A case came to court in Sunderland, England, earlier this week, that caused, or reflected, quite a stir — such a stir, in fact, that its ripples have been felt far beyond England. Why is this?
Partly it is because of the charm of the defendant and the novelty of the charge: a 36-year-old fruit and vegetable trader accused of the heinous crime of selling bananas in pounds and ounces instead of the kilograms now mandatory in Britain under the European Union’s law on weights and measures. Mr. Steven Thoburn, the offending grocer, had already shown he had the right stuff to become a populist hero, with his general air of insouciance and his no-nonsense quotability. “My interest is me customers,” he said. “If somebody comes into me premises and says, ‘Come on, luv, give us a kilo of bananas, I’d sell it to her. But nobody ever [does].’ “
This is classic little-man-against-the-government dialogue, and it never fails to get hearts beating. Sympathetic Britons have dubbed Mr. Thoburn and his fellow rebel, a Sunderland fishmonger, “the Metric Martyrs,” and declared Mr. Thoburn’s first day in court last Monday National Banana Day. But there is more to the case than colorful characters and banana jokes.
There are also blundering bureaucrats. The Metric Martyrs’ supporters claim that the government took no steps to educate the public ahead of implementation of the new regulations a year ago — no announcements, no television ads, no brochures, no conversion tables — but simply sent out an army of belligerent inspectors. Furthermore, they point out, enforcement is scandalously selective. Why is it all right for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s newborn son, or jockeys, to be weighed in pounds and ounces, but not fish? Why can McDonald’s still sell “quarter-pounder” hamburgers in Britain while it is suddenly a crime to sell a quarter of a pound of bananas? Why do road signs still use miles, not kilometers?
The truth is, the British government’s approach to metrication has been a scattershot one from the start, doubtless reflecting its own and the country’s profound ambivalence about merging with Europe and conforming to its centralized standards. Britain began the switch to metrics as long ago as 1965, decimalized its currency in 1971, but has made limited progress shedding feet, acres, pounds, stones, Fahrenheit and the rest in the three decades since then. No British newspaper would titillate its readers with a story about a 200-kg man; no British jury could envisage a 155-mm knife-blade.
The result of this timorousness is showing up now in the understandable resistance of a largely uninformed and unprepared public to such piecemeal measures as the one that landed Mr. Thoburn in court last week. Better, perhaps, to have gone metric “cold turkey,” as Australia and other countries did, with notable success, in the ’60s and ’70s, than to have hung on for so long to an untenable “one-country, two-systems” policy. It is all very well for the giant United States to hold out against metrics — though even there, globalization is already silently forcing the switch — but smaller Britain has no future separate from Europe’s and must make the consequences of that fact palatable to its people.
This, surely, is the lesson for interested foreign observers. In its own quaint and peculiarly English way, the case of the Metric Martyrs illuminates the permanent, rolling clash between old and new, past and present, local and global, that shows up somewhere on the planet every other day. In most cases, our sympathy instinctively goes to the little people and the old ways: We don’t want to see other languages sidelined by English; we wince at the opening of every new Starbucks coffee shop or foreign department-store venture; we rather like the antique poetry of pounds and ounces; and we certainly understand Mr. Thoburn’s defiance of a law perhaps inadequately explained and probably clumsily enforced.
But that does not make the law wrong, any more than sympathy for those irked or saddened by change will stop change from happening. Britain is not an empire any more, and no longer needs its imperial measures. It makes sense to go metric in a mostly metric world, and it is the government’s job to make the case for it, as it is any government’s job to make the case for changes it deems beneficial. The trouble is, as a pair of wits once said about the English Civil War, one side is Right but Revolting while the other is Wrong but Romantic. Facing a general election in May at which it must persuade skeptical Britons that their future lies in, not outside, Europe, Mr. Blair’s government had better take notes on Mr. Thoburn’s romantic way with words. Otherwise, this case could turn out to be a very big electoral banana peel.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.