How Westminster once struggled to impose Imperial measures on Scotland
THURSDAY brought the strange news that Boris Johnson was going to reintroduce Imperial Weights and Measures as a legal standard for markets, shops and supermarkets. Some quickly compared Boris Johnson’s chauvinistic wisdom to Grandfather Simpson’s criticism that the metric system was “the devil’s tool.”
But Westminster’s cartoonish scenes reviving Imperial measures and reimposing them on Scotland should elicit more than satire. Weights and measures are reserved matters. Indeed, the Act of Union itself ensured that the same weights and measures were to be imposed throughout the United Kingdom as those established in England.
After the passage of the 1707 Act, sets of measures were sent to Edinburgh for distribution.
There is no doubt that someone in London will polish old scales at the British Museum to pack them up and send them to Scotland.
Yet the attempt to impose imperial measures on Scotland met with limited success.
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No one from provincial tradespeople to Scottish Chambers of Commerce was happy to see their own worn weights, pitchers and other instruments being discarded, and many had a practical attachment to the system they had learned to use. .
At the same time, a larger movement was emerging across Europe that believed that rather than nationally imposed systems, it made much more sense to bring together and ultimately standardize basic units of measurement internationally.
Either way, Westminster’s efforts to regulate weights and measures across the UK progressed so slowly that in 1758 parliament was asked to conduct an inquiry to speed it up, with a view to standardizing measures. British. But politicians, swollen with pride in Britain’s peculiar ways, failed to legislate for uniformity in 1758 and 1759.
In response to this embarrassing stop, two Scots gave their own tuppence value. Both Jacobites in their youth, neither could afford to openly attack the government, but each still harbored a healthy cynicism about Britain’s sense of herself.
James Stirling, a protégé of Isaac Newton, was one of the outstanding mathematicians of his time. In 1759 he was the manager of the mines at Leadhills, where he was the first to measure miners’ labor and set some of the fairest rates in Scotland. Stirling responded to the parliamentary inquiry by showing that the system of weights and measures that worked in Scotland was valuable, if not venerable, not for its age but for its usefulness.
Meanwhile, in 1759, James Steuart was in his 12th year of exile for his role as senior advisor to Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 45s. He spent much of his time working on economic policy and produced a “Plan for the introduction of uniformity of weights and measures”. He attacked the “misconception” that a country should stick to its own measurement system, which only “engages us in disputes” and “involves difficult investigations”. There should, he thought, be a world system.
Urging Britain to “break the shackles of old custom” for its own good and that of all others, Steuart pointed to the obvious benefits of an international system. The exchanges would be easier, the prices would be clearer and, in short, people would be better off. “At ‘one time or another'”, he hoped, “either a wise state or a man of public spirit will think of carrying it out.”
In 1781, Steuart’s nephew, the radical Earl of Buchan, praised his uncle’s plan – with one caveat. The world system should not be called the London measure or the Imperial system. The imperial capital was not the center of the world that its governors wanted it to be. It might as well be named after Rome, which once had an empire stretching across the European world.
Long before the current imperial system was imposed in 1824, the British tendency to insist on using its own solution to weights and measures was an embarrassment. By bringing imperial measures back to the stalls of the British market, Boris Johnson is determined to make the trader the guardian of the British national spirit.
Maybe like Abe Simpson, his car gets 40 bars to the barrel, and that’s how he likes it. The future will tell if Boris’ new bleachers will give his government the boost it hopes for in its retro-imperial adventure. More likely, he’ll look up from his chimerical quest to restore the Empire and see the writing on the wall. Mene mene tekel upharsin: weighed, measured and found insufficient.