British say metric rule doesn't measure up

Ordered to adopt new standards, some shopkeepers vow not to budge an

Butcher Dave Stevens may mince meat, but not words.

"To us, an ounce is an ounce, and a pound is a pound," he affirms while slicing a skirt steak in The Chop Shop, Leigh-on-Sea, eastern England. "A kilogram is a foreign measure, and our customers don't understand what it means."

For Mr. Stevens and his business partner, Mandy Reilly, who describe themselves as "British to the core," threats of fines and the argument that the rest of Europe went metric long ago fall short. They are among thousands of British shopkeepers ready to take on Prime Minister Tony Blair's government - and the entire European Union - over the push to phase out Britain's old imperial measures. Says Ms. Reilly: "We aren't about to stop doing something we've been doing for centuries, just because Europe says so."

What the Federation of Small Businesses, representing 75,000 firms, has dubbed the "metric monster" began stalking Britain in 1971, when pounds, shillings, and pence were phased into a decimalized currency.

Pressure for a total conversion to metric has been building ever since. But there's a Churchill-like determination among old-standard stalwarts that echoes Sir Winston's 1940 speech, when he pledged that in the face of Hitler, Britain would "never surrender."

Holdouts found an ally in 1989; then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (no EU fan) won a 10-year reprieve, allowing British traders to sell loose goods exclusively in nonmetric quantities. But the Blair government, which favors closer EU integration, didn't seek an extension. So as of Jan. 1, the government warned traders they could be fined as much as 2,000 ($3,300) and have their weighing and measuring equipment confiscated if they didn't label everything in metric as well as nonmetric units. All but a few imperial measures are to be phased out over 10 years.

Britain has already found old habits die hard. Despite the switch to a decimal currency 29 years ago, the term guinea (meaning one pound and one shilling) is still used by some auction houses. And many British folk prefer to weigh themselves in "stones" (14 lbs.) rather than pounds or kilograms.

Americans have proved no keener on metrics. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires the simultaneous use of American and metric units. Last year, taking account of resistance by business and consumer interests, the Clinton administration persuaded the EU that all goods exported to the US continue to be sold in both units at least until 2009.

The new British rules apply not just to pounds and ounces, but to linear measures as well, raising problems for traders long used to yards, feet, and inches. Jose O'Ware has been selling window furnishings from her east London store, Fourth Avenue Blinds, for 30 years. "I have 4,000 readymade labels, and they're all in inches," says Mrs. O'Ware. "It would cost me thousands of pounds [dollars] to change them."

And there's another problem, which she shares with customers: "Ask me for something that is 59 inches wide, and I can see it in my mind. But ask for 1.3 meters, and I can't even begin to think what it would look like."

O'Ware vows she won't give an inch. "What are they going to do, confiscate my tape measure?"

But Britain's Consumer Affairs Minister Kim Howells has warned, "Anyone determined to be a metric martyr will have to pay the price."

Early in the New Year, a trading standards officer from a local council turned up at The Chop Shop and served an "infringement notice," giving its owners 28 days to convert their scales to metric.

O'Ware has had no such visits - yet. Interviewed on French television earlier this month, she declared she was prepared to go "to prison if I have to. If a British government is willing to prosecute an Englishwoman for trying to save part of our way of life, then so be it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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