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Thoburn's offence: selling a bunch of bananas weighed on a set of imperial scales, to an undercover trading standards officer of the Sunderland council. The bananas, which weighed just over a pound, cost 34 pence.
As a result, in April 2001, Thoburn became the first person in Britain to be convicted of ignoring a European directive to use metric measures only and was sentenced to a six-month conditional discharge. The directive came into effect on 1 January 2000.
District Judge Bruce Morgan, who heard the case at the Sunderland Magistrates Court, said he recognized Thoburn was a decent, hardworking man simply trying to do the best for his customers, but Sunderland council had acted properly in enforcing the law.
After five days of legal argument, Judge Morgan declared that European law was supreme and that in signing up to the European Economic Community, as it was then known, Britain had agreed to abide by its rules and regulations and had agreed to the eventual demise of the imperial measuring system.
The case captured the public's attention. Thoburn found himself dubbed a 'metric martyr' with the support of thousands including celebrities such as the singer Elaine Paige, the actor Edward Fox, the comedian John Cleese and Lord Tebbit, the former chairman of the Conservative party.
Fruit and vegetables were not the issue, his supporters said. The key issue was the right of the British people to uphold their sovereignty and to resist changes imposed by the distant and ever increasing bureaucracy of the European Union.
A campaign was launched to fight for the preservation of imperial measures. Led by Sunderland fishmonger, Neil Herron, thousands of supporters signed a petition, marched on parliament, and raised funds to appeal the conviction.
In November 2001 Thoburn and four other traders (three of whom had also been convicted of using imperial measurements) appealed against their convictions at the High Court in London.
In February 2002, five British market traders lost their High Court battle for the legal right to sell goods in pounds and ounces.
The court rejected their claim that British law provided a loophole allowing them to ignore a European directive to weigh and sell goods using metric measures only. The directive came into effect on 1 January 2000.
Lawyers described the appeal as a test case, since it was the first legal challenge to the sovereignty of European law over British law.
Their traders' lawyers argued that the men were acting in accordance with the 1985 Weights and Measures Act, which specifically allowed trading in both imperial and metric measures. They argued that the provisions of this Act should take precedence over the earlier 1972 European Communities Act under which European directives would override English laws.
The court ruled that 'all the specific rights and obligations which European Union law creates are by the European Communities Act incorporated into our domestic law and rank supreme'.
Spokesperson for the traders, Neil Herron, said that the court's decision showed that an act of the United Kingdom parliament could be overruled by a 'mere directive' from 'an entity, a gathering of un-elected bureaucrats over which we have no democratic control'. The ruling marked 'the death of democracy'.
The case, which started over the sale of a bunch of bananas, has left the 'metric martyrs' facing a bill estimated at £100,000 according to Herron. He vowed that the traders would continue their fight.
|WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Although Britain is supposedly metricated these days in line with the rest of Europe, the British have had their ‘funny’ Imperial Measurements for a long time now, and there is great resistance to change. Although, by law, goods must now be measured and sold using metric measurements, there are exceptions and these may cause problems if you do not have a grasp of Imperial Measurements.
Many Britons measure themselves in feet and inches, and weigh themselves in stones and pounds. By law, produce must be sold in kilograms and litres, but you will still hear people asking for goods in Imperial Measures. Indeed, you will often find loose produce, or goods bought at markets or less regulated outlets sold in Imperial Measures. Distances are still measured in miles and yards, and petrol is sold in both litres and gallons. Beer is always sold in pints and half pints. Land is still measured in acres. Temperatures are measured both in Celsius and Fahrenheit. Shoe sizes are often displayed in either British or metric measurements, but the sizing of clothes can be a problem. Children’s clothes are usually displayed according to age or height in centimetres, adult clothing however, is usually presented in sizes. In the US, Imperial Measures are common, although they sometimes differ from British Imperial Measurements.
To make things even more complicated, British people will often omit the measurement or weight altogether when ordering something. When ordering cheese for example, customers often say something like ‘a half of cheddar, please’, this means they want a ½ pound of cheddar cheese. Other examples are ‘a quarter of sweets’ (a ¼ pound of sweets) and ‘a half of lager’ (a ½ pint of lager).
British school children are taught metric weights and measures, so they tend to be more familiar with them than older people. In fact, some children have little idea of feet and pounds.
As a rule of thumb, there are approximately 4½ litres to a gallon, 2 pints are just over 1 litre, 3 feet or 1 yard is roughly equivalent to 1 metre and there are 2.2 pounds to a kilogram.
Copyright and Permission: Joan Begg 2002
The English Times
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