Tuesday, September 11, 2007

LONDON After decades of feuding about it, Britain‘s citizens are now free to buy their ale and milk by the pint and their bananas and potatoes by the pound, then measure the distance they drive back home in miles — all without threat of interference from the European Union.

The Brussels-based European Union, evidently exasperated, finally threw in the towel today, said it could no longer be bothered, and announced that Britain could carry on indefinitely using its centuries-old system of imperial measures.

The European Union — 27 member nations strong but still not forceful enough to bend the stubborn British to its will — effectively washed its hands of even trying any longer to force its metric-only system of liters, kilograms, kilometers and the like on the recalcitrant island nation.

To the delight of Britain’s so-called metric martyrs, who have risked fines and even threats of jail to preserve their sacrosanct set of imperial ways of measuring things, European Industry Commissioner Gunter Verheugen promised that the European Commission will never “be responsible for banning the great British pint, the mile and weight measures in pounds and ounces.”

Not, as the British would say, before time. For the past 12 years, goods sold in the bloc, including Britain, have had to display weights and measures in metric terms, such as liters, grams and kilograms, although to appease a furious public, imperial measures dating back to the Middle Ages were allowed to be posted alongside the metric in Britain.

Even that concession had a Brussels-ordained deadline — Jan. 1, 2010, when all imperial measures were to get the final ax despite the fact that at least 15 consumer surveys between 1995 and 2000 had found the British public overwhelmingly opposed to metrification.

For the British, it has been an often difficult, and sometimes hilarious, time. One tiny English village jumped the gun and erected speed-limit signs in kilometers per hour — 50 mph, for instance, became 80 kph. To the horror of villagers, drivers read the 80 as miles per hour and turned their lone street into a virtual racetrack.

Finally, tradition has won out over what many Britons view as a malicious French trick dating back to the metric system’s invention in that country in the late 18th century.

Henceforth, all those pints of beer at the local pub, yards of football field turf (a yard being defined as the distance from 12th-century King Henry I’s nose to the tip of his outstretched arm) and gallons of horse manure, a European Commission spokeswoman told journalists, “are in no way under threat from Brussels, and never will be.”

The lone metric measure the British appear to have accepted is the liter as a measure of gasoline, or petrol, as they term it, for motor vehicles. One possible explanation is that having to pay 95 pence per liter at the pump sounds better than 3.90 pounds — a whopping $7.80 — per gallon.

Retailers in Britain still, under EU law, will have to advertise their wares in metric measures — but no longer will they risk a hefty fine, or possibly even jail, for also openly measuring everything in ancient imperial terms.

If there is ever to be a switch to fully metric in Britain, the European Commission says, the British government will have to do the switching. The European Union, the commission’s spokeswoman said, wants to “put a full stop on this issue” as far as its involvement is concerned.

The bloc’s governing commission spent months consulting with British industry, trade and consumer groups about what to do about the imperial vs. metric imbroglio before deciding enough was more than enough.

A British Press Association news agency report suggested that “one argument which helped persuade the commission to keep imperial measures was British government insistence that European industry needed to sell to U.S. markets, which would not take kindly to importing products only bearing metric weights and measures.”

I want to bring to an end a bitter, bitter battle that has lasted for decades, Mr. Verheugen said, describing it as completely pointless.”

“These imperial measures,” he said, “form part of the traditions — the traditions that are the very essence of the Britishness that all Europeans know and love.”

Doubtless his comment will be toasted with many a pint of ale raised across the land.

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