The National:

THURSDAY brought the bizarre news that Boris Johnson is to reintroduce imperial weights and measures as a legal standard for markets, shops, and supermarkets. Some were quick to compare Boris Johnson’s jingoistic wisdom to Grandpa Simpson’s gripe about the metric system being "the tool of the devil". 

But cartoonish scenes of Westminster reviving imperial measures and reimposing them on Scotland should stir up more than satire. Weights and measures are reserved matters. Indeed, the Act of Union itself ensured that the same weights and measures must be imposed throughout the UK as are established in England.

After the 1707 Act was passed, sets of measures were sent to Edinburgh for distribution.

No doubt someone in London will be polishing up old scales in the British Museum to box up and send to Scotland.

Yet the attempt to impose imperial measures on Scotland was met with limited success.

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Nobody, from provincial tradesfolk to the Scottish boards of trade, was happy to see their own well-worn weights, jugs, and other instruments being scrapped, and many people had a practical attachment to the system they had learned to use.

At the same time, a wider movement was emerging across Europe that thought that rather than nationally imposed systems, it made much more sense to collate and ultimately standardise the basic units of measurement internationally.

In any case, Westminster’s efforts to regulate weights and measures across the United Kingdom inched along so slowly that in 1758 parliament was asked to conduct an inquiry to speed it up, with a view to standardising British measurements. But politicians, pumped up by pride in Britain’s peculiar ways, failed to legislate for uniformity in 1758 and 1759.

In response to this embarrassing standstill, two Scots gave their own tuppence worth. Both Jacobites in their youth, neither of them could afford to attack the Government openly, but each still harboured a healthy cynicism about Great Britain’s sense of itself.

James Stirling, a protege of Isaac Newton, was one of the outstanding mathematicians of his day. In 1759 he was the manager of mines at Leadhills, where he pioneered new ways of measuring the work of the miners and setting rates that were among the fairest in Scotland. Stirling responded to the parliamentary inquiry by demonstrating that the system of weights and measures that operated in Scotland was valuable, even venerable, not for its age but for its usefulness.

The National:

Meanwhile in 1759, James Steuart was in his 12th year of exile for his role as principal adviser to Bonnie Prince Charlie in the ’45. He spent much of his time working on economic policy, and produced a "Plan for Introducing a Uniformity of Weights and Measures". It attacked the "mistaken notion" that a country should stick to its own measurement system, which only "engages us in disputes" and "involves difficult inquiries". There should, he thought, be one global system.

Urging Britain to "break the fetters of old custom" for their own good and everyone else’s, Steuart pointed out the obvious benefits of an international system. Trade would be easier, prices would be clearer and, in short, people would be better off. "At ‘some time or other’", he hoped, "either a wise state, or a public spirited man, may think of putting it in execution".

In 1781 Steuart’s nephew, the radical Earl of Buchan, praised his uncle’s plan – with one caveat. The global system should not be called the London measure, or imperial system. The imperial capital was not the centre of the world its governors longed for it to be. It might as well be named after Rome, which once had an Empire stretching across the European world.

Long before the present-day 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 market-stalls of Britain, Boris Johnson is determined to make the shopkeeper into the keeper of the British national spirit.

Maybe like Abe Simpson, his car gets 40 rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way he likes it. Time will tell whether Boris’s new measuring rods give his government the boost he is hoping for in his retro-imperial adventure. More likely he will look up from his quixotic quest to restore the Empire and see the writing on the wall. Mene mene tekel upharsin: weighed, measured, and found wanting.