Don’t make a martyr out of this mismatch

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The Mail on Sunday, 21 & 28 January 2001

I feel sorry for Mr Steve Thoburn, the green grocer and market trader from Sunderland who is paraded before the world as a ‘Metric Martyr’. You will know the case because this great newspaper is foremost among those who have pleaded Mr Thoburn’s cause. Poor old Steve – a puppet in a wider game in which others are pulling the strings.

His legal bills are being paid by the UK Independence Party which wants this country out of Europe, the Bruges Group which pretends it’s not quite so extreme but in truth is and an organisation called the British Weights and Measures Association which has close links with the UKIP.

People say that the local authority was a bit heavy handed in prosecuting him. Forget it. Steve’s backers were gagging for it – forcing the issue until Sunderland Council had no alternative but to act. How do I know that? Because in 1995 (when the Tories were in office) the BWMA told us so. In a press release they have been careful not to remind newspapers about recently they announced a campaign of civil disobedience because ‘this unpopular law will be only be repealed when the jails start to fill with Britons’. I hope Mr William ‘Law and Order’ Hague didn’t know that when he sent his emissary to meet Mr Thoburn and offer his support.

Everyone involved in Mr Thoburn’s high profile campaign, even his barrister Mr Michael Shrimpton – a leading member of the Bruges Group, a fact of which I hope he told the court – is involved in one or other of the organisations I have mentioned. Everything about Mr Thoburn’s case is politically motivated. Well, you may say, so what. Mr Thoburn is a victim of a piece of anti-democratic legislation which is inspired by Brussels. Let’s take a look.

Almost everything we buy is sold by weight, volume or length. Since the earliest times, as the most basic piece of consumer protection, these matters have been closely regulated. Weights and measures are mentioned in the Magna Carta. In his first message to Congress, George Washington drew attention to the need for ‘uniformity in currency and weights and measures’. This is not a new Blairite obsession.

The decision to introduce metrication into Britain, was made by Parliament long before we joined Europe, under the Weights and Measures Act of 1963 (Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home). In 1968 a Metrication Board was set up by two of Labour’s foremost anti-European ministers, Tony Benn and Douglas Jay.

We can go back still further. In 1875 (Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli) Britain signed up to an international agreement, called the Système international d’Unités. The object of the agreement was to establish a universal system of weights and measures based upon the metric system. That work and the organisation which it spawned is still very much alive today. Its standard of measurements – known as SI – is pretty well universally accepted. The whole world eventually will be a metric world.

A lot of people question why we need all this uniformity? If all we ever did was to go shopping to the local market, we wouldn’t. But there’s more to life than that. As Ian Lang the then Tory President of the Board of Trade put it in 1995: ‘The United Kingdom adopted a metrication programme following representations in the 1960s from British industry which was concerned that it would be put at a disadvantage internationally … the metric system is now used almost universally around the globe’.

Oddly enough it is in sport where you will find the point perfectly illustrated. When I was at school, I ran the 100 yards and the quarter of a mile. Today that would be 100 metre and 400 metres. Why did our governing bodies of sport capitulate? Not because they were a bunch of cringing, toadying, namby pamby crypto-federalists, because not to have done so would have been a piece of self-defeating nonsense which would have led to national humiliation and shame. How could our athletes have ever competed successful on the world stage running one distance when all their preparation is this country was at another? What is true of sport is true of trade and industry a thousand times over.

Probably our friend Steve isn’t aware of all of this but you can be sure that his backers are. They hate the whole idea of the EU and bend and twist respectable argument to convert more and more of us to their cause. They are not interested in truth, only in politics. They distort facts, run dishonest and bogus campaigns and most disgracefully, risk the imprisonment of a decent if deluded man.

They know perfectly well that metrication has little or nothing to do with Brussels. If the EU had never been invented, we would still be where we are today.

For us the generation caught in between it is difficult and yes, sometimes, infuriating. I doubt if I will ever have a fixed image in my mind of what constitutes a hectare. I know what a mile is. I have very little sense of what is a kilometre. I ask for a pound of sausages at my butchers. He knows what I mean and weighs them out in kilograms.

I am afraid, however personally inconvenient, it has to be like that. We can’t run two systems in parallel for long without making our weights and measures utterly incomprehensible. No, I’m afraid change was always inevitable. We’re unlucky because we’re the folk that got the short straw. Anyone under thirty has no problems at all.

Should Steve go to prison though? Of course not and he doesn’t need to. He only risks imprisonment not because of the offences but because he will have refused to pay a fine. Actually, contrary to what you may have read, the law itself is not all that onerous. If Steve wants to sell his bananas using imperial weights he is perfectly at liberty to do so. All the regulations (agreed by the Eurosceptic Mr Francis Maude at the EC Council of Ministers in 1989) insist upon Mr Thoburn and anyone else who sells loose goods is that the weight is displayed in metric as well as imperial and that the scale on which they have been weighed is a metric scale. You may find that a bit pettifogging but throughout the history of this and every other country for very good reasons weights have been most carefully regulated.

Now you can be sure that if he is found guilty and fined, Steve’s new friends will be urging him not to pay. They want a Metric Martyr and as far as they are concerned Steve has got the job.

Steve, don’t listen! Just remember who will be doing the porridge. It will be you. And who will be sipping the cream? It will be them.

Don’t let them do it to you Steve, you’re worth ten of any one of them.

Other countries around the world struggle with the need to go metric but all are trying. Look at poor old China whose system makes our imperial measures seem to be utterly logical.

They have the Ch’ih which varies throughout the country from 11 to 15.8 inches; the Ching which is 121 square feet and, proving the importance of a mere apostrophe, the C’ing which is 72,600 square feet; the Hu which is 51.77 litres; the Kung which is 78.96 inches; the Liang which is just over one ounce; the Mou which is, depending upon where you live, 806.65 or 920 square yards.

They’re all either out or being phased out and as far as I know not a metric martyr in sight. Or is there something their tightly controlled press isn’t telling us?

OK, let’s help you get your facts straight

Even if I didn’t know it before, I sure as hell know it now: the British love their imperial measures. Last week I had the temerity to use this space to criticise Steve Thoburn, the greengrocer from Sunderland who is being prosecuted, so everyone persists in believing, for selling bananas in good old British pounds and ounces. He is, I implied, not so much a martyr as a metric madman.

Oh dear, oh dear. I didn’t know that readers of the Mail on Sunday knew such language. One man said I was a ‘fascist’ and would, he said, post his opinion on the Internet. Cripes! But why do people feel so strongly? Mr Thoburn and his friends say it is because the British people will never bow the knee to tyranny.

I say differently. I say that a lot of people who ought to know better have grievously misled the British people.

I don’t want to convert anyone. I just want to restore balance to the argument. I received so many messages containing so many misconceptions and plain simple errors that I return to the subject this week. Allow me to take the most common points one by one.

Mr Thoburn’s costs have not been covered solely by anti-European Union organisations.

True. I was wrong. Out of a fund now standing at £65,000 only £5,400 has come from political organisations and a further £2,500 from a newspaper. The rest came from ordinary people, though one suspects that many were individual members of these organisations. But there’s nothing wrong with that.

It is a wicked government that would send a man to prison for selling bananas in units of measurement that his customers want and understand.

Not the case. He is being prosecuted for using the wrong scales. If Mr Thoburn goes to prison it will not be because of his offence but because he has refused to pay a fine. That has always been the law.

This is a tyranny because traders and customers alike are being denied freedom of choice.

Simple nonsense. If people were permitted to pick and choose what units of measurement they wanted there would be absolute havoc. That is why it has never been allowed in 1000 years of weights and measures legislation. There wasn’t an outcry when a British publican was recently prosecuted by trading standards officers for measuring and selling his beer in litres. I wonder why?

It has always been promised that metrication would come by consent. That is the British way – a voluntary switch and not one backed by legislation.

Most countries in the world who have gone metric have desperately tried to do so without compulsion and most, if not all, have failed. They have all experienced a similar pattern – everything has been fine, or nearly so, until the final and most human hurdle, small retailers selling loose goods.

Australia and New Zealand – just two countries taken at random, neither of whom, as far as I know, are members of the European Union – made the decision to go metric after we did but completed the process in 20 years rather that the 35 it has so far taken us. Both countries tried the voluntary approach but came unstuck when it came to loose goods.

People like the measurements they grow up with and resist change,and will do so for ever unless there is a degree of coercion. Eventually and inevitably Australia and New Zealand, and everywhere else that went metric, introduced legislation which made it compulsory. In each case consumer resistance quickly evaporated. Does anyone remember the incredible row in this country in the ’70s about carpet sizes? This had nothing to do with the EU.

If America can resist metrication, why can’t we?

It is true that America has managed to stand out from the crowd. It is the greatest economy in the world and perhaps feels it can afford to march to its own drumbeat. But there aren’t many sensible Americans who don’t believe that one day soon even they will have to bow to the inevitable.

The US Metrication Board, which was set up in 1978, says things are moving. The car industry went metric in the 80s, and about 40% of US businesses now employ metric measures, with dual labelling of goods mandatory for most products.

In a couple of years’ time, the EU regulations will come into force that will make it mandatory for all goods arriving at EU ports to be weighed in metric. The Americans have asked for a time extension because they’re not ready. They recognise they are going to have to speed up their programme, at which point they will discover, just as we have, that a dual system is expensive, confusing and only of short-term political value, and finally will have to go. The wheel of history makes some fascinating turns. In July 1871 the British Government lost a vote to make metrication compulsory by 82 votes to 77. Why? Because enough MPs were persuaded by the argument that to do so would let down the Americans who had just decided to accept British imperial measures.

Why are we more rigorous than the French who permit their traders, as any visit to a French market will show, to continue to use the old livre?

A demi-canard. The livre is not the old unit of measurement (equivalent to 0.4895 of a kilo) but modern French slang for half a kilo, on the metric scales. Perhaps we should do this ourselves and call half a kilo a pound. There’s nothing to stop us.

There are lots of countries around the world which haven’t gone metric. Why are we so pathetic?

I’ve mentioned the US. Here are other countries with populations of more than 5 million who have not gone metric: Myanmar (Burma), North and South Yemen, Rwanda, Burundi and er, that’s it. I wonder what the good people of Burundi know that we don’t?

Everyone in Sunderland is on Mr Thoburn’s side.

I doubt it. Would Nissan be building its new Micra in Sunderland if the UK Independence Party, which has given £2,700 to Mr Thoburn, had its way? Would there be a Nissan plant there at all?

Last week I said that Mr Thoburn was a puppet. That was unfair. He’s a decent and independent guy. But he’s swimming in shark-infested waters, being used by people who do not have his (or Sunderland’s) best interests at heart.

Any other business?

Yes. Vivian Linacre, director of the British Weights and Measures Association, has written a very long letter pointing out that there is no connection between his association and the UKIP.

I accept, contrary to what I suggested, that a speech advocating civil disobedience by a keynote speaker at one of its conferences was specifically repudiated by the organisation, but I am surprised that Mr Linacre has not pointed out his calls for an ‘October Revolution’ over weights and measures two years previously.

I’m sure Mr Linacre is right, too, when he says there is no connection between the BWMA and the UKIP.

I would have been happier, however, if he had come clean and admitted straight out that he stood as its candidate at the Perth and Kinross parliamentary by-election in 1995. It’s little sins of omission like this that make one question the real agenda of some of these people.