HC Deb 25 July 1967 vol 751 cc442-50

9.7 p.m.

Mr. Brian Parkyn (Bedford)

I am glad of the opportunity to use some of the precious time of the House to raise a subject which is important to many people, namely, duodecimal currency and mensuration. I do not wish to be considered the custodian of lost causes, but I believe that the methods which we use for counting, for measuring length, for measuring weight, and for our currency itself, are fundamental issues which need to be discussed by the House. I do not regard this as a lost cause in spite of the fact that the House has recently passed the Decimal Currency Bill, which will give us decimal currency in five years' time.

There are many reasons why Britain is in a unique position in relation to duo-decimalism. We are not a duo-decimal country, and we never have been, but I would like to see us become fully duodecimal at some time, and I shall explain that in a moment.

People in England think duodecimally, without realising it. A railway clerk selling tickets at a station and a girl selling lettuces in a greengrocer's shop know straight away, without a moment's thought, that 16d. is 1s. 4d. They know, without realising it, that 16 decimally is 14 duodecimally, and this occurs among all English people. Without realising it, we are already duodecimalists, so we could go duodecimal with relative ease.

Whatever Britain does is of great consequence to the world. It is worth mentioning this when we tend to think that our day has gone and we are no longer the power that we were. It is worth reminding ourselves sometimes, that in 1965 the total external commodity trade of this country was 19,000 million dollars, compared with the total external commodity trade of the whole of North America of only 27,000 million dollars, with a population four times as great as ours.

Therefore, whatever we do which affects trade; whatever kind of packaging we use, and whatever kind of measurement or currency we use—and 40 per cent. of world trade is financed by sterling—will affect the world as a whole. The subject that I wish to raise is concerned not with the consequences just to this country, but to the world.

The United States and most of the Commonwealth, although having adopted decimal currency, do not principally use metric measurements; they use English measurements. Therefore, people in countries using the metric system have to be used to coping with English or American measurements, in dealing with motor cars, aircraft, machine tools, and so on. These units are not just used in the English-speaking world; they are familiar to the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Swiss, and people all over the world, particularly because of the vast productive potential of the United States.

One of the most curious factors in the whole question of decimalism and duodecimalism—and I shall describe what I mean by this in a moment—is that the subject has not been discussed by the House for a long time. We find that the subject was not even mentioned in the terms of reference of the Halsbury Committee. It was not asked whether or not we should have a decimal coinage, but, rather, whether, if we had a decimal coinage, what kind of coinage should it be? This is made clear in the first paragraph, which states that the terms of reference were: (a) to advise on the most convenient and practical form which a decimal currency might take, including the major and minor units to be adopted; (b) to advise on the timing and phasing of the change-over best calculated to minimise the cost; (c) to estimate the probable amount and incidence of the cost to the economy of proposals based on (a) and (b). There is a cursory mention of duodecimalism in the Report, in paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. Paragraph 12 makes it clear that the Committee was not to discuss whether or not we should go decimal. It says: Consideration of any but a decimal system was strictly beyond our terms of reference. We thought it right, however, to record here our view that, whatever the theoretical advantages of duo-decimal currency systems, they suffer from the decisive drawback that, unless our basic system of arithmetic notation were also changed—and the decimal system is so firmly entrenched throughout the world that it is difficult to imagine it ever being replaced—we should continue, with such systems, to do money calculations differently from non-money calculations. We are concerned to decimalise Britain's currency, not to duo-decimalise the world's arithmetic. That is what the Halsbury Report says, and because of this the basic issue, which is whether we should go decimal or duodecimal or binary or octonal, or should adopt any other system, was not decided by the people or Parliament; it was because of this that there was so much discussion whether we should have a £—cent—½cent system, a 10s. unit, or a £5—mil system.

These things are not all that important. If we are going decimal there are marginal advantages in favour of doing what the Government propose, which is not to change the basic unit and to use the £— cent—½ cent system. I can speak as a neutral in this, as a confirmed duodecimalist.

My point is that Parliament did not decide the basic issue—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Brian Parkyn) will appreciate that on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill we cannot discuss matters which will involve legislation. We can discuss only matters of administration. We cannot discuss the merits or demerits of the Decimal Currency Bill.

Mr. Parkyn

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I accept your Ruling.

We cannot consider decimalism in terms purely of currency or of measurement of weight, length and time, but must take into account whether it is the one system of notation for all these activities. We count to 10 for the anatomical reason that we have 10 digits on our hands and mathematicians have always known that 10 is an unsatisfactory basis, since it is divisible only by two or five and because it results in recurring decimals which are indeterminate. Twelve, as has been realised for many years—from Babylonian times, in fact—is more suitable because it is divisible by two, three, four and six. If we had a fully duodecimal system, we could count up to nine with two extra digits and then finally 10 and the duodecimal point could be moved in the same way as the decimal.

Therefore, duodecimal notation is almost ideal. The Babylonians used 60, which gave us 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour and 12 hours on our clock faces. America first turned to decimal currency, in 1786, followed by France in 1795, where it was introduced by a commission of the French Academy of Sciences, and this led in 1799 to France adopting the metric system. This was highly commendable, because the Academy realised that, because we count up to 10, it is important to devise a system of currency and general mensuration in the same units.

But they changed the units of measurement, weight and length to fit the system of counting instead of vice versa. If ever a cart was put before a horse, it was when France adopted the decimal metric system—

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, we have passed a law on the decimal coinage system. The hon. Gentleman may not, in debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, propose changing the law, but may discuss only administrative matters for which Her Majesty's Government or a Minister are responsible. He may not talk about France.

Mr. Parkyn

I was trying to suggest, Mr. Speaker, that we should consider changing the methods of measurement and should air this subject—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This would have to be done by law, and this is not the moment to debate a new law.

Mr. Parkyn

Thank you, Sir.

There have been many supporters over the ages of duodecimalism, like Leibnitz and Pascal, the celebrated mathematicians and philosophers of the 17th century, Laplace, who, at the end of the 18th century, was a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and even Napoleon, who was a very keen duodecimalist. He was a practical man and probably the very model of a model major-general. He understood the square on the hypotenuse and was a practical man who understood the great advantage—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not question anything the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the Government are not responsible for Napoleon. He must come to something for which the Government are responsible.

Mr. Parkyn

I believe that the Government should consider inquiring into our whole system of weights and measures and the whole system of counting. If one wishes to get a medical opinion, one goes to a doctor; if one wishes to build a house, one gets design experience from an architect; and in a matter of this kind, when we are dealing with numbers and figures, we should get advice from mathematicians, a man like Professor Aitken, who is well known to many hon. Members for his writings on the subject of duodecimalism and who has explained many times that system's advantages to the community. He puts the efficiency of the decimal system as 65 per cent. as against 100 per cent. for the fully duodecimal system.

In the duodecimal system there is the great advantage of no recurring decimals. One does not have the problem of thirds and two-thirds such as we have with the decimal system. There are also practical advantages. It would be important to the Board of Trade, because in a warehouse, for instance, packages which are metric in size, based on kilogrammes or on certain metric length measurements, can be arranged only on the basis of two rows of five long or five rows of two long, whereas, based on the duodecimal system, there would be four times the number of possibilities of arrangement. There would, therefore, be many practical advantages to the community.

Although at one time there were people in France who tried to put 10 months in a year and 10 hours in a clock and even five points on a compass, those changes were not made and our watches still have 12 hours on the face and there are still 12 months in a year and time and the angular motion of a circle are basic to the whole question of measurement. It is unrealistic to accept a 10 notation, which has so many obvious advantages, unless we accept it throughout our normal experience, which will also include time and angular motion.

It would be easy for Britain to make this change, because £1 3s. 6d. would simply become £1:36, and everyone would change over rapidly. Yet, somehow, nowadays we follow the rest of the world, seeming to feel that the rest of the world is ahead of us and that we no longer have the confidence to go ahead and say that we have a system which is not yet quite right, but which, with a few small changes, can be made a system which the rest of the world would ultimately wish to follow. I do not advocate that we should maintain our present mixed system of measurement. I am advocating that at some time our system should become fully duodecimal, so that we have a duodecimal metric system, or a duodecimal c.g.s. system.

Other systems could be considered, such as the octonal, with which I will not deal now. The only advantage of the octonal system is that it would be of some use in the age of computers because of its comparisons with the binary system, and it might also be of some use on the Stock Exchange because quotations of the value of the £ are in eighths and sixteenths and thirty-seconds. But, broadly speaking, 12 is really the answer, and if the world does not see this I believe that it will come to see it during the next 100 years or so.

I should like to end with a quotation from Professor Aitken, who says: Numeration is in its infancy. Historians of the future will look back to decimalism as an episode, as a system adopted primitively for anatomical rather than rational reasons, retained for centuries and millenia by the inertia of unreflecting conservatism.

9.31 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Niall MacDermot)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Brian Parkyn) has described himself as a lifelong duodecimalist. He has urged that the Government should inquire into the duodecimal system with a view to seeking to persuade people to abandon our more familiar decimal system of arithmetic and notation, putting in its place a duodecimal system, and therefore adopting systems of weights and measures and notation based on that different mathematical system.

My hon. Friend claims that mathematically such a system would be ideal. I am no mathematician to argue the toss with him on that, but I understand that not all mathematicians are agreed about it. Even if it is the ideal system mathematically, we are not living in an ideal world. Practically the whole world counts in the decimal system. Therefore when we, a great trading nation which must remain so, wish to sell our goods abroad and have successful trading relationships with other countries, it would complicate matters somewhat if we adopted a system of notation quite different from that of the countries with which we deal. The familiar phrase, "Everyone is out of step except our little Tommy", may be a fine example of familial loyalty, but I cannot think that it is a good recipe for national policy.

We have inquired into our systems of weights and measures, and my hon. Friend will remember that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade said in a Written Answer as far back as 24th May, 1965, that the Government were impressed with the case put to them by representatives of industry in favour of a wider use in British industry of the metric system of weights and measures. Our systems of measuring are a combination of decimal and duodecimal systems to some extent. Our industry already finds this a disadvantage and the Government, impressed by the advantages for us of bringing ourselves more into line with the systems prevailing over the greater part of the world, have decided that they should seek to encourage the use of metric units in weights and measures.

Countries using the metric system now take more than half our exports, and the total proportion of world trade conducted in terms of metric units will no doubt continue to increase. For this reason, I am afraid that I must tell my hon. Friend that we have looked into the matter and that our conclusion is exactly contrary to his. He urges that it would be simple to convert to a duodecimal system. I find that difficult to believe. It may be that children who were educated in the new system from their earliest infancy and were familiar with it could find advantages. But I am told that if we who have been brought up on our decimal system sought to adjust ourselves to the duodecimal system we should have to accustom ourselves to the idea, for example, of showing our present number 13 with the figures at present used to show the number 11, 14 as 12 and 25 as 21, and in our multiplication tables 7 times 9 would equal 53. All this when one gets used to it may be simple and clear, but I suggest that as a matter of conversion it would present considerable problems.

On the purely mathematical argument, I was interested to see that Lord Halsbury—who, as my hon. Friend said, gave attention with his Committee to this aspect, although it was not within their terms of reference—in discussing the matter at a lecture before the Royal Society of Arts in February this year, said that as between a decimal and a duodecimal system, The mathematicians would have a slight preference for 12 because of its greater divisibility, although there is not in fact much in it. Lord Halsbury said: If we take as a criterion of 'awkwardness' in a representation the number of reciprocals prime to and less than the radix, we have with 10 as our radix the 'awkward' numbers 3, 6, 7 and 9 whose reciprocals are recurring decimals: from out of 10. With 12 as our radix, the 'awkward' ones are 5, 7, 10 and 11: four out of 12. There is not much in it. In any event, he said a little later in the lecture that when asked to chair the Committee of Inquiry into Decimalisation he was at once approached by innumerable correspondents urging him to duodecimalise the radix of world arithmetic instead. He went on to say: Mercifully my terms of reference protected me against undertaking anything so formidable. Had they not done so I would, I think, have recommended against it and everyone would have said I was wrong without reading my report. Decimal notation is one of the few genuinely international schemes of systematisation that there are. Heaven forbid that it should be tampered with. There are more important fish to fry. I can only say that if we were to set on foot any such inquiry as my hon. Friend suggests, that, perhaps not so well expressed, would be the conclusion to which the inquiry would come.