91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The U.K. Left The EU, And Now It's Inching Away From The Metric System Too

A staff member sorts through fresh produce at British supermarket chain Morrisons last month in Leeds, United Kingdom.
Daniel Harvey Gonzalez
In Pictures via Getty Images
A staff member sorts through fresh produce at British supermarket chain Morrisons last month in Leeds, United Kingdom.

Down at the local pub, die-hard Brexiters will be raising a pint to news that the United Kingdom is eyeing the end of a European Union-inspired ban on selling products in only pounds and ounces. But many others view the move away from the world-standard metric system as pure rubbish.

Since becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson has pledged to usher in an era of "tolerance towards traditional measurements." On Thursday, Brexit minister David Frost clarified what that means — giving shops and supermarkets the option to sell items labeled only in imperial units.

Under the plan, market stalls and shops would not be required to include measurements in metric equivalents.

The imperial system uses inches, miles and gallons as units of measurement. It's almost the same as the system commonly used in the U.S., with a few small differences.

Under the plan, it would be legal for market stalls, shops and supermarkets to sell their goods using only imperial measurements, with no requirement that metric equivalents be included.

Unsurprisingly, the metric vs. imperial argument has gone straight to the modern-day court of public opinion — Twitter.

"I was never really any good with metric measurements and always needed to convert. Then again after nearly 50 years of metric. I doubt going back to imperial will help me now. And it won't help anyone who has been taught in school for the last 50 years of school," one user said.

Some circulated a satirical video poking fun at the absurdity of the old imperial measures. Still others posted a map showing countries using the metric system — the only exceptions being Myanmar, Liberia and, of course, the U.S., which tried and failed to fully adopt the metric system beginning in the mid-1970s.

Starting in 1965, the U.K. began a gradual retreat from the imperial system that was in use throughout the Commonwealth. It wasn't until a few years later that the project picked up steam — spurred on by entry into the EU in 1973.

"By 1999, fishmongers, grocers, butchers and supermarkets were required to start selling goods in metric. Imperial units could be listed as well, so long as they weren't more prominent than their metric equivalents," according to Wales Online.

Still, the ordinary Briton's life is peppered with plenty of imperial units — a fact that has prompted some on Twitter to suggest the proposed change is much ado about nothing: "Imperial measurements have never really gone away. I still buy my milk and beer in pints. Distance is still measured in miles and speed in miles per hour. And how do you ask for timber? - '5 metres of 4x2 please' Oh, and it's not really hot until it's 80 degrees."

The origins of the U.K.'s modern anti-metric movement can be traced back to 2001, when grocer Steven Thoburn ran afoul of the law for using a scale that displayed only imperial weights. Thoburn, thereafter known as the "metric martyr," became a hero of euroskeptics for standing up to European encroachment.

For many, pounds, ounces, feet and miles are a point of pride that recall a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. And it probably doesn't help the metric cause that France was the first to introduce it (in 1795).

Even so, as the UK Metric Association points out, there isn't much about the imperial system that is truly English, calling arguments to the contrary "quite absurd."

"Some people regard it as patriotic to use imperial, because it was 'invented in Britain,' " the association says. "However, most of these units originated elsewhere in Europe and were imposed by invaders."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.