“Imperial Folly”: Metrication, Euroskepticism, and Popular Politics in Britain, 1965–1980

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European integration policies inflamed anti-Europe sentiments in Britain and exposed the fragility of democratic institutions in the face of populist campaigning. This article demonstrates how Europe became the focus of British anxiety about globalization and activated concerns for national sovereignty. Using the example of metrication in the 1970s, the article situates the abstract notions of globalization and sovereignty in material and everyday terms. The very processes that sought to reconcile the impossible trinity of globalization, national sovereignty, and popular politics resulted in institutionalizing and legitimizing the deep ambivalence of inching closer to Europe. Negotiating with Europe to water down harmonization actually stoked and kept alive the fundamental issues rather than resolving them. The history of British metrication serves as an example of the profound significance of discursive framing on shaping policy as well as outcomes. The messiness with which metrication was handled by successive governments shows how dangerously and easily the knowledge gap between experts and popular opinion could be exploited. Populist framing of technical issues of metrication distorted the complex realities of globalization, rendered the consequences of European standardization more real in everyday terms, and verbalized populist opinions that forging closer ties with Europe would be a threat to Britain’s parliamentary sovereignty. Harmonization policies also heightened debates about British identity and compelled the country to seek ways to coexist between two extreme visions, one of “Deep England” steeped in tradition and another of a modern “efficient” Britain based on technocratic values.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)561-601
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of Modern History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2020


  • Euroscepticism
  • Sovereignty
  • Standardisation
  • Harmonization
  • United Kingdom
  • Political Economy
  • European integration
  • History


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