Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Imperial ambitions

Their story became a turning point in Britain’s relationship with the EU. It isn’t over yet

Early on the morning of Friday 24 June, Darren Gratton went into his butcher’s shop in Barnstaple and changed his wall signs, which at this time of year are mostly about barbecue packs. Emboldened in the Brexit dawn, he deleted all references to ‘kg’ and replaced each one with ‘lb’. Tempted to do the same to the labels inside the display cabinets, he decided not to, for fear of a threatening call from Trading Standards. But that small act of wall-chart insurrection was enough to spark an article in the local paper, which triggered a deluge of emails from other shopkeepers across the country in support of his brave action with the squeaky pen.

As Britain turns its face towards the exit door, and butchers dare to erase their kilo-gram signs, some are asking: will justice now be done for the Metric Martyrs? One of the many who emailed Gratton in support was Neil Herron, the steadfast campaigner for the five Metric Martyrs, whose criminal records still stand. I met Herron in London this week, and he told me that the Brexit vote has given his campaign a nudge towards his passionately desired outcome: a posthumous royal pardon for his old friend the Metric Martyr Steve Thoburn.

Remember the Metric Martyrs? The fishmonger and greengrocer in Camelford, the market trader in Hackney, the greengrocer in Sunderland, all convicted in the early 2000s for using imperial scales and labelling? It was one of the darkest times for the EU’s reputation in Britain. If we’re looking for specific reasons why so many people voted Leave, it’s worth contemplating the lingering ill-feeling left by those small acts of bureaucratic bullying, when the ‘little guy’ going about his daily business was squashed and criminalised by the rigid mechanics of Council Directive 80/181/EEC, stipulating the use of metric measurements, incorporated into English law in January 2000.

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