The back of a Nissan Qashqai is an unlikely base for a guerrilla operation. Yet crammed into the boot of the quintessential family car is everything Tony Bennett needs for his raid. There are spanners, screwdrivers, No More Nails adhesive and blank signboards. There are sheaves of transfers featuring letters and numbers in an array of sizes and fonts alongside a hard hat and neon yellow jacket – both of which Bennett often dons while he carries out his activities. “You can’t underestimate the power of a high-vis jacket if you want to go about something unchallenged,” he tells me sagely.
Also present is a ring binder stuffed full of yellowing newspaper clippings and printouts of online news stories about Bennett’s previous raids. “Metric protesters toast success” proclaims one. “Metric signs man cleared” reads another.
Bennett, who is now the editor of a Christian newspaper, is used to seeing his name in print.
A former solicitor who has stood for public office for both Ukip and the Veritas party, he has had bursts of notoriety in the national press. In 2004 he was banned from standing for Ukip for two years after publishing a pamphlet that made comments that were offensive to Muslims and in 2013 he was found guilty of contempt of court for repeatedly publishing allegations linking the parents of Madeleine McCann with her disappearance. Bennett had earlier attempted to bring about a private prosecution against the McCanns for child neglect, which was dismissed.
But it’s Bennett’s longest-running bête noire that led to him driving his tool-stuffed SUV 130 miles from his home in Shrewsbury to Sandy in Bedfordshire where we meet. In 2001 Bennett and four fellow campaigners set up Active Resistance to Metrication (ARM) with the aim of opposing what it describes as “forced metrication”. It didn’t take long for ARM to begin a campaign of direct action by “correcting” signs giving distances in metric units to their imperial equivalent.
In the 21 years since, the group claims to have altered over 3,000 signs. I’m here to witness their latest manoeuvre. With a new sign made up, slathered in adhesive and hidden behind Bennett’s back, we set off on the short walk (a third of a mile/483 metres/528 yards) down a private road towards the Lodge nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). This tranquil spot is about to become the latest front in a war of units that’s been raging for centuries.
World in the balance
The metric system was born out of the French Revolution when, in an attempt to bring order to the chaos of the late 1700s, France’s new government went big on decimalisation. Time itself would be reordered – a Republican calendar consisting of ten-day weeks and ten-hour days, with 100 minutes per hour and 100 seconds per minute was introduced – and weights and measures would be standardised to metres and kilograms.
While the new calendar was ideological, removing the religious overtones of the seven-day week, new weights and measurements were a more practical decision. “It’s estimated that there were 250,000 different units of measurement in use in France on the eve of the French Revolution,” says Dr Ken Alder, professor of history at Illinois’ Northwestern University and author of The Measure of All Things, a book about the birth of the metre. “In France and in countries throughout Europe, weights and measures were different in every single town, often even different from one artisanal group to another.” To make matters even more confusing, these units often went under the same name. “A pint in Paris would have been smaller than a pint in Saint-Denis, which is a suburb just to the north,” Alder continues. “It drove the state crazy trying to create taxes and regulate the economy. So the metric system was born out of a desire to create this uniformity.”
Following the 1789 revolution, the new government of France gave the French Academy of Sciences the task of replacing the myriad weight and measurement units with a logical system using multiples of ten. The metre – from the Greek metron, meaning ‘measure’ – was to underpin everything. Greek prefixes were used for multiples of ten (kilo, hecto, deca) and Latin prefixes for the submultiples (milli, centi, deci). A litre was 1,000 cubic centimetres of water and a kilogram was the mass of one litre of distilled water, at a temperature of four degrees Celsius. But how to set the length of this all-powerful metre? “In Britain you have the king’s measures and you declare it throughout the land: so everybody has to use those,” says Alder. “That wasn’t really going to fly in France at that time. The people given authority to create this new system were scientists and they decided that the core unit would be based on nature. Because that would be the same for everybody, everywhere.”
“Conquests will come and go, but this work will endure” – Napoleon Bonaparte on the metric system
With nature leading the way it was determined that a metre was to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator and two astronomers, Pierre Méchain and Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, were despatched to measure the length of the meridian line running through France to do the calculations. Their maths set a metre at the equivalent of 39.37008 inches (although, as Alder discovered during his research, a mistake in one of the measurements meant that the meridian line length they came up with was out by some two kilometres overall, or about 0.2mm per metre). With all the calculations complete the system was unveiled to much fanfare in 1795 with the motto “for all people, for all time”. In September 1801, metrication was put into force and all other units were forbidden. Then, as Alder puts it, the new system “quickly fell apart”.
The citizens of France roundly refused to join the metric revolution. “Measurements express values,” says Alder when asked about the aversion to change. “When you measure something, you’re often valuing it in the commercial sense, but you’re also saying something about your own values. Measures may not seem important, but we use them constantly to interact with our world and with our fellow citizens.” There were practical considerations too – a pre-metric measure of cloth, for example, was generally equal to the width of local looms, which couldn’t easily be adapted to the new metres. “There was a rationale behind the resistance,” says Alder. “In France at that time you would measure a field in days because of how many days it took to bring in the harvest. If you were a peasant working the land, that might tell you a lot more about it than how many hectares you had. It’s inappropriate to think of one side as being the rationalists and the other as being the irrationalists. They each care about problems that are real to them.”
To persuade its citizens to get on board, the French authorities authorised police inspections to ensure the new system was being used. Even this strong-arming wasn’t enough, though, and in practice everyone continued to use their favoured old units with the metric system taught in schools, but rarely used beyond that. Napoleon Bonaparte, who had publicly congratulated the metric system’s creators saying “conquests will come and go, but this work will endure” refused to use the metre himself and ordered its official withdrawal in 1812.
Eventually, however, the world came around to a metric way of thinking. Industrialisation and globalisation created a further need for one set of measurements to rule them all and the metric system seemed the logical choice. Thirty years after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire the French government gave the metric system another big push. This time – aided by expanding commerce – it took hold.
Following further tweaks, other countries started adopting the metric system too. Alder has noticed a trend. “It turns out the metric system moves around the world to countries largely in moments of incredible ruptures in sovereignty, periods of revolution or radical change,” he says. “In Germany it’s adopted during the creation of the German Empire, in China during the 1911 revolution, in Russia during the 1917 revolution, in South America it’s adopted during decolonisation. Canada did it at the time of adopting its new constitution… Metrication is the kind of thing that states may want to impose, but they’re only going to do so at moments when you’re sort of rejecting the past. It’s a chance to start over.”
Today, while some small states including Liberia and Myanmar still officially use imperial units, the only major country not to adopt the metric system is the US which, Alder notes, “is pretty much the only country in the world that has not gone through a radical change in sovereignty since the French Revolution”. But what of the UK? “So now in the British case, I guess it could be argued that the EEC, the EU as it is called now, is a change in sovereignty,” says Alder. “And that is the impetus, the moment at which it was introduced.”
Britain began its switch to the metric system in 1965, widely seen as part of its push to join the European Economic Community, which it eventually did eight years later. However, many people and businesses continued to use imperial weights and measures. That all changed in 1995 when the UK’s Units of Measurement Regulations made it illegal not to use metric values for retail sales of packaged goods. This law was extended to loose goods, such as vegetables, in 2000. And that’s when things really kicked off.
Scales of justice
As they had in Napoleonic times, many people resisted enforced metrication, and once again the long arm of the law was used to ensure the metric line was toed. One of those who refused to change was Steven Thoburn, a greengrocer who ran a stall in Sunderland in northern England. In one of the more unlikely sting operations of recent times, in 2000 an undercover police officer bought 34p worth of bananas from Thoburn – which the grocer weighed on non-metric scales. Thoburn, who had been warned by trading standards officers about using scales with imperial measures, was arrested and his scales were confiscated.
“Why are we coercing Britons to use the measurements of Napoleon, when the imperial system survives”
It was the government’s decision to force compulsory metrication on the sale of loose goods that prompted Bennett to take up arms. “Before then I’d say [to people concerned about metrication] look, that’s a yard,” says Bennett taking one large step, “and that,” taking another, “is a metre. It’s about the same thing. Why bother? Then you got this order from the government, despite all the promises in the past about it being voluntary, ordering these fishmongers, greengrocers and cheese sellers to change their equipment and the way they work.”
Bennett took up Thoburn’s cause, driving up to Sunderland with then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage to meet with the greengrocer and raising both money for his defence and awareness of his plight. The publicity drive worked: Thoburn, despite telling people “I just want my effing scales back”, was dubbed a ‘metric martyr’ and found himself front page news and the subject of think pieces and political columns.
Judge Bruce Morgan presided over the case of, as he put it, “the most famous bunch of bananas in legal history” when it came to trial in 2001. Thoburn was found guilty of breaching the Weights and Measures Act. In his ruling, Morgan said that “so long as this country remains a member of the European Union then the laws of this country are subject to the doctrine of the primacy of community law.” Thoburn was fined and given a six-month conditional discharge. His scales weren’t returned. Attempts to get the conviction overturned in the high court and the House of Lords ended in failure. The ruling was seized on by Boris Johnson, then the editor of the Spectator magazine. “Why are we coercing Britons to use the measurements of Napoleon, when the imperial system survives and ﬂourishes in America, the most successful economy on earth?” he wrote at the time. “It is monstrous that little tinpot ‘metrologists’ on local authorities should be fanning out across the country, threatening shopkeepers with ﬁnes and imprisonment if they fail to comply.”
Two months after Thoburn was found guilty, Bennett and his ARM associates began their campaign of direct action and, as he puts it, “things started to build”. “Our specific target was to stop the government’s plans to metricate our roads and footpaths,” he tells me over coffee and flapjacks in the RSPB visitor centre. “Our main campaign objective was achieved on 23rd February 2006 at the filming of BBC’s Question Time in Milton Keynes when then-secretary of state [for trade and industry] Alistair Darling announced that the government was abandoning metrication of our roads and footpaths. You should have heard the roar of approval from the crowd.” Bennett estimates it would have cost the government £1 billion to change the road signs to metric measures. “If somebody asks me ‘why bother [with the ARM campaign]?’ my definitive answer is that we saved the country about a billion pounds on an unnecessary exercise,” he says proudly.
Thoburn died in 2004 from a suspected heart attack at the age of 39 but his legacy lives on. In 2021 the Times wrote that the greengrocer “arguably did more than any politician to set Britain on the path towards Brexit”. His daughter, who partially blames the stress of the case and the publicity for her father’s early death, continues to campaign for his pardon.
Following his ascent to the office of prime minister in 2019, Johnson returned to the theme of metrication. “We will bring back that ancient liberty,” he told the Daily Mail shortly after taking office. “People understand what a pound of apples is. There will be an era of generosity and tolerance towards traditional measurements.” In June 2022 his government launched a consultation on scrapping the EU-originated ban on displaying imperial measurements alone.
Footnotes of history
While Bennett is delighted that the government has apparently come around to his way of thinking, saying “I’m glad we’ve got our country back”, Peter Burke, chair of the UK Metric Association, is less enamoured with the launch of the consultation. He describes it as “the first step backwards on a gradual progression towards sanity in weights and measures which has been going on for 150 years.”
“We’re a society that can’t make its mind up over what units to use” – Peter Burke Chair of the UK Metric Association
“What happened in June was not a surprise,” he says. “It’s been so hard to find any benefits from Brexit that this [the return of imperial measures] has been portrayed as one of them, along with the blue passports and crown stamps on glasses and noisy vacuum cleaners, none of which have been of great use to anybody. It is almost inevitable that people from that side of the fence will use weights and measures as a distraction from all the very substantial problems the country is facing at the moment.”
Distraction or not, Burke has spent the consultation period in a frenzy of activity – writing to media outlets and trade bodies to, as he puts it, “make the case against rolling back the clock.” “Those that have come back to us have said they’re as horrified as we are,” he says. “The professional association of market traders has come out against this initiative – they see it as being a retrograde step which will introduce a lot of inconvenience and cost. It’s only a small minority that wants to deal in pounds and ounces. Removing metric labels simply means reducing choice for consumers.”
Burke is keen to point out that under the current law, traders are free to put imperial markings on their goods or to display prices based on imperial units as long as the metric equivalent is displayed with equal prominence, but describes the holy grail as just having one system. “We’re a society that can’t make its mind up over what units to use and there’s no doubt that the use of two systems causes confusion,” he says. “If you’re going to get rid of dual units, there’s only one way you can go, which is the way the rest of the world has already gone, which is metric.”
Burke is a doctor and says he comes across the confusion regularly. “Often when I give people their height or weight in metres and kilograms they’ll ask me ‘what’s that in real money?’,” he says, “but metric is ‘real money’; it’s how [medical professionals] calculate BMI [body mass index], which is really important. There was a famous case of the drug dosage for a patient being miscalculated because the prescriber assumed the weight given was metric not imperial. As a result 2.2 times the required dose was given. And the patient died.”
Burke goes on to cite the case of Nasa’s Mars Climate Orbiter as an example of how the use of dual systems can baffle even rocket scientists. In 1999 this $327m spacecraft disappeared within moments of reaching the red planet: the reason was later revealed to be US customary units being entered as metric when the Orbiter’s flight calculations were made. The resulting mismatch meant the craft flew too close to Mars, and was lost. “It’s all so avoidable,” says Burke with exasperation.
When our conversation turns to Tony Bennett and ARM’s direct-action campaign, Burke looks visibly angry. “It’s pure vandalism,” he says. “Also, it’ll be a big job for them because on the motorways there are white distance markers, located every 100 metres, not 100 yards. So, if you want to take away every single one of those, it’ll take a while. It’s perfectly reasonable for a local authority to put signs up for walkers or cyclists in kilometres, and if you paint over those you should be treated like any other vandal. There’s nothing sacred about destroying property just because it’s using units you don’t like. That’s not how law and order works.”
Back in the RSPB bird sanctuary Bennett explains why he thinks he’s on the right side of the law. “On public road signs it is illegal to use metric distances,” he says. This is also true of road signs for pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians, all of which should, according to the law, display imperial units only. When it comes to signs on private property, the law states that “any length of highway or of any other road to which the public has access” should follow suit. “A good example would be an airport owned by the British Airports Authority,” says Bennett. “Now, obviously, people are driving in and out of the airport and so although it’s private land you can’t suddenly change the unit of the road signs,” he says before segueing into an anecdote about spray-painting a sign in Stansted Airport which resulted in a trip to the local police station.
Bennett returns to the matter of the RSPB’s weathered wooden sign pointing people to its visitor centre “1,000 metres” away and deems it a “legitimate target”. The replacement sign is affixed and the destination is now given as half a mile away. When I ask him if that’s accurate (1,000 metres is 0.62 miles) he is unperturbed. “I think half a mile is about right,” he says. “One of the great things about the imperial system is that you don’t use large numbers.” As we both stand back and look upon his handiwork, I ask whether he feels guilty about sticking a piece of white signboard onto what was once a charming wooden sign. He ponders the question for a moment. “It is a shame, yes, but they should have used British measurements,” he says before praising his choice of bold font. “At least it’s now easier to read.”
The government’s imperial consultation closed on 26th August and the feedback is currently being analysed. By the time the consultation period ended it had been announced that Boris Johnson was to resign as Conservative leader. He was replaced by Liz Truss on 6th September. It remains to be seen if Truss will share her predecessor’s passion for the primacy of pounds and ounces and whether the response to the consultation will result in a rolling back of the Units of Measurement Regulations removing the need for goods to display metric values at all. Alder says he’ll be watching attentively from the US. “It will be interesting to see what Britain does,” he says. “My speculation would be the usual muddle-through. People are capable of operating on multiple registers and in some domains of life they’ll use the metric system and in other domains of life they’ll continue to use imperial units.”
Whatever’s next, Alder believes the debate shows the importance of apparently mundane things. “Measurement is very banal, but when it’s made visible to you and when it’s in question, it can become very controversial,” he says. “You’d be surprised how often boring things change the world.”
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