The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail have followed the far-right British National Party in drawing attention to the case of a market trader in Dalston, East London, who prefers to sell fruit and veg by the bowl (see previous posting in Metric Views). This may come as no surprise to some readers, but we wonder where it is leading.
On 10 January, the British National Party published an article on its web site about a market trader in East London who was about to appear before magistrates, facing charges under the Weights and Measures Act 1985. The story was taken up in Mr Booker’s column in the Sunday Telegraph on 13 January, and in an article in the Daily Mail on 15 January.
No surprise here for older readers, who may remember the headline, ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, which appeared in the Daily Mail in 1934 over an article by Lord Rothermere supporting the fascist cause. But if the current case is about the application of European directives, as all three articles suggest, then here is a paradox. Why do those who supported the totalitarian governments of Italy, Portugal and Germany in the 1930s, now use every opportunity, some relevant but many not, to discredit the democratically accountable institutions of today’s Europe?
Weights and measures law, while being primarily concerned with fairness between buyer and seller, has always had a secondary purpose of removing barriers to trade. This was so for Magna Carta in 1215, which required, ‘one measure throughout our whole realm, and for the Act of Union of 1707, which imposed English weights and measures on the Scots. The rationalisation of measures in Britain and Ireland in 1824, made necessary by the industrial revolution, produced a system that was adopted by colonial governments throughout the British Empire for the same reason one system of measures for all purposes. And it was for this reason that most of these countries have now themselves adopted the metric system, without any encouragement from Europe.
Although metric has been legal in Britain since 1898, it was only in 1965, following requests from manufacturing industry, that very serious thought was given to a changeover. The UK Metrication Board was set up in 1969, three years before the UK began negotiations to enter the then European Common Market. The Board proposed in 1978 a cut-off date for the use of pounds and ounces, using powers provided by the Weights and Measures Act. This cut-off was not implemented until 1995 for packaged goods and 2000 for loose goods (fruit and veg), by which time the Metrication Board was long gone, and no-one was willing to accept responsibility for the necessary work of informing and educating.
So where does this leave the British National Party, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and our East End trader with her bowls of fruit? Only time will tell. But it is a characteristic of the British that we are adaptable to changing circumstances. The majority of us, probably over 90%, buy our loose fruit and veg from a supermarket or the corner shop, are accustomed to seeing it priced and weighed in kilos, and are wondering what this fuss is really all about.