Britain’s struggle to retain the pound sterling at the end of the 20th century was epic. ‘Keep the pound and keep the check’ was the European election campaign slogan used by Ukip when I was first elected as an MEP in 1999. At the dawn of the 21st century, a protracted struggle to retain our national currency ensued. And despite the best efforts of Tony Blair, big business, various labor leaders, the National Farmers Union and others, we have won a great victory. We won. We kept the pound. If we had lost, I think Brexit would never have happened.
Around the same time, in the late 1990s, a campaign was launched to retain the other pound – the measure (lb). Metric fanatics had been busy since the 1960s trying to impose kilograms on Britain. These people hated the old customs and traditions of our country. They viewed them as backward, outdated and, frankly, embarrassing. They wanted to usher in a new future. (Interestingly, the most enthusiastic of these metricers were also those most attentive to Britain’s EU membership).
The center-left educational system was a crucial tool in this crusade, as only metric measurements were taught in schools and universities. The problem for metricators was that old ways persisted. People were still talking about gallons per mile when filling up their cars; pounds in weight when buying fish and meat; and pounds and ounces at the grocer or the baker. It was impossible to reprogram those who had spent their whole lives using these terms.
However, following our own Weights and Measures Act 1985 and other European legislation, the concept of EU harmonization came into effect on 1 January 2000, when it became mandatory for traders weigh goods served in front of customers in imperial and metric measurements. .
As a former commodity trader, I was happy and familiar with both systems. In the City, we traded in dollars per tonne in London and cents per pound in New York. But it was the elites who viewed imperial measures as backward. They were determined to be swept away.
Then in Sunderland (it always seems to be Sunderland!), something dramatic happened. In early 2001, Steve Thoburn, a fruit and vegetable market trader, continued to take orders in imperial measurements and sell his goods without any metric equivalent, in violation of the EU directive. Extraordinarily, the local trading standards officers challenged him and in April 2001 he was prosecuted at Sunderland Magistrates’ Court. The dispute arose over the sale of a bunch of bananas worth 34 pence. His imperial scales were confiscated and he was given a six-month parole. Despite huge public support, his conviction was not overturned on appeal to the High Court. He embarked on a three-year battle for the right to sell his fruits and vegetables as he saw fit.
Thus began the Metric Martyrs campaign, which advocated the freedom to choose the metrics used by merchants. UKIP MEPs paid for the original legal advice. I went to visit Steve Thoburn in Sunderland and thought he was a very brave and principled man. Why on earth should Shakespeare’s language be criminalized, I thought? What about consumer choice? In many ways, the Metric Martyrs campaign summed up everything that was wrong with Britain’s EU membership.
It turned out that Steve Thoburn wasn’t alone. Four other market traders who also believed consumers should have a choice have been found guilty of breaching the same EU directive. Tragically, father-of-two Steve Thoburn died aged 39 after a heart attack in 2004. The other Metric Martyrs took their cases to court.
Now, finally, six years after the Brexit vote, common sense must be applied. Boris Johnson is reportedly set to announce a consultation on how to further integrate imperial measures in Britain. We will even be able to have the Crown emblem on our pint glasses, 20 years after ministers working in Tony Blair’s first administration imposed European rules banning the symbol. I am particularly pleased with the decision, which was presented by Downing Street as Johnson handed the country a Jubilee bonus.
Unlike the other fight to keep the pound, however, the battle to restore the pound and ounce has two more important steps to complete. The first step is that our education system should ensure that children are fully proficient in both systems. After all, America is still very heavily imperial, so it can hardly be called outdated.
And perhaps most importantly, a terrible wrong must be righted. Not just for Steve Thoburn and his family, but for the other four Metric Martyrs. None of them should ever have been prosecuted. All deserve a formal pardon.
I am very happy today to join the campaign calling for this. Frankly, clearing their names would be the minimum Johnson or any other prime minister should be happy to oversee.