Imperialism is not a force to be reckoned with

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John Diamond

Daily Express, 17 February 2001

True or false? Thanks to the evil Euro-rules, Steven Thoburn, the brave British stallholder being persecuted by the weights and measures people in Sunderland this week, isn’t allowed to sell his fruit and veg by the pound.

Since you ask, it’s false. If he wants, he can sell tomatoes by the pound or bushel or cubic foot or the Wellington bootful. He can invent his own measure – the plotz, of which there are 17 to the nitzplitz – and sell potatoes in seven plotz bags if he likes.

All he has to do is to have a set of scales which measure in both pounds (or plotzes), as well as kilograms, and label produce in prices per kilo as well as per nitzplitz.

As I write, for instance, I have a cup of tea in front of me and, next to it, a two-pint plastic bottle of milk. The milk has been sucked from a cow by Express Dairies, a pretty massive milk-selling concern in these parts and not one to get itself into trouble by marking its bottles with illegal measurements. Yet there, printed on the side in big blue letters, are the words “Two pints”. True, underneath it says, in rather smaller letters, that this is the equivalent of some meaningless number of litres but I can’t imagine anyone – including the elderly, who are always brought into these arguments as if people over 50 are incapable of doing basic mental arithmetic – not knowing how much milk there is in the bottle. Special exemption was made for pints, but the reason the fruit and veg man is being prosecuted is because he sells his produce only in pounds and ounces – units which his older customers understand well enough but which are as meaningless to my metricated children as drachms and perches and furlongs are to you and me.

The reason my kids, and yours, are taught to measure in metres and litres isn’t because we’re being turned into Germans or Italians but because that’s how almost everyone else in the world measures. (Yes, I know the Americans still use feet and inches but most of their other weights are different from ours; when my wife was rewriting one of her cookery books for American publication, she had to do as much work converting to US pints and cups as she would have for a French translation.)

The strange thing is that those who are the most anti-metric are the same ones who are anti-Europe. Which would be fair enough if their anti-Europe argument wasn’t based on the premise that we can do as well trading with Japan or Australia or South Africa as with Europe because, in Australia and Japan and South Africa, they use the metric system, too.

You may think that Steve Thoburn is doing his bit for British pride, which is probably what he thinks, too, but if the only thing we can be proud of in Britain is that we use an antiquated measuring system which few people in the rest of the world understand then there can’t be a lot of hope for us.