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Christopher Booker's Notebook - Nov 25th, 2001

Metric Martyrs Six
Metric Martyrs Six: left to right: Steven Thoburn (Sunderland), John Dove (Cornwall), centre back Peter Collins (Sutton), in front Neil Herron, Julian Harman (Cornwall), and Colin Hunt (Hackney).

In a series of unusually outspoken interventions, astonishingly unreported by the media, a High Court judge last week dramatically called the bluff of successive governments in their efforts to foist exclusive use of the metric system on Britain by stealth.

It was "shameful" that such a massive change could have been imposed without an Act of Parliament, said Lord Justice Laws, as he heard the appeal of five small traders against convictions by magistrates in Sunderland, Cornwall and London for the crime of selling fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in pounds rather than kilograms.

"If I had had this case in a lower court" said Justice Laws, "I would have halted it for an excessive abuse of process". It was wrong that men should be prosecuted under laws deliberately made so opaque that they would have "to bury their heads in law books" to know what the laws were.

Several times Justice Laws implicitly rejected the claim last April by district judge Bruce Morgan, in finding Sunderland market trader Steve Thoburn criminally guilty of selling a pound of bananas, that by joining the European Union Britain had "voluntarily surrendered the once seemingly immortal concept of the sovereignty of Parliament". Britain, insisted the judge, was still "a sovereign nation", and Parliament was still our sovereign lawmaking body.

When the prosecuting QC Eleanor Sharpston insisted she was not taking "instruction from a government authority", Justice Laws shot back that the government "should be present in this courtroom" to answer for its actions.

The crux of the case made for the five 'Metric Martyrs' by their barrister Michael Shrimpton in front of the two judges was that the government was not entitled to use a mere statutory instrument to repeal the Weights and Measures Act 1985 which specifically authorised continued use of the imperial system alongside metric. Between 1990 and 1995 the Tory Government issued a series of regulations making it a criminal offence to use imperial measures, to comply with two EU directives. It was this on which Justice Laws focussed in saying he was fully "aware of the constitutional implications" of the case, and that if "20 Acts of Parliament were to fall" as a result, this was not "a relevant concern in this courtroom".

He accepted the government had 'Henry VIII' powers to make minor changes to primary legislation by statutory instrument, but not for something as substantial as abolishing the country's entire traditional system of weights and measures. If they wanted to make it a criminal offence to use that system, he asked, why did they not do so with an Act of Parliament?

What was remarkable was these points were not part of the judgement in the case, which is expected in the next few weeks. During the three-day hearing, the atmosphere in the courtroom was electric. Several times supporters of the 'Martyrs' and their mastermind Neil Herron, himself a Sunderland trader, applauded Justice Laws's points.

So packed was the court that when Mr Thoburn once arrived late and had to stand at the back, he was told by a security man to leave the court, until he explained he was one of those whose livelihoods were at stake. Afterwards court staff told them "privately we are right behind you".

One of Miss Sharpston's points which received short shrift was the familiar charge against imperial by supporters of compulsory metrication that "no one uses it any more". But the best answer to this came from Mr Herron when, on the BBC Breakfast show, the same point was made by presenter Jeremy Bowen. Obviously prepared for their encounter, Mr Bowen smugly observed "I know my height in metres", conveying that everyone is now familiar with the metric system. "OK" replied Mr Herron, "so what is your chest measurement?". Visibly embarrassed, Mr Bowen admitted "I concede defeat".

BWMA is delighted to reproduce above Christopher Booker's Sunday Telegraph column. Christopher Booker is a longstanding foe of surreptitious and compulsory metric conversion, having first exposed it in a major Sunday magazine article in 1970. Mr Booker also played an important part in the launch of BWMA's anti-compulsory metrication campaign by mentioning the Association's address in his article, "At last the British People want to Fight Back", published September 3rd 1995.

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