Wednesday 15 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts of Europe...

Why European Rules are fluffy clouds of joy which make your life safer, simpler and better. 

Me in front of a Punch-Press machine made in Finland by a Swedish company and operated by a Lithuanian technician, pressing-out parts to be assembled by a Polish team for low-emissions incinerators developed in the UK and the Netherlands for sale in France and Germany in a factory in Lancashire owned by an Irish family. (OK, the picture is dummied, but every detail of the scenario, including me being in it, is factual.)

Down the lane by our house is Whitworth Park and the Whitworth Memorial, next to the Whitworth Centre the Whitworth tea-rooms and just over the road from the Whitworth Hospital. Mr Whitworth, clearly, was not a nobody. Indeed, because Mr Whitworth was the bloke who invented European Standards.

Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) was an engineer, a 'nuts and bolts man'. In his day, every workshop made their own nuts and their own bolts. If you lost, say, the screw from your Boulton and Watt epicyclic gear, no use going to Stephenson's for a new one, it wouldn't fit.

Joseph Whitworth and a screw-cutting lathe

Whitworth came up with the idea of a simple, printed, set of rules anyone could follow so that their screws fitted to the other bloke's cart. Now, you could have the oh-so-clever Fischer Bearings on your steam engine, and Ransome's blades on your lawnmower. Engineers could pick the best of the best and put them together, not have to make their own. So stuff all got better. And cheaper. Whitworth Screws became B.S.W – British Standard Whitworth, the nuts and bolts on which the sun never set. And Mr. Whitworth became, they say, the richest industrialist, not just in Darley Dale, or even in Matlock, but in the world.

Wonderful idea! So other countries did the same. Which was fine until people from the other countries started getting together. Like around 1940 when the Polish Air Force had to make that quick exit to Britain, and it became distressingly apparent that British Standard screws couldn't be used to repair Polish Standard aeroplanes. Or American Standard Jeeps either.

You see, Standards only work if everyone does it together. You can't do 'your own Standards'. Now we've got the EU, and the European 'M' series screws. The nut you buy in Bolton will now fit the washing machine, not just in Krakow, but in Rio or Beijing too. Standardization isn't about making everybody the same. It's about making everybody's stuff work with everyone else's stuff.

Couldn't we just go back to writing our own rules? Really? So you've forgotten all those toys with spikes in their eyes, the poisoned paint, the electrocuting toasters the watery beer and the Austin Allegro? They've all gone. They've gone because we've got European Standards.

The Allegro had a magnetic effect on women, especially the bonnet, but real men drove Saabs.
When nations try to set their own Standards, makers want an easy ride and competitive advantage. Our test labs want the most complicated procedures and the highest possible fees. And joy of joys, paying for 'approval' or 'certification' from the lawmaker's and their (ahem) 'consultants', means you can effectively 'sell' responsibility for your product to someone else. When the grieving relatives turn up to point out that your product wasn't so great, you can show them a little plaque.

But when 27 countries argue - usually for years - about a common Standard, nobody is willing to drop their quality, and nobody is willing to pay for the other bloke's bureaucrats. And ... (ahem) nobody is willing to explain their clever system of corruption. Then, the public and even those elected twits are allowed to have a say. Everybody has to agree. Yes, everyone, it is not a majority-vote thing. So you're forced to devise a way of guaranteeing the best of stuff with the least of trouble. When everyone has to implement better quality, nobody is at a disadvantage. Seems to work every time.

British BSI Standards were never much, nor for that matter were Norme Francaise or the Russian GOST. The German DIN Rules, though, were much admired. Indeed one or two of them – for instance for paint – have been kept. But then they had the same problem making them - lots of individual States had to come together, and you'll only get Schleswig-Holstein to agree to the same things as Lower Saxony by being very clever indeed. Same with the old Nordic Standards - you have to get ex-Vikings to play nice.

Remember when we just used to sort-of take it as read that British products were a bit crap? Remember? You might have to put up with an Austin or a Hillman, but really you wanted a Volvo or a Mercedes. And you could possibly play your Tom Petty tapes on a Ferguson, but why would you if could get your hands on a Grundig or a Bang and Olufsen?
FUEL POVERTY - A national scandal caused by National Standards
UK product Standards used to tell you how to make things. That's why all our gas fires, cookers, irons and wontnot were more-or-less the same. And, of course, they were written by the people with deep pockets and the right connections.
Which is why we had Standards for heating equipment with no requirement for efficiency. You could perfectly legally make, say, a gas fire which was designed to deliberately waste 90% of its heat - so it'd cost 10x as much to run - which made oddles of cash for the National fuel suppliers. Who cares if a few pensioners freeze, eh?
Freedom to compete across Europe means we need shared Standards. But how to do that when different countries have different ideas about what's best?
So, we've got the Eco Design Directive which doesn't tell you how to make stuff, instead it makes you openly tell the public how well your gas fire, or whatever, performs.  Which has led to an explosion of new ideas and a truly giant improvement in heating efficiency. It has also led to a number of UK heating manufacturers, unaccustomed to the idea of innovation or quality, being well and truly fucked. Good. The reason people complain about the Trans-Atlantic Trade thing (apart from those who just have complaining as a hobby) is largely because they fear having shoddy US Standards forced on us. Go and have a look at American kettles.

The thing on the left is called a 'gas explosion with collapse' (Ronan Point, only 7 dead, nobody prosecuted - they had certificates) the middle thing is Watney's Red Barrel (a form of beer substitute) and the thing on the right is a Hillman Imp. All used to be common in Britain. Thanks to EU Regulations, none of these exist any more.
Unless you're in the habit of reading the very small print at the end of instruction manuals you won't have heard of me, Glyn Hughes. I design products for you to buy. Which means I work all day every day with manufacturers, importers, exporters, distributors, retailers across Europe and the globe. I'm the man who has to implement Euro rules and Standards. I have never, ever, heard anyone involved, anywhere, ever, complain about them. Ever. They are models of clarity and simplicity which even countries like Canada and China, who get no real say in the making of them, are happy to adopt. They've swept away bureaucracy, simplified manufacture, made better things and us safer. I hear that Mr Johnson, the verpus maximus* of International Wisdom, complain, but he can never seem to quite put his finger on any examples, and has, doubtless reluctantly, had to resort to making-things-up about bananas and vacuum cleaners.

So let me give you a real example. Do you remember how truly awful building Standards were in Britain? Do you remember the gas explosions, 'concrete cancer' and Barratt Houses? They've all gone. The European Construction Products Directive swept away something like 1,200 national rules  (No, I haven't actually counted) and buckets of payments and busloads of inspectors and acres of forms and replaced all and everything with one single paragraph of undiluted genius. It says that girders and wotnot have to be strong enough and so on, but it also says that the actual real Big Boss of the firm who supplies them has to sign a public affidavit to tell you how to get in touch with him and that he takes complete personal responsibility for his girders. Complete responsibility. Not only does Mr Girder not have to pay the civil servants' (ahem, again) chums to 'approve' his stuff, he's not allowed to. Down to you, mate.

Course, for all this to work, Mr Girder (and Mrs Bicycle and Ms Toaster etc) have to be subject, ultimately, to the same courts as you and me who buy the stuff. That's why we have to have EU Courts. OK? And that is why the TV isn't full of "look how this shower tray exploded" consumer programs any more.
DID YOU KNOW: You can't buy Chinese manufactured products in Europe. Let me explain... Euro Norms work because the real person who takes responsibility has to be a European, so they're subject to the same law (and the same courts) as the customer and you can get at then if you need to. That means that Chinese products which are subject to critical Standards aren't allowed to be sold in Europe - they can be imported, but they have to be sold, and certified, by a European manufacturer. Not just a man at a desk, not just a boxes-in-boxes-out warehouse, but a real someone who really takes real responsibility. Clever eh?

My goodness does it work! I should know. About seventeen thousand things go out each year with MY signature and my home address next to that European 'CE' mark. Do I make sure there's no problems? Too bloody right I do. Does anyone ring up? Yes, occasionally they do. Someone emailed yesterday about paint peeling off a corner of their Tiger™ woodstove. And I jump on the factory and sort it out, so I can go back to doing what engineering designers do best - sitting in the garden with beer and oh, trying to get inspiration from staring at clouds, or something.

Anyway, I know you like graphs, so here's a graph. It is based on data from RoSPA. This one is for death and injuries from domestic electrical equipment, but the graph for toys is much the same...

Spotted that? Since the 1920s there have been ever more and more horrible accidents. So British governments invented ever more rules, more inspectors and more payments and more forms to fill in and it just made things worse. In came Euro Standards - stricter quality, simpler enforcement, and bureaucracy eliminated. See?

There is one teetsy problem here, though. A very British problem. Nice, simple Euro Standards arrive in UK, with an agreement to get rid of the old complexities, and our jolly bureaucrats like to ignore that bit and add the old paid-for (Ahem, again. Sorry, about the cough. Seem to have something stuck in my craw.) 'independent' bureaucracy on top of them. So you've got the likes of British Agrément Board and AEA and HETAS and BSI and The British Electrotechnical Approvals Board, which should long ago have been swept away, still filling forms in and collecting money for absolutely nothing. No other country does this. And if you complain, the Man from the Ministry will tell you that it absolutely isn't their fault. It is Europe. You know, with their complicated European rules. Oh if only we could escape!

But I'd rather you didn't take my word for any of this. I'd like you to go and have a look at some Euro Standards for yourself. But I'm afraid the British Standards Institute would like £112.00 off you to look at, say, all 8 pages of EN1929 on Methods of Testing Child Safety Seats on Shopping Trolleys. I think you should be able to read it for free, and so does the European Parliament and the European Commission. But someone voted against that. Guess who. Go on, guess.

(*Verpus maximus could mean 'Great Vital Force' or it could possibly mean 'Giant Dickhead'. I presume you are fluent, and can decide for yourself.) 


  1. Love it! Oh, and my partner knew about Joseph Whitworth; but then he's a 'nuts and bolts man' too!

  2. Thanks for this Glyn, it's tremendous. Good luck and my best wishes with the EU passport proposal.

  3. Brilliant take down of yet more Brexit bollocks. Thanks for everything you're doing and do let us know at if there's anything our group can do to help with the free movement initiative.

  4. EU have done such a great job with exhaust fumes from VWs

    1. Exactly so, Mr Anonymous - when countries set their own Standards you get protectionism and a race to the bottom.

      The USA constructed a car testing system which looks to have been designed to make small European cars illegal, while exempting big US cars from the test altogether.

      VW tried to get the round US (not EU!) emissions laws. EU Emissions rules have not been broken.

    2. I love brexiteers. They'll read an informed write up of how the EU is actually beneficial to them, then their brains will consign it immediately to the rubbish bin, and they'll dredge up some uninformed tidbit they read in the daily mail once as proof that your considered opinion belongs in their rubbish bin.

  5. I m afraid whitworth threads were course threads only used for soft metals like aluminium. The main british standard thread was British Standard Fine. But there were others for special purposes like "pipe" threads and BA for electrical screws. Also the eu rules have made it almost impossible for the individual to actual make anything like a boat or an aeroplane because the need a certificate of conformance.

    1. Indeed so, Mrs Anonymous, regarding threads. There was BSC too, for bicycles.

      Aha! What is not widely known - but should be - is that individuals, or smaller companies, don't need to have expensive third-party safety tests done. They need to guarantee that their product is safe, of course, but they are allowed to rely on their own, simplified, safety procedures. Check out, for instance, Article 37 of the Construction Products Regulation.

    2. ... should have added, that I'm employed by the Boat Safety Scheme to evaluate disasters, so I'm particularly aware of the huge betterment of safety - and quality - that EN Standards have brought

  6. Glyn - simply, Thank You!
    An excellent blog . . . . I am - ‘Philosophy, psychology, nature, people, co-operation and Wine’ - and yes I have Saabs :) Thank you for standing up and creating your campaign for EU citizenship.
    Great work ! ! ! !

  7. As you note - perhaps a blog "We are Screwed" Threads are a tricky topic, and one I still have some issues with, as the Mx series is a general-purpose compromise, and a 'coarse' in relative terms, thread becomes desirable when equipment is in hostile conditions and needs regular dismantling, or the finer threads where adjustments or material strength issues arise - and not forgetting BSP with the taper that seals for pipework. So a thesaurus for threads might be interesting, especially when you have some 55 degree BS which match closely the pitch and effective diameter of their 60 degree unified or metric equivalents. I also note the dogged persistence of some threads - when ordering some 1" BSF bolts to fit the towing eye points on a modern bus chassis, I learned that BSF ceased to be a preferred thread in ... 1948, when presumably the UK opted for UNF, and then moved over to Metric.

    I dread any move to extract the UK from European Standards, as the EN system is now so well embedded in everything we do in engineering, and draw on a salutory tale of the French computing industry with its ordinateur personale and the crossed in translation nightmare of changing Y to O (yes to oui) The French software industry naturally had a limited market

    1. Ah! BSP ... or EN 10226 as the world now knows it.

  8. I like the idea of an EU Passport for all EU citizens, but just how would that benefit us when we have been dragged, kicking & screaming against our will, out of the EU by our uncaring, insensitive government intent on adhering to some inane belief that, because 52% of those that bothered to vote in an "advisory" referendum voted to leave (for whatever reason), that is what "the country wants"? Would we then be able to keep it and renew it because we were entitled to it once or would we then lose the right to it as we were no longer an EU resident if we were unable to live permanently outside of the UK?

    1. You'll find that my campaign at is for 'universal instruments' (like passports) for ALL Europeans, not just EU citizens.

    2. Thank you for elucidating: I've signed and hope it doesn't put the kibosh on the idea; I voted against in the original 1975 referendum and to stay in in the last one!

  9. Seems to be a bit of confusion here between standards and quality. Poor motor car quality from British makers would have happened whatever industry standards were applied; it was to do with deep structural problems in the industry, cultural and economic, not what thread size was used. Further, there was no epidemic of collapsing tower blocks as far as I remember. There was Ronan Point where the construction method was found to be vulnerable to certain kinetic incidents, in that case a gas explosion. Neither was there significant problems with concrete work in the UK. Plenty in Spain though, and of course in the Turkey earthquake whole developments crumbled like dust. As for bolt threads there is in fact a rational case for different standards according to the demands of different applications, as someone has pointed out above, so the case for universality though strong is not quite so blindingly obvious as Glyn implies. A bit more contextualising and a healthier respect for reader's historical knowledge would be welcome. But don't worry - there's plenty of appetite for this kind of 'Britain is basically crap at everything and without the EU we'd be North Korea except without the colourful customs and wonderful weather'.

    1. How about, for balance, you help me find a performance Standard where "Doing things Our Way" has proved better than the many-nations competition/collaboration of EN and ISO?

      While we're waiting, here's another actual example: You'll have heard about very poor air quality in UK cities being blamed on shoddy woodstoves. There is truth in this. Britain certifies stoves "its own way" - in secret by payments, the rest of Europe does it in public, without cash changing hands. Result - UK stoves emit roughly 3x as much smoke. Do go and check EN303-5 and you'll see.

      But, Mr Snowdon, you are correct that collapsing tower blocks were rare. You are also correct that different screw threads are used for different purposes - but, thanks to the ISO, all the worlds cyclemakers use cyclemakers threads and all the worlds plumbers use BSP.

  10. Now,if you could summarise that into one tasty meme or soundbite, Leavers might actually pay attention. Unfortunately I doubt any will read your excellent explanation.