Steven Thoburn sprang to mind when I read that the Government is considering bringing back pounds and ounces.
The name won’t mean much to many people these days, but Steve deserves his place in history as the man who fought, and failed, to preserve Britain’s system of imperial measurements.
He was the Sunderland greengrocer who insisted on selling fruit and veg in weights his customers could understand. His reward was to be dragged through the courts and hounded into an early grave.
Britain had been using metric measures alongside imperial since the 1960s. It was always a matter of choice. Then, in 2000, the EU passed a directive making metric compulsory throughout the member states. Typically, British officials seized on the new regulations with Stalinist zeal.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured here in a Jubilee-themed room, is considering bringing back pounds and ounces
Spiteful council jobsworths across the country toured shops and markets enforcing the rules to the letter, threatening heavy fines against those who refused to comply.
In the Sunderland suburb of Southwick they encountered resistance from Steve Thoburn. He wasn’t going to be bullied into scrapping the traditional weights and measures to which his customers, many of them elderly, were accustomed.
So the authorities decided to make an example of him. Steve had to be crushed. His scales were confiscated and he was prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The test case, which ran for three years and centered on the sale of a 34p bunch of bananas, ended up in the House of Lords and Steve’s inevitable defeat.
I interviewed him on TV in 2002, along with former fishmonger Neil Herron, a heroic figure who founded the grassroots organization Metric Martyrs to defend Thoburn and other traders who fell foul of the EU directive.
Richard Littlejohn writes: ‘All that is being proposed is the decriminalization of pounds and ounces. No one is suggesting metric measures are to be banned. ‘ Pictured is a greengrocer selling vegetables using old fashioned scales
Even then, it was apparent that the pressure was getting to Steve. The legal wrangling and the glare of publicity took a heavy toll on his health. He looked much older than 37, and died of a heart attack two years later, on his son’s seventh birthday.
Did this vindictive prosecution kill him? No one can be sure, but before his conviction Steve 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. ‘
For decades, imperial and metric had co-existed happily. Britain cheerfully kept miles and pints, even as food was increasingly being sold in kilos. So there was no good reason why greengrocers couldn’t carry on selling potatoes by the pound.
But this was never simply about upholding the law. It was about showing Steve, and everyone else, who was the boss.
In his ruling on the case in 2001, District Judge Bruce Morgan gave the game away: ‘So long as this country remains a member of the European Union then the laws of this country are subject to the doctrine of the primacy of community law.’
Ever since we joined the old Common Market in 1973, the standing bureaucracy has bent the knee to Brussels.
All the 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 legalizing the use of imperial measures remains to be seen. It could just be another gimmick to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee.
Yet the opposition from die-hard Remainiacs is already reaching fever pitch. You’d thought Boris had announced the slaughter of the first-born. All that is being proposed is the decriminalization of pounds and ounces. No one is suggesting metric measures are to be banned.
Crown stamps on pint glasses, like the one pictured here, could make a comeback under the new proposals
Under-50s would rightly be outraged if they were forced to use weights and measures they had never been taught. Then perhaps they can understand how people of my generation and older felt when an alien system was foisted upon us. Bewilderment, sleight-of-hand and rip-off reigned. My first weekly pay packet was eight pounds, six shillings and eight pence. A few weeks later, the metric system was introduced. My wages stayed the same but prices rose mysteriously overnight.
A pub lunch which previously cost half a crown (2 / 6d) was suddenly priced at 26p, over twice as much. They simply dropped the slash and the ‘d’. And took the ‘p’.
Unscrupulous businesses exploited the confusion to increase their profits. A large section of the population had no idea how much anything cost any more.
Much the same happened when petrol started being sold in liters. Even £ 1.67 a liter sounds cheaper than £ 7.50 a gallon.
The introduction of metric measures in supermarkets allowed shops to short-change customers and launched the widespread modern phenomenon of ‘shrinkflation’.
Richard Littlejohn writes: ‘Whether or not this Government is serious about legalizing the use of imperial measures remains to be seen. It could just be another gimmick to coincide with the Platinum Jubilee ‘
If the Government is serious, this could be the start of a renaissance of home-grown rules and regulation now that we are free of the shackles of the EU. Up until now, whether because of the pandemic or stiff resistance from within the civil service, the bonfire of Brussels directives hasn’t happened.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is promising that vast tracts of EU legislation will be removed from British law. And not before time. Boris should start by scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol, which, absurdly and among other outrages, is preventing British citizens in Belfast and elsewhere from enjoying British food as part of the Jubilee celebrations.
The decriminalization of pounds and ounces would be a welcome start. Traditional symbols of nationhood are important, as we will be reminded in glorious style this weekend. Which is why the Left and the Continuity Remainers hate them with such vehemence.
Resentment of the relentless drive to erase our national identity, and a thirst for self-government, including making our own laws, played a major part in the victory of the Leave campaign – especially in patriotic Red Wall seats that the Theories need to retain if they are to have any hope of winning the next Election.
It’s no coincidence that the first constituency to vote overwhelmingly in favor of Brexit was Sunderland. Bringing back pounds and ounces would be a fitting tribute to a true working-class hero, Steve Thoburn.
You have to admire the enterprise of those intrepid Liverpool fans who chartered a speedboat to cross to France after their EasyJet flight was canceled, even if their European adventure ended in tear gas. Let’s hope they didn’t attempt to come home the same way, otherwise they could find themselves on the first flight out to Rwanda.
Blenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope in Vera
Howay the killjoys
Thanks to all those readers who have written in response to my item last week about former world boxing champion Glenn McCrory being charged with threatening and abusive behavior after addressing two teenage waitresses as ‘pet’.
Many of you have pointed out that if calling someone ‘pet’ is now a hate crime, Brenda Blethyn’s Vera will have to be canceled, along with repeats of Inspector George Gently and The Likely Lads.
And as for that series about Geordie bricklayers working abroad, it’ll be auf Wiedersehen, er. . .
Had to chuckle at the picture of the banner on the RMT rail strikers’ picket line in The Mail on Sunday. It read: ‘Never On Our Knees’. Do Black Lives Matter know about this shameful lack of solidarity?
Happy 70th birthday to Chris Stevens, the Mail sub-editor who shepherds this column into the paper. He’s been keeping me out of trouble for more than 40 years, since we were both kids on London’s Evening Standard.
Chris has a lifelong obsession with his guitar hero Jeff Beck. So I was intrigued to learn that Johnny Depp flew straight from his bitter court case in Virginia to Sheffield, where he joined Beck on stage on Sunday night.
In Chris’s honor they could have played Hi Ho Silver Surfer!
Summer rock concerts could be monkeypox superspreader events, warn lockdown enthusiasts. How long before the Arctic Monkeys are banned from this year’s Reading Festival?