Not even an April Fool


I can remember my first encounter with the metric system very clearly…
In the Summer of 1972 the British Army mobilised in massive numbers to end the “no go areas” that had sprung up in nationalist areas of Belfast and elsewhere over the previous two and a half years. Operation Motorman was to be the biggest ever “peacetime” military operation in the UK since the end of the Second World War.

One of those areas was in Lenadoon where my school, Blessed Oliver Plunkett, was based.  As the Army took over the two tower blocks on the estate as observation posts, the residents left and bedded down in the only place available – the school.

The result was that, to all effects and purposes, the school was closed and I – like hundreds of others – started the next academic year somewhere else – in my case at Holy Child Primary School (in consequence of “Olly Plunkett’s” closure, and the rapid expansion of the Catholic population of West Belfast,  Holy Child that year became the largest ever school in the UK – with over 2700 pupils.)

On my first day in Mrs MacManus’s class we had a maths lesson and I was confronted, for the first time, with these strange metric measurements, the centimetre, the gramme and the millilitre.

My point is this – in the UK, even in the bits of the UK that were least keen on being in the UK, we have been teaching our children in metric measurements since 1972 – 42 years.

Yet, along comes the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night, and this happens:

“I think I’d still go for pounds and ounces, yes I do,” Cameron told BBC2’s Newsnight when asked which should be taught predominantly.

I admit, I am no fan of David Cameron to begin with. But where do you begin when faced with such idiocy?

I suppose you can start with the fact that Cameron is a graduate of PPE – politics, philosophy and economics – and plainly knows nothing, or next to nothing, about science and the fact that sciences have been taught, the world over, in some form of metric measurement since at least the 1950s. Teaching our children in imperial measurements would be to actively seek to disadvantage them.

Then again I could just recall that John Stuart Mill was moved to remark to the House of Commons: “What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.” (My emphasis).

With Cameron one never quite knows of course – and this may just be the latest piece of his rather desperate efforts to appease the anti-Europeans in his party who want him to follow the lead of the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP’s platform is built on two propositions – that it would be better if we returned to the 1950s and that all that is bad in the UK emanates from the European Union. In metrication they find both enemies – modernity and Europe. At least in their minds they do – given that the UK did not join the then EEC until 1973 I am not sure Europe really is “to blame” for the end of the rood and the chain and the rise of the hectare and the metre.

Already the Tories have thrown a bone to the cave men of UKIP by bringing back rote learning of “twelve times table” – once an essential for a country where twelve pennies made a shilling but an anachronism since “decimalisation day” – 15 February 1971. So maybe this is next.

Or, more likely, it is Cameron not having the guts to stand up to them in public, even on such an obviously rational issue as the use of the metric system.

26 thoughts on “Not even an April Fool

  1. I went to a presentation by the ONS Census team in the Commons about a year or so ago, about the 2011 census data they were then starting to make available on Westminster constituency boundaries, and while it was appallingly chaired, one highlight of the chair’s fondness for allowing parliamentarians to make a statement rather than anyone to ask questions that actually related to the presentation was that Lord Howe stood up and made a public apology for the abolition of the Metrication Board when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and added that (roughly – I forget the precise words) it was the thing he’d done in government of which he was most ashamed. I quite warmed to Lord Howe.

  2. You note that you were not a fan of David Cameron to begin with, and that’s the point exactly. Remarks like this don’t cost him many votes, but might gain or save him some. Unfortunately it seems that you can’t become a successful politician nowadays without the ability and willingness to talk populist nonsense every now and then.

  3. I am Irish as well (Republic) and while we are full metric now we had the ignominy of not going all the way for ages. There was a period of time where all the distances were in kilometres, but all the speed limits were in miles. Some how it didn’t matter because in Europe we are the only other nation that drives on the left after the UK. Since they fight metric tooth and nail their odometers were/are in miles. For a long time, the specialisation required for the Irish market wasn’t considered worth it for the expense so we just got the same cars as were made for the UK. Thankfully now it is cheaper to and easier to make cars with right hand drive that are fully kilometres so we are now all good. On the plus side I am an expert and dividing by 5 and multiplying by 8 (and vice versa)

  4. Having grown up in a country that’s been fully metric for, oh, centuries, I’m continually amazed how attached people are to plainly inferior systems. If imperial had wanted to stay it would have had to at least improve where metric is superior, and it didn’t. Now it’s far too late to use anything but metric unless you like to show yourself to be centuries behind the rest.

    On another note, I have this sneaking suspicion that people with an education in “politics” (and n’mind the window dressing) are not fit to run a country. The latter is about far more than just the rules of the game and the horse trading, while the former really doesn’t teach you anything but the superficials. You really don’t want the houses filled with people who spent years “mastering” a topic that people with a serious education and a reading habit get for free reading the news.

  5. I don’t think it is a question of being taught exclusively in one method or another but in fact that we should be taught multiple methods. In the same way that being able to speak in only one language is a disadvantage, and arguably a sign of the same ignorance you accuse conservatives of exhibiting, knowing only one method of measure is equally disqualifying. In any case cheers🙂

  6. I’m now in my mid forties and spent my whole life using metric or at school/university the SI system in the UK. To me the Imperial system is a medieval system that made sense in its time but has had no place in real life for at least a century if not more. There are for example no Imperial units for electricity because none were ever invented…

    Cameron is just pandering to the older Daily Mail readers who still think in feet and inches and may vote UKIP instead of Tory. In the real world knowing feet and inches is pretty irrelevant unless you happen to maintain antique or obsolete equipment as everything is now metric and has been for decades.

    Cameron like most politicians doesn’t live in the real world, doesn’t have to work for a living, or know anything useful. So for someone born in his bubble it makes no difference to him, so he probably believes this non-sense….

    • Having worked in politics I have to take issue with your charcterisation of politicians. It’s one thing to say they make mistakes or even that they can be stupid. But please don’t mistake that for them not working hard – many work extremely long hours in stressful conditions (not least because the public have so little sympathy for them!)

  7. Here in the States we still use all those old units. Personally I like them but I wouldn’t try to bring them back if they were gone, that’s ridiculous.
    Here all the schoolkids learn both systems, but of course at home it’s all ounces pounds and feet (and miles: now THAT’S an arbitrary measure!)
    Metric is for science classes for the most part.

  8. Having grown up and lived on the continent, sucking up the metric system from my birth, I do think imperial measurements have its right to persist. Let me briefly lay out why. Of course, science and mathematics since (more or less) WWii are (mostly) being taught with the use of a metric sytem, but that doesn’t mean it is superior in every way. In Germany where I live, just look at windows, houses, doors, general proportions os ‘stuff’ around etc and you’ll find there is no sense of harmonious proportion. Many windows are about a metre by a metre, doors 2 metres high. Next time you are abroad, open up your eyes, I think the imperial system on the other hand being based upon the number 12 leads automatically to more graceful proportions.

    • But it’s not just based on 12… it’s based on 3 (ft/yd), 12 (in/ft), 16 (oz/lb), 14 (lb/st), 1760(yd/mi). Don’t forget that there are things like a US pint is 16 US fl oz while an Imperial (british) pint is 20 Imperial fl oz, and an US fl oz is 1.040842731 imperial fl oz. Just to keep things simple, the US actually has two definitions of fluid oz too… one for food labelling and the other for everything else. The food labelling on is 1 fl oz = 30 ml, the “everything else” fl oz = 29.5735295625ml. Simple!

      • Granted. I didn’t consider all the other units.. I was only referring to rather specific measurements of lengths (in & ft). My personal observation is that we on the continent are rather lazy, mostly beginning with eg 100 (be it cm or mm) and then derive the other sides of an object by doubling it or dividing it by 2. Please correct me if I am wrong but with your measurements of inches (based on 3) it’d be more natural to divide by 3 or multiply by 3. Of course with inches/feet etc you are still able to double or halve it, but no one over here would divide anything by 3.. I do think it leads to a different mindset of thinking about making something for example. What would you think?

  9. To me, 12 do not lead automatically to more graceful proportions. The golden ratio does, and (perhaps) the silver ratio.

    As for imperial units, I’m all for the imperial pint, but less in favour of BTU, PSI, and that horrid gear measure UNF and UNC.

  10. the 12 times talble, not so much, but the 16 times table is a very useful thing. Ask any inchworm!

  11. Pingback: 英キャメロン首相、学校で教える測量単位をヤードポンド法に戻すことを支持 | 21 Buzz

  12. The imperial system is actually much more useful than the metric system.
    1. 12 (inches in a foot) is divisible by 2, 3,4 and 6. 10 is not so versatile.
    2. A foot is a useful length for everyday things. A meter is too big and no-one talks in decimeters.
    3. An inch is a useful length for everyday things. A centimeter is too small.
    4. A pint is also the right size. A liter is too much to drink and 1/2 liter too little.
    5. Feet/mile vs kilometer. 5280 feet in a mile has 46 factors! It can be cut any number of ways with a whole-feet result. 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/8, 1/10, etc etc. 1000 meters/km – not so flexible
    6. Gallons/quarts/pints/cups/etc. can be cut in half many times. Liter, not so much.

    And the whole metric “easy to use powers of 10” argument – well we all have calculators in our cell phones now.

  13. @Ben Yanoo..

    It’s easy to confuse numbering systems, with measurement systems. They are two different things.
    Numbering systems are always exact.
    Measurement systems are never exact.

    It’s true that the number 10 is divisible by the whole numbers 1, 2, 5, and 10.

    But it’s not the same for measurement systems.
    For example the metre is 1000 millimetres, and 1000 millimetres is divisible by the following whole numbers.
    1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 20, 25, 40, 50, 100, 125, 200, 250, 500, and 1000.

    But, the reason, I suggest, you find Imperial measures, more helpful, and easy, is because you have always used it, you are comfortable using it, and you “think in Imperial.”
    Many millions of other people around the world “think in metric”, with no conversions to any other measurement system. And that is because the metric system and it’s measures, are a compete system of measurement that measures everything.

Comments are closed.