressed with the case which has been put to them by the representatives of industry for the wider use in British industry of the metric system of weights and measures … The Government consider it desirable that British industries … should adopt metric units … until that system can become in time the primary system of weights and measures for the country as a whole.
Blame the EU!
The EU only became involved in 1973 when the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) and the British use of the metric system was acknowledged. Furthermore, the EU doesn’t force us to use metric, contrary to popular belief. For example, it’s still illegal to sell draught beer, cider and ale in anything other than pints. This is because the UK was given an opt-out from full metrication laws in 1995. And while this was due to end in 2009, the European Commission gave up on trying to convert us to full metric. So both systems can still be used.
The use of metric isn’t some ridiculous Brussels mandate set by faceless bureaucrats. It’s something the UK adopted over a period of many years, and it’s a system that only three countries in the world don’t use. So if The Telegraph wishes us to “take back control”, it may have to look closer to home.
And while the newspaper gets itself in a Farage-like frenzy over whether we should go back to the 1700s or not, serious laws are actually being abandoned. Like Theresa May’s decision to push ahead with the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. Or the potential loss of the Working Time Directive and the right to paid holidays. These are the laws we should be worried about losing. Not whether we buy a pound or a kilogram of potatoes.
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Featured image via Chatham House/Flickr