Richard North, 17/09/2021  

The mockery has already started, following the government's commitment to review the EU's ban on markings and sales in imperial units and its promise to legislate in due course.

This is one element of the plans "to capitalise on new Brexit freedoms" announced yesterday by the ennobled David Frost, part of a process to make our rules and regulations "best serve the UK national interest".

But those who choose to mock at the return of pounds and ounces to Britain's high streets will be missing the point. Compulsory metrication was one of those landmark issues which illustrated how EU powers were reaching into the lives of ordinary people.

The resentment was given a focus on 4 July 2000, when council officials supported by two policemen converged on a fruit and vegetable stall in a Sunderland market, owned by Steve Thoburn, to seize his scales.

This draconian step had been precipitated by an ordinary action of Thoburn, selling his wares by the "pound", as his customers preferred, rather than in the kilograms that since 1 January had become compulsory. But what was once an natural, legal action had now become an offence for which Thoburn faced criminal prosecution.

This was the first time the EU's new metrication law had been put to the test, the culmination of the process of compulsory metrication that had been imposed on Britain without Parliament ever being consulted. With Thoburn having, in effect, been selected as a test case, his case hit the national headlines, and through the efforts of his fellow marketeer-turned publicist, Neil Herron, the legend of the "metric martyrs" was born. It attracted massive nationwide and international publicity for the anti-EU cause.

When a case taken by Sunderland Council against Thoburn reached the High Court, its decision in 2002 reaffirmed the supremacy of EU law. Metrication thus became a cause célèbre in the growing Eurosceptic community.

The affair took on a more sombre turn in 2004 when Thoburn died prematurely at the age of 39 from a heart condition. His funeral and the subsequent wake at the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland Football Club, was attended by many devoted followers.

Thus the "metric martyrs" acquired cult status. Their efforts did much to shift political sentiment in the north-east of England against the EU and were almost certainly responsible for the 61 percent leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum, against the 39 percent who voted to remain.

That the result was unexpected is indicative of how little the impact of the metric campaign had registered with outsiders – including a Ukip MEP, who had no more idea than the chatterati what was going on.

In that sense, it represented a microcosm of the entire anti-EU movement, which had been gathering strength under the horizon, decades before Cameron finally committed to a referendum. And the fact that so few of the above-the-liners realised what was happening is the story of the campaign.

It is some of those some people who are currently indulging in their mockery, demonstrating that they still haven't come to terms with Brexit, or understood the forces that were unleased by the growing encroachment of Brussels on our daily lives. Many are beyond reach, and will go to their graves without understanding.

It is entirely predictable, therefore, that the likes of the Daily Mail should have focused on what, in effect, is payback time. Those of a certain age will be able to embrace the return of imperial measurements – a gesture of defiance and a tangible sign that we have left the EU.

In another iconic move, the government is to repeal the EU-derived prohibition on printing the Crown Stamp on pint glasses. It will allow publicans and restaurants voluntarily to "embrace this important symbol on their glassware, should they choose to do so".

This remedies another irritation, imposed by the Measurement Instruments Directive (2004/22/EC) which came into force in 2006, requiring glasses to bear the "CE" mark and prohibiting "supplementary metrology marking".

In so doing, it broke a tradition reaching back to the reign of King William III in 1699, and to the reign of William IV with the compulsory introduction of verification marks in 1835. The Directive thus stood as a testament to the lie that the EU would not have any effect on the British culture. On the accumulation of such small traditions does the culture of a nation in part rest.

That said, as a serious attempt to reduce the burden on EU regulation, yesterday's announcement is pretty thin stuff overall, built as it is on Iain Duncan Smith's Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR). This was launched in February of this year with the objective of scoping out and proposing options "for how the UK can take advantage of our newfound regulatory freedoms".

The Guardian tried to make a fist of it, headlining: "Rules on GM farming and cars to be top of UK bonfire of EU laws", adding by way of a sub-head: "Minister reveals plans to change laws inherited from EU, with rules on medical devices also in crosshairs".

The reference to "cars" is an odd one, with Frost's letter stating that the government will shortly "set out ambitious plans which include modernising outdated EU vehicle standards to unlock the expansion of new transport technologies as outlined in TIGRR".

One hesitates here to suggest that the ennobled David Frost really doesn't know what he's talking about – if only because the repetition is so tedious. But he should know by now that the "EU vehicle standards" are actually produced by UNECE's World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29).

Far from being outdated, the regulatory process is dynamic, with amendments and new standards constantly being framed. Currently, the working party is focusing on electric vehicles, producing global standards, conformity with which will be vital for export sales.

Furthermore, the ennobled David Frost may have forgotten, but the UK is committed to working with WP.29 standards, by virtue of the TCA (Annex TBT-1).

As to rules on genetically modified farming, it is fair to say that progress (if it can be called that) in the EU has stalled, but if the UK wants to join the US in developing and using this technology, it will thereby ensure that much of its agricultural production is excluded from the Single Market.

For much of the so-called plan, though, much of the text is so vague that little can be deduced from it. Some issues, such as procurement and port regulation, look promising, but there will be "double coffin-lid" constraints here and elsewhere, which may shape the final proposals. That much certainly goes for the ideas on financial services and investment reform.

On balance, therefore, much of what we see is not so much a bonfire of regulation as a damp squib, to be taken with a pinch of salt. But, at least that pinch can be measured as a fraction of an ounce rather than a gram. What more can one ask?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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