The UK smoking ban of 1 July 2007 was arguably preceded by several other social revolutions over previous decades.
One of these was the switch in Britain from imperial units to metric units, known as metrication. I can still remember the day, 15 February 1971, when the old Pounds, Shillings, and Pence were replaced by Pounds and New Pence. I was working at Westminster City Council at the time, and I can still remember standing outside on that watery sunlit day in Victoria Street looking at the unfamiliar, very shiny new coins in my hand.
Metrication was also accompanied by changes in weights and measures. We were to stop using yards, feet, and inches, and instead use metres and centimetres and millimetres. And we were to stop using pounds and ounces as weights, and use kilograms instead. I don’t think all of these changes happened on 15 February 1971. And indeed some of them never happened at all.
For it never proved possible to replace the imperial miles on British road signs with metric kilometres. And it continues to be possible to buy potatoes in pounds rather than kilograms. And of course pubs sell beer by the imperial pint rather than the metric litre or demi.
Unlike the smoking ban, metrication affected absolutely everybody. And at the time, aged 23, I was in favour of metrication for the simple reason that the decimal system was mathematically much easier to use than the complex imperial system.
Nevertheless, because I had been taught in childhood how to work with pounds, shillings, and pence, and with yards, feet and inches, and with pounds and ounces, they had become my most fundamental categories of measure. I knew how long a yard was. I didn’t know how long a metre was, except that it wasn’t much different from a yard.
And these days, although I rigorously use metres and kilograms in my calculations of heat flow, I continue to think about everything else using the measures of my childhood. So I’ll tell you that I’m five feet eight inches high, and that I weigh nine stones.
The old measures are built into the English language. We say: “Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” We don’t say: “Give them a centimetre, and they’ll take a kilometre.”
The result of metrication was, for me, a split mind. Or at least a mind in which two rival measurement systems co-existed. Metrication imposed a kind of schizophrenia (Greek schizo means split) on the British people. My generation all have split personalities in this sense: we were raised with one set of measures, but we’re forced by law to live with another set. Which is a bit like being raised a Christian, and forced to become a Muslim (which also seems to be happening).
And not everybody liked this. And there’s still a British Resistance to metrication. We’ve kept our miles. And we’ve kept our pints. And we’ve also kept our Pound Sterling. They are, in profound senses, part of who we are.
Was metrication a good thing? As I’ve said, it seemed to me at the time to be an improvement, a simplification. But I now wonder whether it really was. After all, although it’s easier to add and subtract numbers using a decimal system, does it really matter when these calculations are now mostly performed by microprocessors in tills and weighing machines and speedometers? It would have been perfectly possible, a few years after 1971, to have tills that optionally displayed prices in pounds, shillings, and pence, or feet and inches, or any other units you might care to mention. It wasn’t really necessary for metrication to be imposed on the British people. They could have quite happily continued with their old currency, and their old weights and measures, with computers performing any necessary conversions.
Metrication in Britain was, in many ways, a prelude to joining the European Common Market. The metric system is a French invention:
Gabriel Mouton, a church vicar in Lyons, France, is considered by many to be the founding father of the metric system. In 1670, Mouton proposed a decimal system of measurement that French scientists would spend years further refining. In 1790, the national assembly of France called for an invariable standard of weights and measurements having as its basis a unit of length based on the Earth’s circumference. As a convenience the system would be decimal based, with larger and smaller multiples of each unit arrived at by dividing and multiplying by 10 and its powers.
Isn’t it interesting that the French Revolution (which began in 1789) coincided with a change in French weights and measures. It would have meant a disordering of French customary thinking of the kind I’ve described as happening to the British around 1970. Their world would have been turned upside down. Might this disorder have fed into the revolution? Could it have been that the French Revolution was a revolt by French traditionalists against the new-fangled weights and measures dreamt up by aristocratic revolutionaries?
The Aristocrat who revolutionised chemistry: Before Madame Guillotine claimed him, Antoine Lavoisier transformed chemistry into a modern science with his revolutionary set of terms and symbols.
Was Lavoisier executed because he was such a revolutionary? I’ll have to ask some French bloke. I’m sure they’ll know.
Is it any different today? Metrication was a top-down revolution imposed by the British government on the British people. The smoking ban was another piece of top-down social engineering. Neither of them were much liked. And both of them are drivers of Brexit, with the political elites playing the Lavoisiers of our time, and equally likely to meet the same sticky end.