Metric sales

UK weighs by saying Cheerio in the metric system. Opponent: “That’s crazy.”

The UK is going through a leadership crisis, but as politicians argue over who will be Prime Minister, ordinary Britons face a problem more relevant to everyday life: should they weigh themselves in kilograms or in stone?

Leaving the European Union allowed Britain to make its own trade deals and control its immigration. The government recently spied on another area to gain control: how things are measured. In June, he announced a consultation on whether to return to the old imperial units of measurement rather than the metric system imposed for trade after joining the EU.

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At stake, supporters say, is not just how they buy their beer and bananas, but a nation’s honor, heritage and culture.

“In some ways it may seem very trivial,” said Warwick Cairns of the British Weights and Measures Association, which is campaigning for change. “But it’s much more a cultural thing than an economic thing for people in the UK”

English imperial measures date back to medieval times. Among them, the stone, which many Britons use for their weight, is equivalent to 14 pounds. The metric system was created much later across the Channel in France, England’s former great rival.

The UK has used various metric units since the 1960s and officially adopted the metric system in stages between 1995 and 1999. UK law requires metric units to be used for most things, to align with the EU , although exceptions allow Britons to continue drinking beer. pints at the pub and driving in miles.

A member of the active metric resistance changing a signpost marking from metric to imperial measurement.


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DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

The government says the consultation it announced in June, amidst a wave of patriotism amid the Queen’s Jubilee, aims to find out how it can give businesses and consumers more choice. “Imperial units like pounds and ounces are widely valued in the UK and form an integral part of many people’s British identity,” the government said.

Opponents unleashed a mix of emotions, ranging from contempt to anxiety to fury.

“It’s not a Brexit freedom. This is nonsense,” tweeted Alice Kearns, a lawmaker from the ruling Conservative Party. “No voter, ever, has asked for that.”

Retailers dismiss a reintroduction of imperial measures as a potentially costly distraction at a time of high inflation. A trade body for measurement professionals says buyers used to metric units could be cheated and Britain could be isolated as it seeks new trade deals. Only three countries use the imperial system: the United States, Myanmar and Liberia.

In support of a return to Imperial units is Derek Norman, the 88-year-old president of Active Resistance to Metrication. Since 2001, the group has crisscrossed Britain painting and pasting over 3,000 metric road and footpath signs, replacing them with those featuring imperial units.

ARM lifetime membership costs £10 ($12.20) and applicants must provide “a nickname which must include a unit of imperial weights and measures”. Mr. Norman’s nickname is “Onetun”, an Old English unit of volume of liquid.

Back in the salad days, Mr Norman climbed ladders, traveled the country on sign-changing raids and dressed up in workman’s clothes to secretly change more than 100 signs in Ely, a town near Cambridge. “We were reported once or twice to the police,” he recalls.

Derek Norman changing a road sign that bore a metric measurement.


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Active resistance to metrication

Opposite ARM, the UK Metric Association has long campaigned for Britain to adopt even more metric measurements. Gavin Esler, a patron of the group, says returning to the imperial system would take the country “back to Tudor times” and is the work of nostalgic pessimists.

‘I think our imperial madness is as foolish as suggesting that the British people should ditch the future of electric cars and just buy themselves a horse and cart,’ Mr Esler wrote on the website. ‘association. “Or maybe the British Army should ditch assault rifles and retrain with flintlock muskets.”

The Metric Association says imperial units are already appearing too frequently, lamenting that football pitches have an 60-foot area and real estate agents describe homes in feet and inches. In a publication titled “A Very British Mess”, the group claims that even people who use metric units at work, such as engineers, “feel slightly uncomfortable or embarrassed to use meters, kilograms or hectares outside the workplace”.

Peter Burke, the group’s acting chairman, said he planned to write about the consultation to all the candidates to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister “and say, ‘Listen, this is nonsense’. Mr Burke worries that ‘Brexit has caused such a disconnect in British thinking that there are many people who feel a certain nostalgia for the old imperial units’.

Like the United States, Britain uses a hodgepodge of units: drugs are dosed in milligrams, drinks are bottled in liters and athletes run 5k races. Yet height is measured in feet and inches, distance in miles, and property in acres.

How things are measured is a surprisingly emotive question, said James Vincent, author of “Beyond Measure: The Hidden History of Measurement.” He says the history of anti-metric sentiment “certainly has a xenophobic strain running through it.” There has “always been an association between metric weights and measures and its foreign origins, very precisely its French origins”.

The outcry over the EU edict came to a head two decades ago when a greengrocer in Sunderland, northern England, was forced to hand over his imperial scales to police after that an undercover inspector found him selling bananas weighed on the equipment. Steve Thoburn and his fellow traders were found guilty of failing to weigh or price goods in metric, earning them the nickname “metric martyrs” and sparking a national outcry.

Fruit and vegetable trader Steve Thoburn arrived at Sunderland Magistrates’ Court in 2001, where he was prosecuted for refusing to use EU-approved metric measurements.


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Owen Humphreys/PA Images/Getty Images

Mr Thoburn died in 2004. A former market trader, Neil Herron, continues to seek his pardon.

While supporters say re-enacting the imperial measures would increase choice, critics say it could sow confusion. Christine Murray, a Canadian-born architecture critic in London, says measuring in fractions of an inch would reduce accuracy for architects.

“They say I will have the freedom to measure in imperial or metric,” she said. “I will have the freedom to make a big mistake.”

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Supporters of a Britain that takes back imperial measures lost a major advocate with the resignation of Mr Johnson as Prime Minister on Thursday. Government consultation continues without it, but the new political uncertainty makes it less clear that the findings will be passed into law.

Mr Johnson wanted Britain to focus on seizing the opportunities presented by its departure from the EU, ‘again firmly planting the British flag on the world stage’. At a parliamentary committee meeting less than 24 hours before his departure, Mr Johnson told a lawmaker who had challenged him on his knowledge of the imperial system that he was thinking of his weight in stone.

“I was educated all over and I can do metric too,” he said when asked how many ounces there were in a pound. He is 16, an answer that Mr Johnson got right.

Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at saabira.chaudhuri@wsj.com

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