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by Joseph Anderson
05 June 2022
Divides and Rulers: Imperial vs metric is just another phoney culture war

Divides and Rulers: Imperial vs metric is just another phoney culture war

“The metric system is the tool of the devil,” says Abe, the ever-disgruntled, cantankerous grandfather in The Simpsons, “my car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!”

The joke being, obviously, that no one born after the 19th century has any idea what either of those measurements are – and if they did, they’d still recognise it as a joke, given it equates to around 2,730 litres per kilometre, making Abe Simpson’s car less economic than a space shuttle.

The point is, as one of those self-entitled millennials you might read about in The Telegraph from time to time, if those measurements were in imperial, that’s exactly how I’d feel – I haven’t a clue how much a pound is, let alone a stone, and I try (and fail miserably) to run five kilometres every week, not 3.1 miles. 

Setting measurements, the weight of a pound, or the length of a foot, has for most of mankind’s history been the responsibility of its rulers, which are aptly named.

The timing of the announcement that pounds and ounces will be returning to shops to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee is a fitting tribute, especially given the metric system was first practically used in revolutionary France – primarily to reconcile the impracticalities of its older system, but also to sever the monarchy from any sort of cultural influence (as well as severing their heads from their bodies). 

You could argue for days about how the metric system actually makes sense, being based on decimalisation rather than, say, the size of a king’s foot, but you’d be missing the point of the latest foray into cross-generational culture warring.

Like blue passports, tearing down statues, and casual racism on terrestrial television, the reintroduction of imperial measurements is another phoney culture war designed to appeal to voters who feel like the world has left them behind. 

It’s human nature to look back on the halcyon days of our youth, and hark back to a past ‘golden age’ of common sense, civility and competence. It’s also human nature to believe that the radical ideas of yesteryear – women’s emancipation, the minimum wage, sexual liberation, nuclear disarmament, and so forth – were vital and enduring, but today’s radical ideas – transgender rights, universal basic income, polyamory, et cetera – are a step too far, and unnatural.

Social conservatism, as an electoral force, plays on our inability to accurately remember our own history. Brexit promised to “take our country back”, although when it was stolen in the first place was left open to interpretation. Taking down statues that commemorate North Atlantic slavers is “historical vandalism”, despite the UK playing a huge part in abolishing slavery worldwide. And there was never an age of civility and debate – much of the political discourse of the 20th century was defined by war, strikes, riots and food shortages.

The truth is, people stand still while the world moves on around them. It’s happening to me. I’m in my early thirties and I still don’t get Tik Tok. One of my Gen Z colleagues sends me memes I have to pretend to understand. I opened this article with a quote from a cartoon that first aired in the early 90s. Why did they get rid of Bebo? And who is Olivia Rodrigo?

In ageing, and feeling the zeitgeist beginning to slip away from me, I now realise the arrogance of youth does not make for effective evangelism – no one has ever been persuaded by sanctimony and scorn. Although making fun of imperial measurements is tantalisingly low-hanging fruit, the emotion it taps into should be taken seriously – social progressives should take heed of the “dinosaurs” they belittle, speak to them like the human beings they are, and be mindful that one day, they too might feel left behind.

Read the most recent article written by Joseph Anderson - Section 30 orders: what are they, and can a referendum be held without one?

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