Sam Leith

Imperial measures are culture war bait

It's a piece of posturing so absurd even the government won’t pretend to believe in it

Imperial measures are culture war bait
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The idea of reintroducing imperial measures in honour of the Queen’s Jubilee has one quality that will have commended it to No. 10’s wizard wheezes department. It seems to have driven remoaning liberal elite types pleasingly bananas. It’s the perfect culture war bait, because it plays into the stereotype: if you are unshakeably complacent in your conviction that Brexit, and the government which advanced it as a project, are pandering to empty symbols of trad patriotism and little Englander nostalgia, you’ll shriek with a sort of delighted horror at the news.

Here is confirmation of everything you imagined. These backward-looking clowns, with their Union flags and their saudade for wars they never fought in and imperial power that had vanished a generation before they were born! Their Enid Blyton worldview, their privet-hedge parochialism! Is this really what counts as electoral politics in the age of digital mass media, climate change, pandemics, just-in-time supply chains, virtual currencies, and the transformation of the entire European security order? Selling tomatoes in pounds and flipping ounces? Well.

Speaking as a remoaning liberal elite type myself, though, I think bemusement is a more appropriate response than outrage. Fellow wets: comrades, we are being played. The restoration of what the Prime Minister has called this ‘ancient liberty’ doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to the real world. The only point of it is to wind the likes of us up for a news cycle or two.

For a start, this ‘ancient liberty’ was never abrogated in the first place. All that ‘metric martyr’ nonsense more than 20 years ago elided the fact that if, as a greengrocer, you want to price your spuds up in pounds and ounces nobody’s going to stop you; you just have to include the price prominently in kilogrammes too. Presumably, Her Majesty’s Government proposes to honour her by removing this obligation – fine. It is hard to imagine that 27 years after metric measures became standard that there are all that many people who still think in pounds and ounces, and who what’s more become actively confused when a kilogramme price is also available, but those people will be rejoicing, and good luck to them.

I rather like old-fashioned units of measurement, personally. Reading Antony Beevor’s magnificent new book about the Russian civil war, for instance, I was delighted to be reminded that in Tsarist Russia they measured dry goods in poods, and I think you must have a shrivelled soul indeed if you do not respond with joy to a measurement of distance in versts rather than prosaic old miles or kilometres.

But – and here, I think, is the heart of the point – these old units of measurement died out not because the wicked Brussels bureaucrats of their day were determined to impose their will on the free-born Russian salt-trader, but because standard weights and measures make trade across borders easier and protects consumers too. Bureaucrats will tend, as Brussels did back in the 1990s, to want to help these things along: not out of personal perversity but because it makes everyone’s life easier. Old weights and measures, like local coins and local languages, die out because as trade increases they end up adding friction to the process.

So the case against selling plums and bananas in pounds and ounces isn’t a top-down, state totalitarian, anti-liberty case. It’s a pure free-market argument, as invisible-handy as any true-blue Tory could hope for. You would, at this stage, have to be well into late middle age to have even the faintest instinct for what a pound of plums looks like. I’m 48, and old recipe books send me straight to conversion tables. To put it plainly, patriotic grocers who do decide to do away with metric measures will find their customers voting with their feet in the general direction of the nearest Tesco. 

 Indeed, if we really were determined to make a success of the return of imperial measures it would require the sort of dirigisme that would make 1990s Eurocrats look like Milt Friedman on a stag weekend. We’d have to insist by law that everything be priced in imperial, and (if this were to be more than an expensive affectation) we’d have to wean millennials off milligrammes by outlawing metric. I can’t see the big supermarkets going for this scheme with any great enthusiasm, tied in as they continue to be with European markets and suppliers. 

And as for the ‘Global Britain‘ I remember everyone banging on about – all that frictionless trade, buccaneering refusal of red tape and so on – well, good luck with that. Being able to sell tourists a quaintly weighted bag of mint imperials when they visit the Tower of London might be an economic upside – but in the same way, perhaps, as a go-ahead new free trade deal with Australia will take the sting out of leaving the European single market.

So, fellow wetties, untwist those knickers. The return of imperial measures is a piece of posturing so absurd even the government won’t pretend to believe in it. The worst it will do is give us all a harmless laugh. And these days, God knows, you don’t get many of those to the kilo.