When Britons voted this summer to leave the European Union, many did so because of weighty concerns about the union's future. There are real worries about the continent's struggle with economic integration or immigration, for instance. Yet few would deny that fond memories of a pre-E.U. Britain also played some role in the vote.
Here's another case in point: In a new post-Brexit Britain, the metric measurement system — in use for decades almost worldwide — could be under threat, as some Britons are pushing to ditch it and return to an older measurement system established at the height of the British Empire.
On Tuesday, the Telegraph newspaper reported that the British Weights and Measures Association had been receiving requests from shopkeepers who wanted to ditch the use of metric measurements such as grams and kilograms when selling groceries and other goods. The group, which advocates against the metric system, said it suspected that this was just “the tip of a much bigger iceberg" of people hoping to make the move back to the "imperial" system of pounds and ounces.
Suggesting that there was "pressure" for the government to act, the Telegraph spoke to two members of Parliament from the ruling Conservative Party who said they supported a proposal to move back to the imperial system. “That is one of those things that can be implemented now so that when we actually pull out it is a smooth process," lawmaker Peter Bone said, noting that Britain's chief ally, the United States, did not widely use the metric system, either.
Such sentiments were widely mocked on social media, with some sarcastically suggesting that other obscure and obtuse units such as the shilling (a monetary unit equal to 12 pence or one-twentieth of a pound) also should make a comeback. Yet there was some evidence of support for such a move. Polling company YouGov released a survey that showed that 45 percent of Britons favored selling produce in imperial measurements.
Additionally, there have been isolated reports of shop owners moving back to the imperial system since June's Brexit vote. Gratton's Butchers in Devon began selling meat in pounds and ounces almost immediately after the referendum. “It seems like in north Devon everyone’s for it," Darren Gratton told the Sun newspaper. "I think it will be better for local farmers.”
It's a somewhat surprising evolution. The metric system, which originated in France before slowly gaining worldwide acceptance in the 18th and 19th centuries, has been used for decades in Britain. And though there's some nostalgia for the past, many would agree that it is an easier system: The metric system comprises units that follow a decimal pattern — so one kilogram equals 1,000 grams — which made it more logical. Under the imperial system, the relationships between units isn't so simple. There were 16 ounces in a pound, 14 pounds in a stone, eight stones in a hundredweight and 20 hundredweights in a ton.
The United States is often said to be the only developed country that doesn't use the metric system (most sources cite Burma and Liberia as the only other stragglers in the world), but it doesn't quite use the imperial system, either: Instead, it uses a similar but not identical set of measurements known as the U.S. customary system. There are some important differences in the two systems: For example, a hundredweight in Britain is 112 pounds, but the same unit is 100 pounds in the United States.
Besides, the metric system has never actually been fully implemented in Britain. Road signs show distances in miles and yards, pubs pour pints of draft beer, pints of milk are delivered door to door in glass bottles and precious metals can still be sold in troy ounces. As a government spokesman told the Telegraph, there is no law against using imperial units. "Businesses can already use imperial units alongside metric," the spokesman said, adding that the British decision to adopt the metric system nationally was made in 1965, before the country had even joined the E.U., and it had been discussed as early as the early 19th century.
However, the metric system became a passionate issue for anti-E.U. groups in 2000, when European legislation came into force that made it a legal requirement to weigh and measure loose goods under the metric system (most prepackaged goods had already been sold under the metric system for years, if not decades, by that point). Some market traders refused to switch from pounds and ounces, and some were prosecuted for using scales that didn't show the unit price per kilogram.
Five traders claimed their human rights were being violated and took their appeal to Britain's highest courts and, subsequently, the European Court of Human Rights, but they lost their case. This group became known as the "Metric Martyrs" in Britain's tabloids, a nickname that became grimmer when the lead campaigner died of a heart attack shortly after the ECHR decision. ("It is damnable that he dies a criminal owing to these totalitarian regulations," one of his co-campaigners said at the time.)
Tabloid stories fanned the flames, suggesting that the E.U. was planning to make pubs sell beer in liters, for example. In fact, the opposite is true — some bars in Britain have been fined for not serving drinks using the imperial system, and it is still possible to get a "yard" of ale in some establishments.
Measurement systems may seem like a strange bone of contention, but they are not the only one in Britain in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. There's a campaign to bring back Britain's dark blue passports, which the Sun said were a "symbol of the U.K. regaining sovereignty from the E.U."
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