Government consultation on Imperial measurements

Our essay-crisis dead-cat government is now planning to appease disaffected Brexit voters by giving them Imperial measurements, in place of the metric that we have been moving towards since the 1960s and which the majority is living UK citizens were brought up with. There is a consultation on this, but it’s been very poorly publicised. I encourage you to make a submission. Here is mine.

Choice on Units of Measurement: Markings and Sales – Response Form

Consultation Questions

1. For All,
a) Are there any specific areas of consumer transactions that should be a priority for allowing a choice in units of measurement, and why?
b) Are there any specific areas that you think should be excluded from a choice in units of measurement, and why?
c) If an item is sold in imperial measures, should there be a requirement for a metric equivalent alongside it?

There is no need to change how things are done now. So: Part a: no, because no area of consumer transaction should be changed to allow vendors to use either of two different sets of measurements, which could only lead to confusion. Part b: everything area should excluded. Part c: of course, we have been teaching our children exclusively metric for the last 34 years and mostly metric for much longer.

2. For Businesses,
What would be the consequences of your business having the freedom to sell products in imperial measures, if you wished?


3. For Consumers,
a) If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items:
(i) in imperial units?
(ii) in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?
b) Are you more likely to shop from businesses that sell in imperial units?
c) Do you foresee any costs or benefits to you from businesses being permitted to sell:
(i) solely in imperial units?
(ii) in imperial units alongside a less prominent metric equivalent?
d) Do you have experience of buying solely in imperial units?

Part a, the answer for most goods is (iii) in metric only. Exceptions for pints of beer in pubs. Part b: no. Part c: much more confusion if any businesses shift to imperial only. It is an objectively inferior system, unfamiliar to most of the population now.

4. For Trading Standards,
What potential impacts might there be on regulatory activity, including any costs or benefits?

Everything is more expensive when multiple sets of units must be used, and the likelihood of expensive errors is increased when the irrational Imperial system is used.

Additional comment: I note that the UK committed to metrication long before becoming a member of the EEC, so having now left the EU is completely irrelevant to our national preference for metric.

Please email this form to:

7 responses to “Government consultation on Imperial measurements

  1. It is an objectively inferior system

    It ain’t though. It has its pros and cons — it’s better for some things and worse for others. Even you admit that a pint is a better unit for serving drinks than a litre, and ‘he’s a six footer’ is a much more natural way of expressing a man’s height than ‘he’s a 1.828 metrer’. And of course there’s the usual point that 12 is a much more sensible base for a system of units than 10 because you can do a half, a third and a quarter of it without having to deal with fractions.

  2. When the cleverest men in France first considered the metric system in 1790, they agreed that base 12 was better than base 10, but because they looked at the big picture, they agreed that people should use the same base for counting as they do for measuring. This meant that either the new system of units would have to be decimal based or that a new system of counting using base 12 would have to be introduced. The latter would never happen, so they were left with the former.

  3. The latter would never happen, so they were left with the former.

    You’d think that showed admirable humility, but then you remember that they thought they could get everybody to adopt decimal time, so no, they were just batshit crazy. The French,eh? Yet another whacko idea brought to you by the country with the worst electoral system in the entire world.

  4. As you rightly say, the idea of decimal time which was introduced alongside the original metric system never really caught on. When decimal time was discarded, what remained was remarkably similar to the system proposed by the John WIlkins, an Englishman, in 1668.

  5. When decimal time was discarded, what remained was remarkably similar to the system proposed by the John WIlkins, an Englishman, in 1668.

    And it’s a perfectly fine system, but it’s not ‘objectively superior’ to the Imperial system (or indeed other systems). It’s better for some purposes, worse for others. It has points in its favour (like base ten matches how we write numbers) and points against (like ten is a stupid and unwieldy base to do measurements with) and which you think is more important is a matter of the particular use to which it’s being put, not some ‘objective’ ranking scale.

  6. And of course it’s not just about the base, it’s also about having the right level of precision. You don’t want your units to be too big compared to the thing you’re measuring — to little precision, in other words — or you end up having to use fiddly fractions. But equally you don’t want your units to be too small — too much precision — or you have to juggle values in the tens or hundreds all the time.

    That’s the real problem with SI units. Because they were designed to be one universal system for all sizes, they ended up with something that works at the very small and the very big ends of the scale, but is terrible for things at the human scale. Take measuring people’s heights, for example. Metres don’t have enough precision: pretty much everybody is between one and a half and two metres tall, so you can’t use metres. But centimetres have too much precision: everybody ends up with a three-figure height like 178cm, which is unwieldy and also really nobody care if you’re one centimetre taller or shorter than somebody else, whereas being an inch taller or shorter is about the size of difference that really matters because that’s to point at which you’re having to look up into someone’s eyes.

    Or take recipes (kitchen recipes, anyway, I don’t know about industrial ones). Kilograms and litres are too imprecise, too big to be useful in that context. But grammes and millilitres are too precise, because all the quantities end up being in the hundreds of grammes or millilitres.

    What you want, really, is for your units to be such that within the domain of interest you can specify things to a good level of precision but with units that go from, say, about zero to twenty. so heights are a good example: pretty much everybody is between five feet and six foot seven or so, so within the domain of interest you get a good level of precision with units that go from about zero (five feet) to twenty (six feet eight).

    Or take weights. Measure people in kilogrammes and you get numbers from, what, about 50kg to 120kg? Big. Unwieldy. Measure in stone and you go from about 8 stone to about 20 stone. Much better. Much easier to work with. Much easier to imagine in one’s head the difference between a someone who’s 9 stone, and someone who’s 15 stone than someone who’s 60kg and someone who’s 95kg.

    And that’s where SI units fall down: because by demanding that the same system is used for the smallest scales of atoms all the way through to the biggest scales of the galaxies, rather than (which would be more sensible) using different systems more suited to each scale, and especially by basing this whole edifice on base-10 so each scale is an order of magnitude bigger than the one before rather than changing over when it seems sensible (like feet -> yards, because yards are a much more sensible unit for measuring short travel distances — indeed, they are about a metre), it loses the human scale.

    Because the human scale — as above — falls between the orders of magnitude of the SI scales, meaning you either lose precision by using one scale or you end up with too much precision by using the next one down.

    Executive summary: the whole idea of having Just One Universal System Of Measurement For Everything is stupid, and it’s much more sensible to have different systems for particular purposes that fit their particular use-cases better.

    Because frankly, if you step back and think about it, there is absolutely no reason why it should be a good idea to force people to use the same system to measure the masses of planets and people, and lots of reasons why that’s a silly idea.

  7. People instinctively understand this with time, that there’s no reason why the system of units you use for measuring small time intervals should e the same as the ones you use for measuring long periods — that’s why you get joke units like microfortnights, where the humour (such as it is…) is in the inappropriate juxtaposition of trying to derive a unit that makes sense in one context from a unit that makes sense in another. But it’s no less true in other dimensions of measurement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.