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Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Desperate Measures: Mr Johnson and Imperial pints and pounds

 A dead cat to distract from a crisis, but offered as if a genuine subject for "discussion" by Global Britain's "who cares about exports" ageing population. So here is what I wrote on the subject in my 2016 book The Best I Can Do, freely available from the usual suspects but also from my preferred seller blackwells.

Futures like The Past

Human beings cannot be other than creatures of habit. They are obliged to create futures which are pretty much like their pasts. Habits can be changed, but only a few at a time and against a background of habits which remain intact. Changing a habit involves some kind of emotional and intellectual challenge, however minimal. You have to go outside your comfort zone and you have to learn something new. It’s raising your game, it’s stepping up to the plate, it’s work.

Most of the time, human beings prefer their comfort zones and the absence of mental challenge to the work involved in change. Some human beings prefer to be comfortable and idle all the time. Inevitably, this often means settling for second best. Or worse. So people end up for very long - sometimes lifelong - periods in bad marriages and bad jobs, living in fuel-inefficient homes, driving fuel-inefficient cars, with their money going in and out of an account with a second-rate bank, taking a break from it all on cold and wet public holidays, being fed up with politicians. They grumble. Emotionally, it’s a cheap alternative to change.

I opened my first bank account with Lloyds Bank in 1965 in order to pay in my university grant cheques. I stayed with Lloyds until the mid 1990s - let's say, thirty years. Lloyds was all right but not more than that. I found it hard to keep track of my finances and cheques did bounce. Their rates of interest on borrowing were almost certainly higher than ones I could have obtained elsewhere. A friend spent several years pointing out to me that I could change for the better. Eventually I moved to First Direct and  have never regretted it. Here was a bank where I could check the state of my account 24/7. I am never in trouble now. But there is something shocking about the way I resisted making a fairly simple change from one bank to another. And there are plenty of people who would never have done it. They would have stuck to their bank as if it was written into their marriage vows that they should do so. Mostly we live by the equivalent of marriage vows.


The UK has a pre-modern political system - a Ruritanian monarchy with the usual trappings of odd local rights and privileges (ownership of swans and such like); an unelected and completely corrupt second chamber; a first chamber designed to remind its Members of 19th century public schools. Those members have their own unbreakable habits - in the UK, the House of Commons, despite modest changes, remains submerged under fatuous rituals designed to create a backlog of real work and thus to stop as much change as possible. It is made tolerable to Members of Parliament only by the on-sitre availability of large amounts of subsidised alcohol.

But even where politicians are open to change, they have to contend with the electorate's resistance. Voters are people who stand there, fold their arms and tell you that they always have done and always will do it THIS way. Urged to change, they will stamp their feet and cry, Shan't, Can't, Won't!

As a result, for example, the United Kingdom has no coherent system of weights and measures which everyone uses. For a number of years, the European Union tried to get us to Go Metric. But teachers had no intention of going metric (they didn't understand these foreign ideas) and market traders saw the chance to become Metric Martyrs, and like the pound sterling, wasn't it part of our Tradition and Heritage to have fourteen pounds to the stone and , er, eight stones to the hundredweight (which is not one hundred but one hundred and twelve pounds ) and, your turn, how many hundredweights is it to the ton unless it’s a short ton ….and so eventually the European Union gave up in the face of irredeemable stupidity. We were granted yet another opt-out. As a result, the UK is now pre-modern, with an incoherent jumble of systems in use. 

Just visit any supermarket. Here you can find pints for some liquids, liters for others. Grams and kilos on one shelf, ounces and pounds on another. In Cornwall, maybe they still sell potatoes by the gallon. Weigh yourself on the bathroom scales, and some of us will use pounds and stones and some kilos. Medications are normally measured in milligrams and grams, mililiters and centiliters and not everyone understands what that all means so there are occasional disastrous results. Go to a fabric shop and you may find meters or you may find yards. Buy petrol and it's in liters, but distance measurement is in miles not kilometers. And, to rub it in, road signs show fractions of miles rather than decimal points of miles - as you approach the Channel Tunnel, you are counted down from two-thirds of a mile to one-third of a mile, a final flag-waving Work-That-Out-If -You-Can opt-out from new-fangled and, above all, foreign systems.

Two hundred years or more ago, as countries entered the modern era, so they unified, simplified and extended the reach of systems of weights and measures. Local and highly particular traditions disappeared as did local currencies. The decimal system and the metric system are the expression of this move to the modern era, and their near-universal adoption is one of the enduring achievements of the French Revolution. It was a political achievement but the actual work was done by mathematicians and scientists of the first rank – Condorcet, Laplace, Lavoisier. They tried to work with British and American colleagues – Thomas Jefferson notable among them – but both those countries turned up their noses at what the French were proposing. It took Britain until 1971 to decimalise its currency and 1984 until the anomaly of a ½ penny coin was removed. But we still haven’t made it into the modern era. Children learn how to use bits of different systems and none of them very well. They have no idea of how powerful a tool a unified system can be. They simply become good at bodging which is fine for a nation of bodgers. It’s obtuse to expect children to be good at maths when their culture constantly tells them to bodge anything to do with numbers.

The moral is this: dysfunctional and, more generally, sub-optimal states of institutions and practices can persist indefinitely. They don't necessarily get eliminated any more than do pandas (who are terribly ill-adapted to their environment and generally miserable in consequence). All that happens is that people are generally miserable as they see their societies and economies grumbling and stumbling along, their politicians still aspiring to nothing more than an Opt Out from the modern world. But people won’t do anything about it. They made their Vows long ago.

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