In a changing world, established settlements are being overturned and ideas once considered ‘unthinkable’ suddenly become possible again. So where does that leave Britain’s historic weights and measures?
Who would ever have thought it?
That’s been my summary of the events of the year, this year.
The whole Trump – Clinton thing, and everything to do with it. Brexit – which wasn’t even a word, little more than a year ago, much less even a remote possibility. Even Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: now, what was that one all about? Songwriting, maybe (is there a Nobel Prize for Songwriting?). But literature? Ageing hippies on the judging panel, is one answer. Trying to make some sort of statement about something or other. A bit like the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama in 2009. Obama said he was ‘surprised,’ at the time, as I recall. Though not half as surprised as everyone else, given the fact that he’d only just been elected, and hadn’t even done anything notable to bring about world peace. As for what he’s done on that front in the years since – well, let’s skip over that, for the time being. At the time of writing, Dylan hasn’t expressed his surprise, or even said anything at all about being awarded his Nobel Prize. he hasn’t even said even whether he’s going to turn up for the ceremony, but then that’s his own affair. He doesn’t need the money these days, and Norway in October can be pretty cold and dark, compared to Malibu, where his home is. And even the acrimonious relations he’s had with his neighbours since the disagreement over the smell blowin’ in the wind from a portable lavatory on his land probably doesn’t bother him much now.
Sorry, I’m rambling. So let’s bring all these loose ends together and get too wherever it is I’m going with this. Put you out of your suspense.
My point is this: things are happening now that will change everything. But we just don’t know how yet. To paraphrase Dylan, the wheel’s still in spin and there really is no telling who that it’s naming. In Britain, in the run-up to Brexit, the Prime Minister, Theresa May is planning what she calls her Great Repeal Bill. What this will do is to the start the process of unpicking 45 years of European legislation in Britain. As for how many laws this covers, and how much of British life they cover, consider this: in 1990 Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Denning, described the impact of EU law thus:
“Our sovereignty has been taken away by the European Court of Justice…Our courts must no longer enforce our national laws. They must enforce Community law…No longer is European law an incoming tide flowing up the estuaries of England. It is now like a tidal wave bringing down our sea walls and flowing inland over our fields and houses—to the dismay of all.”
This was a quarter of a century ago, and in the years since the flood of EU legislation has grown stronger, if anything. That’s all going to change: but the thing is, none of us know quite how, or by how much, or which areas will be touched by the Great Repeal Bill.
At the time of writing, it remains a criminal offence to use Britain’s traditional weights and measures for many trade purposes, as a result of the translation into domestic law of European directive 71/354/EEC and its later replacement, 80/181/EEC. This law was tested in the courts in the ‘Metric Martyrs’ case, in which a number of traders were prosecuted for selling goods in imperial measures – most famously market trader Steve Thoburn, whose crime was to sell a pound of bananas to an undercover trading standards officer. The convictions were upheld on appeal, after the High Court judge ruled that the weights and measures laws were authorised by the ‘Constitutional Act’ that took Britain into the European Community. Which was now a settled fact. That Act was the European Communities Act 1972. And it is this act, and may others resting upon it, that will be revoked by Teresa May’s Great Reform Bill. But the thing is, we just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
It may be – and I sincerely hope – that Britain will restore the freedom of measurement it once had. For over a hundred years, shoppers were free to buy, and traders to sell, in either metric or imperial measures, or both. No-one had a problem with that. Or rather, no-one apart from bossy, ‘we-know-best’ politicians and officials an agenda to ‘Europeanise’ the British had a problem with it. And because they had the power, and the will, they were able to force their vision on the nation.
But now – well, who knows?
The times, as they say, are a’changin’.
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