Last year, the return of blue passports was touted as a symbol of Britain’s resumption of control after Brexit. Some in government would now like to see Britain’s imperial measures make a comeback. As part of a review of EU laws still in place after Brexit, the government plans to remove the ban on selling goods using only Imperial units.
The collective memory of many Eurosceptics is that the metric system was imposed by Europe in the 1970s on a reluctant British public. There was political turmoil over daily chores – buying milk and beer in liters rather than pints. Metric measurements have made European integration very real, close to home and highly undesirable for some.
A succession of European directives on measures crystallizes and maintains the skepticism according to which Brussels would even force the queen to obey European laws. Politicians have pointed out that Brussels is necessarily replacing pints and inches with liters and meters as proof that joining Europe means a loss of British identity.
In fact, the metric was not imposed on Britain after joining the EEC in 1975. British industrialists pressured politicians to embark on a metrics program in the 1960s. The commitment to metrics and monetary decimalization precedes Britain’s entry into the European Common Market. But measurement systems have long been used as practical tools and symbols for political purposes.
The English state had tried in vain to introduce standardized measures at least since the Magna Carta of 1225. Indeed, the traditional imperial measures in the form we know today only date from 1824, with the adoption of the law on weights and measures.
A select committee of the British parliament in 1758 sought to remove “despotic influence” from the tradition of the British measurement system. But successive legislative reforms of British measures in the 19th century systematically rejected the decimal metric system.
Ironically, since 1960 all measurement systems around the world, including the British and American Imperial systems, have been calibrated according to the International System of Units (SI) which in turn is based on the historic metric system designed in France in the 1790s.
Revolution, colonialism and socialism
For much of history, units of measure were based on the human body or everyday objects – a “foot”, “basket” or “cup”. Nationalized measurement systems – a relatively modern phenomenon – arose with the need for efficient tax collection mechanisms and were accompanied by increased government control.
Reforms to measurement systems were often framed in the language of nation-building. In 1790, Thomas Jefferson asserted that the North American measures were based on systems brought by the first settlers from England. Jefferson convinced Congress to adopt a decimal currency, but strongly advised to keep the English (Imperial) units. The United States was therefore one of the first nations to have a decimal currency, but still fiercely resist the use of decimal metric measurements.
The metric system was one of the enduring legacies of the French Revolution and a product of the scientific Enlightenment that swept through France in the 18th century. The French demanded “a law, a weight, a measure” on the eve of the revolution. But when they were made to use the new metric system in 1793, they resolutely rejected it.
Parisian buyers were suspicious of this unfamiliar system and believed it gave traders an unfair advantage. The traders, who thought otherwise, began to illegally keep two sets of weights and measures, the old and the new. Even government officials hated using the new, unknown units. Generalized hostility to the new metric system led Napoleon to retract it. Metric measurements were first used in Belgium and the Netherlands before the French began using them in 1840.
Colonial rule often brought about profound changes in measurement systems in other parts of the world. The British replaced Indian measurement systems with imperial measures, asserting their colonial authority. During India’s struggle for independence, Jawaharlal Nehru argued that decimal metric measurements were part of the ancient Hindu tradition of using decimal arithmetic and therefore not “foreign”. India adopted metric measurements in 1956 and rejected imperial units considered obsolete and reminiscent of colonialism.
Socialism, like colonialism, was also a powerful force for policy change. In China, multiple systems of measurement coexisted relatively peacefully during the Qing period (1644-1912). But this became problematic in the days of the Republic of China (1911-1949) when multiple measurement systems created intolerable confusion in everyday life.
The People’s Republic introduced the metric system soon after its creation in 1949. The situation did not stabilize until after 1985, after the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution ended. In Russia, the Bolsheviks rejected the old Tsarist system and made metric measurements the “progressive foundation” of the world’s first socialist state.
Measures and upheavals
Changes in measurement systems have historically disrupted finely balanced social relations and traditional lifestyles. This has sometimes created an uncertain economic future for local communities. No wonder ordinary people often protest against such changes.
During the Quebra Quilos revolt of 1874 in Brazil, rioting peasants broke the newly introduced kilogram weights into local markets. They destroyed property and measuring instruments and beat traders. Hence the name of the revolt, which translates as “crushing the pounds”.
The British also protested against the compulsory introduction of imperial measures by the government. When the authorities imposed the unknown bushel of Winchester in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, angry crowds revolted against any imposition of imperial standards between 1670 and 1800. So much for the imagined “popular tolerance of traditional imperial measures” by those who currently run the country.
Yet despite all this resistance, history teaches us that people of different cultures and eras have always faced – even thrived – changes in measurement systems.