Comfort blankets

Like many writers I’ve had a short mental block on inspiration for topics but that has been broken this week by news this week the British government, as a Brexit benefit, was to legislate to allow traders to again sell products in the U.K. using imperial measurements, for example pounds and ounces. This is of course part of an ongoing culture war and there were lots of predictable takes around this including commentators, rightly pointing out, that there was no absolute prohibition of this before the U.K. left the EU. You could display and sell goods in imperial measurements as long as the metric equivalents were displayed.

Rather I think this one of those cultural things that goes to the heart of why some in society get anxious about change, which of course can be exploited by politicians, despite there being a good common sense reason for the change. People like their routines, things that are familiar, and get agitated when the change is handled poorly, not explained, or comes up against a “that’s how we always done it” mentality. I think however we can delve into an example from history to help explain what is going on.

Standards relating to weights and measures have always been important to regulating trade and commerce, for preventing fraud, protecting the consumer, and, of course, providing a unit of measurement for taxing a particular product! But they are also useful for regulating commerce between trading nations. That was fundamentally at the heart of the European Single Market which the U.K. left on 31/12/20 – trading between partners needs a common set of rules of which weights and measures was one. And the U.K. was a big proponent of such standardised behaviour when the Single Market was being formed in the 1980s ie if your major competition and export market is trading in one way, it is to your advantage to follow suit.

Travel back in time to 1752 and Britain changed its calendar to the Gregorian calendar ditching the old Julian calendar. Eleven days were removed from September that year to bring England’s calendar in line with the Gregorian calendar but it is the preamble to the Act of Parliament implementing the change that I find most interesting which reveals the underlying reason for the change:

“And whereas it will be of general convenience to Merchants and other persons corresponding with other nations and countries, and to prevent mistakes and disputes in or concerning the dates of letters and accounts…”

Britain was trading with the rest of the world, including many countries (and competitors) in Europe that were already using the Gregorian calendar and it was simple expediency to have conformity around trade. As it was with Britain moving to the later metric system when its trading partners in the earlier EEC were also using that system. (That process had actually started long before Britain joined the EEC in 1973.) But back in 1752 the calendar change was exploited politically even if historians are now unsure whether there were really “Give us our eleven days” riots purported to have occurred when the calendar was introduced. The changing of the calendar was indeed one of the issues debated in the election campaign of 1754. People (although very few had the vote) were unhappy and suspicious at the moving of saints’ days and holy days including the date of Easter and what was seen as the imposition of a ‘Popish’ calendar and perceived threat to English sovereignty. (Latter sound familiar?). There were also worries about wages. The riots are probably a myth but the “Eleven days” was definitely a protest slogan as later “Metric Martyrs” were to become in the early 2000s when a handful of market traders were successfully prosecuted for refusing to sell fruit and vegetables in grams and kilograms. The traders case was also weaponised by pro-Brexit campaigners as an example of injustice and how EU regulations had impinged on the sovereignty of people to trade in their preferred unit of measurement. It maybe no surprise that one of the most Brexity places in England was Sunderland, home to the first metric martyr test case involving Steven Thoburn.

I’m not advocating one particular political point of view here but trying to analyse why something that is seemingly mundane, like weights and measurements, can have cultural and political salience over-riding common-sense economic cases for uniformity and can be used and exploited by politicians with an agenda.

In Britain at least historians ignore these cultural elements are their peril in trying to explain current affairs and recent political history. Whilst people in Britain have adapted to elements of metrication, such as buying petrol in litres, a moment or two’s thought soon makes you appreciate just how common older imperial weights and measures are in everyday use today, even if you are younger person not brought up on them (like me!) For example, British people often announce their height in feet and inches, think of their weight in terms of stones and pounds and
order pints or half pints of drink in pubs. Road distances are still stated in miles. Mums and Dads
announce the weight of their babies in pounds and ounces. That British obsession the weather likes talking in Fahrenheit if it gets hot. Pizzas are sold in inches; steaks in restaurants are described in ounces; horse races are run in furlongs; and vegetable allotments are rented out in rods, poles or perches. If these measurements are not necessarily logical or useful compared to metric, they sound friendly and useful as part of wider public discourse and human interaction. They are part of *language* – the one thing that is probably the most cultural in terms of identity and who we are. Takeaway language, you takeaway one of the identity comfort blankets that anchors people in their society.

So weights and measurements, whichever side of the argument you sit on, are therefore emotional and there is an emotional attachment people cling to. And emotional things and objects can be appropriated, exploited and weaponised especially when associated with the word ‘imperial’ (measurements) when a country like Britain can still hark back to empire. So hence their salience today and emotional arguments often win against hard economics or business trading rationale. So we end up arguing about pounds and ounces and certain politicians smile.


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