Going the extra 1.61 kilometre

When inches ruled Britain

Britain has been happily using a mixture of metric and imperial measurements for half a century. So yesterday’s headlines that the government plans to overturn EU restrictions on selling goods in pounds and ounces are far more symbolic than real. A sop to Telegraph readers. Inevitably, that paper called it a Brexit triumph. The more mature and modern Times called imperial a dead weight, adding the plan should not go the distance.

The current rules themselves are pretty mild. They say that traders have to display metric as well as imperial weights when selling goods – something sensible sellers do anyway, given the nation’s children have been taught metric measures for 50 years.

Like many British people born in the sixties and seventies, I switch effortlessly between metric and imperial. If I’m cooking, it’s millilitres and grams. (Why would anyone punish themselves by cooking in ounces, fluid ounces and the rest?) If I’m making anything, the simplicity of metric makes that the natural choice. But I measure my bike and car journeys in miles, my beer in pints and my height in feet and inches.

People often say Britain’s switch to metric has taken a long time. Parliament first debated going metric in 1818. But the real change came in the 1960s, as metrication began in earnest at the same time Britain prepared to ditch the shilling for decimal currency in 1971. I had a few lessons adding up in ‘old money’ (that must have been in 1969 or 1970) but I never remember being taught about imperial measures. Education in Wales had gone metric. So too had the BBC’s Blue Peter: I remember baffling the owner of Lendons model shop in Cardiff in 1974 when I tried to buy craft materials in millimetres, following the presenter’s instructions!

I doubt many traders will take advantage of the new freedom to sell only in pounds and ounces. But the move will do no harm. While I opposed Brexit, I do share the unease at unnecessary regulations that restrict everyday life and business. Ironically, however, UK governments have been a past master at this. When turning Brussels regulations into UK law, they often made them even tighter.

If Telegraph readers want to celebrate this modest freedom with a pint of warm beer with a restored crown mark on the glass, let them. But the rest of us will barely notice or care.