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Britain signals intent to revert to the imperial system

The British government said it was taking steps to return to its traditional system of imperial weights and measures, allowing shops and market stalls to sell fruits and vegetables labeled in pounds and ounces alone, rather than in the metric system's grams and kilograms

By Jenny Gross
Published: Sep 20, 2021

Britain signals intent to revert to the imperial systemA fruit and vegetable stall trades at Brixton market in London. The British government said it would pursue plans to allow shops and market stalls to sell fruits and vegetables labeled solely in imperial units of measurement. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The British government said it was taking steps to return to its traditional system of imperial weights and measures, allowing shops and market stalls to sell fruits and vegetables labeled in pounds and ounces alone, rather than in the metric system’s grams and kilograms, a move it hailed as an example of the country’s new post-Brexit freedoms.

The plans, which David Frost, the minister overseeing Brexit, announced Thursday, were cheered by Brexit supporters, many of whom had argued that the switch to the metric system over the decades was a sign of unwelcome European Union interference in daily life in Britain.

While the EU currently requires members to use the metric system alone, it had allowed Britain, when it was a member, to label its produce in imperial units alongside metric units. There were also exceptions for traffic signs and beer.

As part of its exit from the EU, the British government is now reviewing thousands of EU rules that it retained and determining whether they best serve the national interest. Those rules include the EU ban on sales in imperial units, which the British government said it would legislate changes to “in due course.”

Since Britain formally split from the EU on Jan. 1, after nearly 50 years of membership, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has touted his vision of a “Global Britain” that would flourish without being shackled by rules imposed by the 27-member bloc.

British officials have pointed to developments, such as changing the color of British passports from the EU’s burgundy to Britain’s traditional blue, which was dropped in 1988, as bold and triumphant symbols of the country’s new freedom.

But critics, including the 48% of voters who did not support Britain’s exit, have said such advances seem small and not very helpful at a time when employers are struggling to fill thousands of jobs, vacant in part because of the exodus of EU immigrants since the vote to leave the bloc.

Among the concerns about the country’s fragile economic recovery are a variety of new time-consuming and confusing procedures that have made importing and exporting goods to and from the EU more difficult, shortages at British supermarkets and a rift over unresolved trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, Frost, the Brexit minister, said Thursday that the move toward the imperial system would be part of the broader changes Britain was making to “capitalize on new Brexit freedoms.”

“Overbearing regulations were often conceived and agreed in Brussels with little consideration of the U.K. national interest,” he said in announcing the intention to introduce legislation to change the rules. “We now have the opportunity to do things differently and ensure that Brexit freedoms are used to help businesses and citizens get on and succeed.”

Tony Bennett, a member of Active Resistance to Metrication, a small group that has for years been pushing for England to return to its old weights and measurements, said he was celebrating the development.

Bennett, 74 (and not the singer), estimates that he and his group have placed stickers over about 4,000 signs in public parks and roads that use the metric system in England over the past two decades. Among the signs his group changed this month was a road sign in South Shropshire. They changed the units from meters to feet.

Bennett said the campaign to leave the EU and the campaign to revert to imperial measurements had to do with preserving what he saw as the gradual erosion of British culture and tradition.

“The system of weights and measures is integral to our daily life and also to our written culture, our language,” he said, citing expressions such as “an inch is as good as a mile,” and “inching forward.”

Since at least medieval times, the English have used their set of own measurements, including inches, feet, stones, miles and acres, many of which are still used in the United States. But for decades, the British government had been pushing people to use the metric system, used in most of the world and developed by decimalized metric standards during the French Revolution.

Supporters of the metric system say its use is necessary for companies to compete globally, since so many countries use it. Those passionate about the metric system also point to the fact that Britain began its switch to the metric system in 1965, eight years before it joined the EU. Others said there were more pressing issues on which to focus, including cuts to public services.

A poll of British adults by YouGov in 2015 found that younger people tended to favor the metric system, with more than 60% of those ages 18-39 saying they would measure short distances in meters, compared with less than 12% of those older than 60.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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