In the 1970s, price inflation was at least as big a political problem as it is today. Decimalisation of the currency was perceived to be a major influence.
In the UK, although decimalisation of the currency and metrication of weights and measures had been under discussion since the mid-19th century, the process of converting British currency to a decimal system did not begin in earnest until the late 1960s. The date of conversion was February 1971. Metrication was similarly launched in the 1960s but, unlike decimalisation, has never been completed; whilst most goods are sold in grams and kilos, draught beer is still sold in pints and longer distances measured in miles.
The anxiety caused by decimalisation was apparent in a number of qualitative studies conducted at the time of conversion. A study by Cooper Research and Marketing (CRAM) indicated that shoppers had little understanding of how to convert a price in shillings and pence into a decimal currency price, and that they saw decimalisation as an unwanted development foisted on the public by ‘them’. There was suspicion that the retailers would take advantage of the public and that they would round prices upwards. And indeed, two years later the NOP Political Bulletin of October 1973 found that rising prices were blamed chiefly on decimalisation (by 52%), alongside global inflation (54%) and Britain’s joining the Common Market (51%).
In June 1974, NOP tackled the issue of metrication – that is, weights and measures as opposed to currency. Perhaps influenced by the recent experience with decimalisation, over two-thirds (69%) of the population believed that metrication would cause prices to rise. Opinions on metrication were, however, evenly divided, with 41% in favour and 40% against; support was stronger among men and in the AB social class.
There are echoes of today’s debates here, not least in the rejection of what ultimately became the EU and, more broadly, in the distrust of government to make decisions that benefit ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.
Search terms ‘decimalisation’ and ‘metrication’ were used to discover relevant articles in the Archive of Market and Social Research. The above findings were sourced from the following reports:
NOP Political Bulletin, Oct 1973: https://amsr.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/NOP_Reports/id/3595/rec/2
CRAM report on Toffo Multipack: https://amsr.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/CRAM/id/1529/rec/3
NOP Political Bulletin, June 1974: https://amsr.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/NOP_Reports/id/3513/rec/15
Contributed by Nick Tanner
Date posted: 11th January 2023