A Measure of Confusion

The increasing panic to get the UK – or at the very least London – looking spruced and respectable in time for the Olympics has shown itself in the somewhat unexpected form of Lord Howe of Aberavon (former Foreign Secretary under our own rust-topped Iron Lady of the 80s, Maggie Thatcher), as he demanded that the UK stop “dithering” and make the full switch from the imperial to the metric system of measurement before our Continental guests come over and laugh at us.

In a rant worthy of Enoch Powell (well, almost), Lord Howe claimed that the UK’s reluctance to pick one system over the other and stick to it “increases cost, confuses shoppers, leads to serious misunderstandings, causes accidents, confuses our children’s education and, quite bluntly, puts us all to shame.”

Aside from the laughable irony of a Lord calling for Britain to cast off the shackles of the Empire, I think that perhaps Howe is overreacting. I grew up with both systems and, whilst I couldn’t immediately tell you how many gallons to the litre (or even how many pints to the gallon, if I’m honest), I know well enough the measurements I need to use regularly and I can look up the ones I don’t (mille grazie, Google). Metric has been gradually replacing Imperial without children coming home from school in floods of tears, and presumably it will continue to do so until we’re all working exclusively in units of ten. If things have been happening organically and with minimal trauma, why try to push through a change now?

As a member of Howe’s “rudderless and bewildered majority”, floundering helplessly in a sea of grams and ounces, I would also call into question the wisdom of attempting to rush such a huge change through in time for the Olympics – if this were to happen, I imagine that foreign visitors really would see a lot of confused and befuddled Brits. Personally, the uncertainty over whether London’s transport network will be able to cope with the massive influx of humans is more than enough to be worrying about at this late stage (particularly if you’re a regular commuter into the capital). Add to that the allegation that someone recently challenged the security of the Olympic site by smuggling a fake bomb in, and I doubt that complaints over the serving of pints vs half-litres will even make the Oddly Enough column. It’s too big an undertaking to attempt in too little time. It’d be like deciding to repaint the kitchen an hour before the dinner-party.

Home Office minister Lord Henley, who was involved in the recent debate over the use of these two systems, was quoted as saying that he wasn’t convinced that the British public saw any real need to change the status quo. I would go further and suggest that the British public doesn’t even care.

The image of an esteemed Life Peer and experienced politician worrying that smug visitors from the mainland will be wandering around London this summer, discussing the failings of our measurement system in hushed tones behind cupped hands, is bizarre and ridiculous. Moreover, Howe’s assertion that our dual system will confuse visitors is nothing short of offensive.

Perhaps Lord Howe’s zeal is fuelled solely by a selfless desire to help strangers; more likely, though, his national pride is the driving force (another spot of irony, there).

Or maybe he just objects on aesthetic grounds to those rulers that have inches up one edge and centimetres down the other.