We have much to thank Magna Carta for. The most important charter in the history of this proud nation succeeded magnificently in its task of putting the monarchy in its place. In the words of a great 13th century lawyer: "In England the king is below God and below the law." And he based that judgement on two clauses which contained these words: “No free man shall be arrested, imprisoned or dispossessed of his lands without judgment of his peers” and “to no free man will right or justice be delayed or denied.” Great stuff. And yet... Isn’t there always a ”but”? It failed to settle an issue – admittedly rather less momentous - that plagues us to this day. Magna Carta pronounced: “Let there be one measure”. And here we are, more than eight centuries later, still trying to decide on what that measure should be. Are we metric or imperial? And do you care?
Many believers in the metric system assumed that the great debate was on the verge of being settled when we joined what was called the Common Market all those years ago. Pretty soon, they assumed, we’d stop buying our beer in pints and our tomatoes in pounds and measuring our height in feet and inches and distances in miles. And they were right in one sense at least. The changes we have seen since have all been in one direction. We’ve been going metric. But it was always a matter of choice. We used metric measures alongside imperial measures without worrying too much about it. Then, in 2000, the EU passed a directive making metric compulsory throughout the member states. We obeyed. At least the government and its officials obeyed. But now things are changing. Pounds and ounces may well be making a comeback in shops and markets across the land.
What’s happened is that ministers have announced a major review of all EU laws that have been automatically kept on the statute book since we voted to leave the European Union. The government will review the EU ban on markings and sales in imperial units and “legislate in due course.” A government press release says laws made in Brussels will be “improved or repealed if it is judged not to benefit the British people”.
The anti-metric lobby scents a famous victory. It may once again be legal for market stalls, shops and supermarkets to sell goods using the imperial weights and measures system.
Pubs may be affected too. They might once again be able to sell pints in glasses printed with the Crown Stamp, which were also banned under EU rules. The stamp had been used for centuries to prove to us beer-drinkers that the glass was an accurate measurement. It was replaced with the EU’s CE mark in 2007. The government announcement says: “We will remove the EU-derived prohibition on printing the Crown Stamp on pint glasses and allowing publicans and restaurants to voluntarily embrace this important symbol on their glassware, should they choose to do so”.
So that’s one relatively modest victory for the anti-metric lobby. But there’s a long way to go. As things stand, the law says traders must use metric measurements such as grams, kilograms, millilitres and litres when they’re selling packaged or loose goods in England, Scotland and Wales. It’s still legal to use pounds and ounces but they have to be displayed alongside the price in grams and kilograms.
Lord Frost, who was the government’s chief negotiator in the post-Brexit negotiations, says “Overbearing regulations were often conceived and agreed in Brussels with little consideration of
the UK national interest. We now have the opportunity to do things differently and ensure that Brexit freedoms are used to help businesses and citizens get on and succeed.” The government’s announcement, he predicts, is just the beginning. It will go “will go further and faster to create a competitive, high-standards regulatory environment which supports innovation and growth across the UK as we build back better from the pandemic.”
This will be music to the ears of those who have been campaigning to halt the march to metric since the first legislation was brought in. Their hero was Steve Thoburn, a Sunderland greengrocer who was caught by undercover trading standards officers who bought a small bunch of bananas from him after the metric law was passed. Mr Thoburn had, shock horror, weighed them in pounds and ounces. He was charged with two offences breaching the Weights and Measures Act. He appealed against his conviction and the case ran for three years, ending up in the House of Lords. The Lords ruled against him. After his conviction, Mr Thoburn gave an interview in which he said : 'I wake up at night in a panic and try to work out how we got to this state and how my mates and I could find ourselves persecuted for doing nothing more than selling fruit and veg.'
Two years later, at the age of 39, he died of a heart attack. Those who supported him have continued their fight, led by a former fishmonger, Neil Herron. He founded a grassroots organisation and called it “Metric Martyrs”.
Those metric supporters say the Metric Martyrs are simply living in the past. Whether we are in or out of the EU, Europe remains our biggest trading partners and every country on the continent uses metric measurements. It makes no sense at all to use a system that only we understand. And anyway, they point out, the battle has already been lost because half the population of this country has grown up using metric measurements. You need to be over fifty to talk about yards as opposed to metres. Young people, they point out, simply don’t think in feet and inches.
The Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn says it’s the metric zealots who are missing the point. He writes: “Ever since we joined the old Common Market in 1973, the standing bureaucracy has bent the knee to Brussels. All symbols of Britishness had to be erased to prove we were now 'good Europeans'. Directives coming out of the EU, even when advisory, had to be tripled-dipped in gold plate, set in stone and enforced rigorously. Steve Thoburn was just one unfortunate victim who had to be steamrollered in the name of conformity. Whether or not this Government is serious about legalising the use of imperial measures remains to be seen. It could just be another gimmick to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee.”
It may be worth noting that Boris Johnson has been on the side of the Metric Martyrs for many years. When he was the editor of The Spectator he wrote some pretty powerful stuff supporting their cause and when he became Prime Minister in 2019, he pledged: “We will bring back that ancient liberty. People understand what a pound of apples is. There will be an era of generosity and tolerance towards traditional measurements.”
So where do you stand in this debate? Do you regard the anti-metric cause as one that’s worth pursuing or do you believe it’s a ship that has long since sailed? Maybe you haven’t even given it a thought for years and consider the whole debate irrelevant. And if you’re under the age of fifty maybe you are simply baffled.
Either way, let us know