England advances by furlongs per fortnight

International prototype kilogramme

Along with the European Commission I couldn’t give a monkey’s whether you quote your weight in kilogrammes, stones or, in this age of burgeoning obesity, London buses. And if you fancy a paahnd of bananas, far be it from me to complain. Any greengrocer with a gramme of sense will know what you mean, even if he marks up his produce in kilos alone.

If you believe the media reports published on this side of La Manche, the EU has given up on its demand that the UK fully adopt the metric system. But there never was any such demand, and the latest twist in this story is a victory for European common sense over the ludicrous Metric Martyrs, and also the British government.

Take EU Vice President Günter Verheugen’s statement published on Tuesday. Here is a man who comes across as having more understanding of British cultural traditions than our own confused politicians, who have dillied and dallied for decades over the issue of metrication.

Verheugen points out that it was in 1864 that Parliament first started the process of metrication, over a century before Eurocracy as we know it came into being. In 1969 Britain set up a Metrication Board, and this was several years before the UK joined the Common Market. Since then “Europe” has bent over backwards to accommodate English prevarication over the issue of metrication.

Personally, I think almost exclusively in metric units. And that’s not just because I’ve spent a number of my adult years living in continental Europe. I was raised in New Zealand and Ireland at a time when these countries shared more cultural traits with their former colonial masters than they do today. But as a schoolboy I was educated in both imperial and metric units, and the transition to metric was handled a lot better than it has been in Britain.

In New Zealand and Ireland today the old units remain in informal use, and in Scandinavia boat lengths are often measured in feet. The inch, known in Germany as the “Zoll”, is a very useful unit as it is roughly the width of a human thumb. The Norwegians even have their own mile, but be warned that the “Norske mil” is defined as 10 kilometres. If you live in rural Trøndelag and your nearest pub is a mile away, you’ll most likely not be walking there for your evening pint.

But other countries’ experiences count for little or nothing with the English, who instead complain that switching road signs from miles to kilometres would be astronomically expensive. Rubbish. It need not be done overnight, and as long as the new signs are clearly marked “km” and “km/h” there should be no problem.

The Irish took some 35 years to go metric, and in 2005 they completed the job. If we carry on as we are in dear old Blighty, moaning about perceived threats to our way of life from Johnny Foreigner, we could see the US adopt the metric system before us, leaving only the Burmese and Liberians to give us an inch.

I would prefer that we adopt metric wherever a single measurement standard is required. And if we do this the words “pound” and “pint” will not fall out of common use; they will simply be redefined as a half kilogramme and half litre. You might be short-changed a swig of beer on the changeover, but this is no big deal, and in any case there would be no need to abolish the 0.57-litre pub pint.

* The picture above is a computer generated image of the International Prototype Kilogramme; i.e., the kilogramme. This lump of platinum-iridium alloy is stored in a vault in the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) in Sèvres. Here it sits next to an inch ruler for reference (French humour).