Trading with Canada – the EFTA angle

Mrs May is keeping her cards close to her chest regarding the sort of post-Brexit relationship she is seeking with the EU. Of course, there has been much intense and often ill-informed speculation in the media, which (in our opinion) is better ignored.

Occasionally, however, she or one of her team lets slip the occasional clue. It looks highly likely that the “WTO option” alias “Hard Brexit” is a non-starter.  In an exchange between the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, Mrs May said, “We’re going to deliver the best possible deal for trade in goods and services with and operation within the European Union, and we’re going to deliver an end to free movement.” A couple of days later, Greg Clark, the Business Secertary, told Andrew Marr that “our objective would be to ensure continued access to the markets in Europe and vice versa, without tariffs and without bureaucratic impediments.”

The obvious assumption is that some form of continuing membership of the European Economic Area is envisaged, either by re-joining EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, or by a one-off arrangment whereby the UK, as a current participant in the Single Market, will be allowed to continue to be a member of it after we leave the EU. Either way, once outside the EU, like Liechtenstein, we can avail ourselves of Article 112 of the EEA agreement and restrict freedom of movement by EU nationals into the UK.

This seems to be the direction in which Mrs May intends to take us. The decision of Nissan to produce two new models at its Sunderland plant points strongly towards some form of continued membersip of the EEA. The complexities of the supply chain, to which Greg Clark referred during his interview with Andrew Marr, are such that, without a guarantee that there would be no disruption, Toyota would have not made this commitment. As state aid – in the shape of compensation for loss of single market access – is ruled out by WTO  rules,  this once again points to some sort of continued access to the single market being Mrs May’s objective.

This, of course, has been a divisive issue among Brexit supporters. Ironically, if the government formally announces that this is the plan, it will bring our side closer together for no leave supporter views access to the single market, whether or not via EFTA membership, as anything other than a short-term holding position – to get us through the Brexit door without  disruption to trade. We all want a looser arrangement in the longer term.

However, EFTA membership would raise a number of interesting points. Firstly, EFTA already has a trade deal with Canada,  It is a much less contentious arrangement that the CETA deal between Canada and the EU. While all relevant parties have now signed the CETA deal, it is not yet in force and by the time it is fully implemented, we may well be on the way out. Signficantly, there has been objections from a few EU leaders to the idea of the UK automatically being able to “piggyback” onto trade deals to which it signed up as an EU member state.

As far as CETA is concerned, re-joining EFTA would not only cirumvent this problem, but would be a much better outsome, as the EFTA-Canada deal has a much simpler disputes system. Each party will nominate one person who is impartial, then they agree on a third person who will be the President of the tribunal, and the case is then heard. If this doesn’t work, the WTO arbitration process kicks in. All in all, this deal is much less likely to see our elected government sued by predatory multinationals. Anti-CETA campaigners should read more about the EFTA-Canada deal. Unfortunately, those who have e-mailed me about the subject do not seem to have EFTA on their radars at all. 

Of course, EFTA has suffered from a low profile for many years. Apart from Liechtenstein, which joined in 1991, no other country has become an EFTA member since 1970. The organisation has lost member after member to the EU and has had to accept underdog status in its dealings with the EU. It now has only 4 members as opposed to the 28 member states of the EU. Iceland, which currently holds the EFTA presidency, has expressed its support for the UK rejoining. “The EFTA countries might make an agreement with the UK,” said Iceland’s Foreign Minister Lilja Alfredsdottir. “We are chairing the EFTA right now and I put it as a priority to analyse the possibilities that EFTA had on this front.

Of course, the UK’s re-accession to EFTA would tip the balance slightly. It would still be much smaller than the EU, but the additional presence of a heavyweight European nation would certainly give he organisation some extra clout. More importantly, it would put EFTA back in the spotlight, which could be something of a worry to the EU. Would applicant countries like Serbia, Montenegro or even Turkey start to weigh the two options of EFTA or EU membership and decide that, even if they would not be bribed with further EU funds,  preserving their political freedom by joining an organisation that is committed to trade and not political integration might be a better bet? What about Sweden and Denmark, who may be tempted to follow us out of the Brexit door?

Back in the 1980s, Jacques Delors envisioned the EU and EFTA states as working in cooperation as partners in a “European village”, which in due course became the European Economic Area (EEA) alis the Single Market. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were fears that if joint decision making between the EU and EFTA was to be implemented,  the newly-independent nations of Central and Eastern Europe may plump for EFTA rather than the EU, which the EU hierarchy was none too keen on. The EU therefore had to be the lead partner and EFTA subordinate in the EEA. With EFTA still draining members to the EU in the 1990s, it had little choice in the matter. 

Now, however, Brexit has dealt a hammer blow to the credibility of the entire EU project at what was already a difficult time.  It has also put the final nail in the coffin as far as any hopes that existing EFTA members might leave it and join the EU. Making the EU more attractive than EFTA may have been a simple job in the early 1990s; the UK rejoining EFTA after Brexit in a couple of years’ time would lead to a very different perception of the situation.

Of course, to repeat, the EEA or indeed EFTA is not a long-term arrangement for the UK. Ideally, what is needed is a continent-wide free trade agreement – one without the baggage of CETA or TTIP – which would replace the EEA, probably EFTA too and would only include free movement of capital, goods and services like any normal free trade agreement. This is a long-term goal around which all Brexit supporters could unite.  In the short term however, EFTA, while far from perfect, may prove a valuable tool for tipping the balance of influence in Europe away from Brussels, which would be no bad thing.

(with thanks to Hugo van Randwyck for details about the EFTA/Canada FTA)

Virtue Signalling & Democracy versus Populism

One of the most nauseating features of the post referendum period is the effortless assumption of superiority by those who lost the vote. They are, they maintain, the educated people, the successful people, the outward-looking liberal people, the idealistic young and the truly compassionate. The European Union, they believe, is an institution which affirms all those values and reinforces their already exceedingly good opinion of themselves.

They are, of course, in favour of democracy – after all, the EU has its own elected parliament where the peoples’ voices are heard! But when the people vote against this wonderful European construct, that decision is not democracy but populism. Then the voice of the people must either be disregarded completely or they must be made to vote again until they come to their senses and conform to the pattern of the benevolent EU project.

After all, the voters of France, the Netherlands and Ireland have all had this sort of treatment and quietly resumed happy fulfilled lives within the great harmonious European polity. This has not been done by any external force or coercion but by powerful people within each member state who have given their first loyalty and duty to the European Union above that which ordinary people owe to their own country. One of their most vigorous advocates is a Mr. Westerman who writes to papers all over the place from his home in Wales. On October 28, I responded to a letter of his in the Derby Telegraph where he had made such assertions.

C.N. Westerman brackets Nigel Farage with the late British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley. (“Populism in politics can arrest critical thinking” October 24).

This is most misleading as Sir Oswald was a keen advocate of European union, which Nigel Farage certainly is not.

Euro-fanatic Kenneth Clarke twice invited Sir Oswald to address the Cambridge University Conservatives while another then student, Michael Howard, resigned in protest. Perhaps we should not read too much into the genial Clarke’s youthful enthusiasm.

While the European project drew on many ideological sources, including Christian Democracy (Konrad Adenauer), Socialism (Paul Henri Spaak) and Communism (Altiero Spinelli), there is no doubt of the transfer of Nazi principles and personalities to the post war era.

For years I puzzled over the origin of the EU’s biggest project, the Common Agricultural Policy. It was so grotesquely bureaucratic and alien to the common sense system we had before, I just could not place the ideology behind it.

It was not until 2002 when someone sent me a German book, “European Economic Community”, that I knew beyond reasonable doubt. It was a collection of papers by senior figures in government, industry, diplomacy and academia, published in Berlin in 1942.

I translated the lead paper * by Walther Funk, Reichsminister for the Economy and President of the Reichsbank. Apart from uncomplimentary references to Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt, there is hardly anything in it which has not come out of the European Commission and European Movement in the last fifty years. The similarities are just too many to be merely coincidental.

The first President of the European Commission, Dr. Hallstein, was previously member of the “National Socialist League of Protectors of the Law” and addressed a Nazi rally in early 1939 on unifying the legal system in territories under German control. Much of his post war activity was spent in “harmonising” the legal systems of EU member states.

Perhaps one reason people think politicians of the main parties are “all the same” arises from their leaders, until recently, all being enthusiasts in the common cause of subjection to the EU – effectively a one-party state with a deceptive choice of flavours.”

So the “nice” people don’t look quite so nice now, do they? Kenneth Clarke was fascinated by Mosley and fascism as a young man and certainly retains Mosley’s euro-fanaticism. Clarke hoped to see the day when Parliament was reduced to a mere “council chamber in Europe” – and he could have become Prime Minister. Just imagine the fuss, if somebody of his background had been prominent in the independence movement!

The Nazis, of course, were heirs to earlier German plans for domination of Europe. On 9th September 1914 the First World War was over a month old and the Imperial German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, thought he had better get some war aims. Here is an excerpt from his memo.

Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s Eastern frontier and her domination over non-Russian vassal peoples broken…..We must create a Central European Economic Association through common customs treaties to include France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria-Hungary and perhaps Italy, Sweden and Norway.

The association will not have any common constitutional supreme authority and all members will be formally equal but in practice under German leadership and must stabilise Germany’s economic dominance over central Europe”.

The unique thing about the EU is the addition of that “common constitutional supreme authority” –  the EU Commission – the true legacy of Monnet, Schuman & Co. It has not prevented the continuing “Drang nach Osten” – the process of EU enlargement to the East in the interests of German economic domination. The proxy wars in former Yugoslavia in the Nineties and in the Ukraine today testify to that and also give the lie to the EU’s myth of uniquely peaceful intent. Few people realise that British soldiers are already stationed in the Ukraine – effectively to defend Germany’s sphere of influence.

The peace of Europe would be much better secured if the German ruling class forgot expansionism – even if it is wrapped in an EU flag- and recalled Bismarck’s great dictum on foreign policy. “First make a good treaty with Russia”.

* To get the full translation Google “The European Union’s Evil Pedigree” . This is on the website www.freenations.net .

Brexit – the mood at grassroots level eight weeks on

Away from the debate between politicians, businessmen and campaigners  about the best exit route, eight weeks after the memorable result of June’s referendum, life for ordinary people has settled down remarkably quickly.

In fact, it soon became apparent within a matter of days after June 23rd that life was carrying on as normal for much of the country. I recall a trip to London during the final week of June.  Walking down the south bank of the Thames, it struck me how little effect the referendum result  was having on day to day life. A long queue of people of all nationalities were waiting to buy tickets to the London Eye and the restaurants were full – in fact, my train home was even fuller! In short, you wouldn’t have thought we had just taken a major political decision only a few days ago.

Initial statistics suggest that life did indeed carry on much as normal during the first full month after the Brexit vote.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits fell by 8,600 in July. It had been expected to rise by around 9,000. The fall was the first since February this year. Other data showed that the employment rate in the UK reached a record high of 74.5% between April and June this year. Retail sales also grew by 1.4% during the month. The vote to leave the EU has not deterred people from spending money.  Furthermore, for all the uncertainly generated by David Cameron’s decision to call the referendum, London attracted more venture capital for start-ups than other major European cities. According to an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, it attracted €1.5bn in the first half of the year, well ahead of its nearest rivals Stockholm (€1bn), Paris (€674m), and Berlin (€520m).

Significantly. although the rate of UK consumer price inflation jumped to 0.6% in the year to July followin the Brexit vote, it was only slightly up on the 0.5% recorded in March and still well below the 1% threshold which triggers a letter from the governor of the Bank of England to the Chancellor explaining why inflation is so far below the 2% target!

BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting programme on Wednesday Evening where two groups of people from the most pro-leave and the most pro-remain areas of the UK met in separate rooms to discuss their feelings following the Brexit vote. Two Rooms, hosted by Fi Glover,  was another fascinating insight into how quickly life has settled down. The leavers, from Boston, Lincolnshire, were the more optimistic of the two groups, expressing great hopes especially for the UK’s trade prospects. The remainers, from Brixton in South London, talked of their shock when the result was announced. They were concerned about possible loss of access to the single market and expected an economic downturn.

Both groups,  however, accepted the result. Indeed, one person used the phrase “now we’ve left”, even though we haven’t even invoked Article 50 let alone come out the other end! Interestingly, both groups saw Brexit as a long overdue opportunity to re-boot our democracy and to decentralise power to a local level. For all the initial horror of some Brixtonian remainers, there were no calls for a second referendum. They may not have wanted a leave vote, but Brexit as far as they were concrned means Brexit.

Such attitudes at the grassroots level should not come as a shock. For four month’s David Cameron’s decison to call the referendum  thrust the issue of EU membership into a prominence it had never previously enjoyed.  A year ago, just before the General election, a survey by YouGov placed “Europe” as far down as 7th in its list of voters’ priority issues, well behind housing, welfare and health. Anyone who has ever stood as a UKIP candidate will have known the frustration that in general elections, the EU was never widely viewed as the most important factor in determining how people would vote.  After its moment in the spotlight, it is therefore unsurpisingly again receding into the background.

But not totally. News that over a million Eastern European migrants are now working in the UK will have served as a reminder to some people why they voted to leave, while the Daily Express has unearthed another story which will raise plenty of hackles:- a German-based agency called medaltracker.eu whose data is used by offical EU websites, has published a chart showing that the greatest number of medals in the Rio Olympics has been won by the EU! Nowhere is the UK to  be seen, which is  particularly galling considering the tremendous performances by Team GB. It seems that the Brexit vote has done nothing to change the mindset of the EU élite who opened a museum four years ago costing £44 million and called the “House of European History” which calls the Second World War a “civil war“, in spite of quite a bit of the action taking place in North Africa and the Far East

While it seems impossible to change this very selective and bizarre interpretation of history, hopefully, if our government and Civil Service can get their act together, by the time the 2020 Olympics begin in Tokyo, “now we’ve left” really will mean “now we’ve left” and the likes of Medaltracker will not be able to repeat their insult to our heroic athletes.

 

 

Schengen’s flaws are challenging the EU project as never before

The EU has traditionally excelled at using crises for its own ends  – in other words, to further integration. The flawed €uro project, which set interest rates for the benefit of Germany but not the Medterranean nations, is a classic example. The tragic recessions in Greece, Spain and elsewhere have provided the impetus for another treaty designed to surrender fiscal sovereignty of the €urozone member states and thus move an EU inner core closer to becoming a federal superstate. Even though treaty plans currently seem to be dormant, they are still on the longer-term agenda.

The flood of refugees into Europe, however, is proving challenging, not only in and of itself but also as far as turning it into a beneficial crisis is concerned. Member states are unilaterally reimposing border controls – in other words, pushing back the integration process. There is provision under the Schengen agreement for a temporal reimposition of borders in the event of an emergency, so putting back border controls isn’t necessarily breaking the rules,  but the migrant crisis has struck deeper into the heart of the European project than anything else for many years.

You can now find articles disussing the possiblility of ending the Schengen agreement altogether. The writer of the article in the link, like others, says that the implications of such a move for the whole EU project would be immense.  He does go on to say, however, that it probably won’t happen

For such optimists, a report by Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, will not make happy reading.  Frontex officials warned a that ‘staggering’ number of European citizens had become jihadists and were taking advantage of lax border controls. The organisation also stated that it had no idea how many illegal immigrants had entered the EU.

So far, concerns over these issues – or indeed, the aftermath  of the Brussels bombings – have not shifted poblic opinion in the UK towards withdrawal.  While most of those for whom migration is an issue are firmly on-side already, one might have expected the desire to distance ourselves from terrorists on the Continent to have helped some wavering voters make their minds up.

What may help provide a more favourable backdrop for the debate is the growing disillusion with the whole European project elsewhere. It’s not just open borders and immigration. Today the Dutch are holding a referendum  on a proposed pact betwen the EU and Ukraine, which is viewed by both sides as a prelimiary move towards Ukrainian membership. Expansion fatigue has been a factor in many older EU countries for many years, but without further expansion on the horizon to encourage the masses that the EU is marching ever forward, the threat of stagnation – and indeed of implosion – of the EU increases. The referendum is non-binding, but a “no” vote will send another powerful signal  to Brussels that disillusion with le grand projet is not confined to the UK.

The debate in this country appears to have moved on from the days when we were told that a UK withdrawal could see the whole EU project undermined. This is a shame as it can be so easily countered. The EU is already showing signs of fracture and UK withdrawal could prove the best way to achieve a peaceful dismemberment, rather than the disorderly collapses that has brought to an end many multinational entities from the Roman Empire through to the Soviet Union.

In other words, if the UK votes to withdraw from the EU, to quote William Pitt, “England has saved herself by her exertions and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example”

A good letter in the Daily Mail – EU coverage on the BBC

We have received a number of comments about media bias in the EU debate. This letter from Journalist Tony Slinn was sent to the Daily Mail and superbly debunks many of the myths being peddled by the “remain” camp.

 

Dear Editor

I timed the BBC in/out EU coverage on News at Ten tonight (02 Mar.2016)—two full minutes for stay-in, complete with sophisticated infographics, and just 40 seconds for such a distinguished man as Lord Lamont arguing out … with no infographics and, as usual, curtailed.

That’s a distinct 3 to 1 bias.

As a former maritime editor (Lloyds Register/IHS Maritime, now retired) I am very familiar with the power of infographics. Those shown by the BBC failed totally to register ANY realistic numbers regarding tariffs, just ticks and crosses with no supporting info.

If you want realistic numbers, read Dominic Lawson’s well-researched and sober column from Monday’s Daily Mail. I quote: “The average weighted tariff on goods from outside the Single Market is 3.5%. That’s much less than the currency fluctuation that exists between Sterling and the €uro.”

Precisely.

Back when, I voted for the European Economic Community (EEC), not the EU. Why? Because I believe that trade is the way to closer understanding between peoples. Not politics nor religion, both of which have so often led us along the path of war for no good reason – the Mail’s current look at the Blair years, and what they’ve led us to, amply bears that out.

Also not because of the oft-quoted argument that the ‘EU’ has ‘preserved peace in Europe’—that’s just nonsense. Peace was protected when in 1949, the year I was born, NATO was also born via the Washington Treaty, signed by the most undamaged country (from WWII) and world power, the USA, along with Canada and ten Western European states—Britain, France, the Benelux countries, Iceland, Italy, Norway, and Portugal. The key feature of that pact is a mutual defence clause: if one country is attacked, the others will come to its defence.

Key point: absolutely NO mention of an EEC or, heaven forbid, an EU: the former didn’t happen for 12 years.

The EEC? Spin forward those 12 years to 1957 and the Treaty of Rome – just six members who set up the European Economic Community that aimed to create: “A common market, a customs union, plus free movement of capital and labour”. To please France, it also promised subsidies to farmers, a burden most other EU nations suffer today.

No mention of any ‘defence’, so who did what to protect Europe in the years after 1945 and whenever the EEC/EU thought about it?

Please…

The road to today’s UK in/out vote began when Britain applied for EEC membership in 1961 – I remember it well; I thought it was a good idea and voted ‘yes’. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed our membership in 1963. De Gaulle refused to back the UK’s application because: “The British government lacks commitment to European integration” (my italics).

If only we had!

Hang on, wasn’t it the ‘EEC’ we thought we were voting for? Who mentioned the ‘EU’? Certainly not Prime Minister Ted Heath who stated in 1972: “There are some in this country who fear that going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say,
are completely unjustified.”

It was not until 1973 that Britain (along with Denmark and Ireland) joined. By that time, seeing what the so-called EEC was all about, the Norwegians were bright enough to reject it in a referendum later in the year.

Slice by thinly cut and mostly unnoticed slice, the unelected bureaucrats within the European Commission slashed away democracy and achieved victory in 1991—the Maastricht treaty turned the EEC into the EU. It also paved the way for the disastrous €uro monetary union.

Happily, sense prevailed in the UK, we still have the pound not the €uro— just wait until Greece collapses again.

That treaty even includes a chapter on ‘social policy’, as if we’re all the same. Maggie Thatcher, as the Mail recently revealed and despite claims ‘agin it’, saw the dangers.

The UK negotiated a sort-of opt-out (anyone remember what?). But the treaty also introduced European citizenship, giving Europeans the right to live and vote in elections in any EU country, and launched European co-operation in foreign affairs, security, asylum, and immigration. As we can all see today, that’s really worked well.

Of course, Ted Heath’s lies, to quote the Daily Mail of December 2012, had: “Scarcely been mentioned at the previous General Election, and the British people had very little idea of what they were letting themselves in for, other than a trading arrangement that might make it easier for us to sell our goods to our Continental neighbours”.

In February 2014 the Daily Mail revealed the real truth, quoting unelected European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding: “Britons are too ignorant about Europe to vote in a referendum on the subject.”

The British debate about Europe is so distorted, she said, “that people could not make an informed decision about whether or not to stay in the EU.”

Hmmmm… ignorant? Sovereignty?

As Mrs Reding boasted: “70% of the UK’s laws are made in Brussels”. And she also rubbished David Cameron’s bid to curb immigration from Europe, saying it was incompatible with membership of the EU.

So much for that then.

Finally, what about me? I’m for a greater-Europe trade organisation, but totally against the EU. It’s not just the scandalous waste of money or corruption—auditors have refused to sign off EU accounts for 20 years running—but argue as Cameron and others will, it’s nonsense to try and create a homogenised federal ‘Unites States of Europe’.

We’re too old, have too many bad memories, too many suspicions, even too many prejudices, and too many laws that divide not just our sovereign nations, but each other.

The way forward is trade. It’s travel. It’s not mass numbers, it’s getting to know one another on a one-to-one basis that includes respecting the assorted religions we all have. If you like, it’s humanism, which has no place in the barbarity too often inflicted because you think your God or your political belief system is different or superior to mine.

That’s what the EU lacks. You can’t drive people together through politics or religion. Better you come together over a cup of coffee across a table and strike an honest deal, regardless of whether you sell a donkey or a car, that it’s on a national scale, cross-border, or global.

I look forward to that day, though at 67 I doubt I’ll live to see it, along with the end of regional wars that have displaced so many unfortunate people in the name of some-or-other religious, political or regional belief.

I also look forward to the collapse of the EU bureaucracy, the realisation that in the end, democracy with all its faults is really the only system worth living under. And the hopefully assured ‘out’ vote in June that will restore sanity not just to the UK, but to Europe.

I look forward to peaceful global trade that will let me visit those fascinating parts of my planet I’ve still to see, but which live under the threat of people with guns killing mostly innocent civilians for the sake of some God or some political belief.

Above all, I live in hope.

As so often in the past, Britain needs to lead—others will eventually see sense.

Yours sincerely

Tony Slinn

Maritime Journalist, NUJ member

Photo by stephen.spillane

Trying to change the way we think

This excellent piece by Christopher Booker has also been published in Derek Bennett’s Euro Realist newsletter and is reproduced with permission 

It can be downloaded as a pdf here

The metric system – love it or loathe it, this is the strange story of how it was imposed on Britain over several decades, by stealth, deception and downright lies.

In recent days, as television news has brought us non-stop reporting on the terrible floods, we have yet again seen evidence of one of the odder things to have happened to Britain in our lifetime. An official of the Environment Agency tells us that some river has burst its banks because it has risen by ‘5.2 metres’, only for a shocked local to tell us that it is ’17 feet higher than normal’.

Some hapless BBC reporter interviewing a flood victim outside his house solemnly informs us that the water is ‘300 millimetres deep’. But only when the homeowner tells us ‘it’s a foot deep in our living
room’ do most of us have an idea of what they are talking about.

What this illustrates us how we now have side by side two quite different systems of weights and measures in this country – one invariably used by government officials and the BBC, the other still used by millions of people because, for most everyday purposes, it seems to be much more sensible and easily comprehensible.

And part of the reason why so many of us now live in two different worlds like this, on something which touches almost every aspect of our lives, lies in a strange saga which has never been properly told.

In the year just ending, anniversaries of glorious events in our island story have come thick and fast – Magna Carta 1215, Agincourt 1415, Waterloo 1815, victory in the Second World War 1945.

But 2015 has also marked two anniversaries from a much less glorious story – one I have been following for 50 years as one of the murkiest episodes in the history of our supposed parliamentary democracy.

This is the story of how politicians worked to replace our old system of weights and measures with the ‘much more sensible’ and ‘rational’ metric system.

I am not here concerned with the pros and cons of the two systems – although I shall touch on that later
– but with the peculiarly dishonest tactics our politicians devised to bring about such a huge change in our British way of life without ever needing to consult our wishes. Precisely because the politicians knew that such a far-reaching move would be highly controversial, they wanted to introduce it without ever allowing it to be debated or voted on by Parliament.

They sought instead to impose it on us, at every stage, by stealth, deception and downright lies. The story began 50 years ago when, in 1965, a Labour government used a Written Answer buried at the back of Hansard to announces its intention to replace the weights and measures used in Britain since the time of the Roman empire (it was after this, not the British empire, that it was known as the ‘imperial system’).

The first lie was a pretence that the switch to metric was to be made in response to the wishes of British ‘industry’. When years later I managed to unearth the relevant documents, it turned out that ‘industry’ had said nothing of the kind. Under pressure from a small group of shadowy bureaucrats, the chief trade body representing businesses had certainly expressed interest in the possibility of such a change, since it
would affect all its members. But it merely said that many were ‘concerned’ by its implications.

In 1968 came the second lie when, as the then technology minister Tony Benn gabbled to MPs a list of his plans for the future, he slipped in his wish to see Britain ‘fully metric’ by 1975.

But this change, he insisted, would be entirely voluntary. ‘Compulsion’, he twice promised, ‘is not part of the process’ (hence no need for parliamentary debate). Within months this was given the lie when his government issued a statutory diktat – the first of many – making it a criminal offence to sell drugs except in metric.

In 1969 it set up a ‘Metrication Board’ to ‘co-ordinate the process’ and ruled that, after 1975, It would become illegal for anything but the metric system to be taught in schools. During the 1970 election campaign, when I first revealed all this in a magazine article, one reader was so incensed that she badgered her would-be Tory MP into promising that Parliament would, for the first time, debate the subject.

It was only a short debate (which I attended). But when other Tory backbenchers heard of what was going on, they were furious that such an immense change to British life was being smuggled in by stealth,

In 1972, when Edward Heath was taking us into the European Common Market, he learned that Brussels planned a directive to ensure that all its members must use the metric system. He pleaded that this be kept under wraps until Britain was safely in.

But in 1973, after we had entered, Heath issued a Metrication White Paper, based onthe wholly fictitious claim that Britain was onlyadopting the metric system in response to ‘two polls’ of industry. No such polls had ever taken place.

By 1978, under Margaret Thatcher, the Tories were pledged to have no more of it. No sooner was she elected in 1979 than she scrapped the Metrication Board. In 1980 Brussels hit back by at last issuing its long-planned directive requiring all members of the ‘European Community’ to use the metric system (all except Britain and Ireland already did).

In 1985 the Thatcher government responded with a new Weights and Measures Act, confirming that the ‘imperial’ system would continue to be legal. In 1989, Brussels issued a new directive designed to whip Britain into line – although, to soften the pill, this still allowed us to continue for a time using miles on road signs and pints (but only for beer, cider and milk).

It was this directive which 20 years ago in 1995 – our second anniversary – led to the Major government issuing a swathe of new statutory instruments making it a criminal offence to sell goods of any kind, including fruit and veg, except in metric.

Indeed the government went much further than the directive envisaged, by requiring the metrication of every aspect of British life, from evidence given in courtrooms to speed limits on our canals, along with thousands of local bylaws. When some of us pointed out that this all resulted from Brussels directives, the minister who signed most of these diktats into British law, Michael Heseltine, insisted that they had ‘nothing to do with Europe’. This had been British policy, he said, ‘since the Sixties’. But the very documents he signed were being put into law under the 1972 European Communities Act – again without Parliament being given the chance to discuss them.

When I was interviewed by a young BBC presenter at this time, he scornfully suggested that no one under the age of 40 had any idea what feet and inches were. When I asked him how tall he was, he replied ‘five feet, 10 inches’. That bit of the interview hit the cutting room floor.

Nothing angered many British people more than when, in 2000, these laws made it illegal for market traders to sell fruit and veg by the old weights which most of their customers preferred – and this came to a head when a Sunderland stallholder Steve Thoburn was charged with the criminal offence of selling a ‘pound of bananas’.

He and four other ‘Metric Martyrs’ took their case to the Court of Appeal, arguing that since, under the ancient rule that no Act of Parliament can be overruled by one passed previously, the 1985 Weights and Measures Act could not be negated by an edict issued under the European Communities Act of 1972.

To get round this argument, Lord Justice Laws craftily devised a wholly new legal principle. He ruled that the European Communities Act was a ‘constitutional statute’, so important that it could not be overturned by anything which came after it. Many larger businesses, such as those making tinned foods, welcomed the confusion created by the new laws, as they reduced the contents of their old ‘1lb’ tins (454 grams) to 400 grams, hoping customers charged the same price would not notice.

Many other manufacturers, such as those making sweets and chocolate, played the same trick – even though the only reason why weights and measure legislation was backed by the criminal law was that this was to prevent customers being sold ‘short measure’.

At least it still remained legal for shopkeepers forced to sell in metric to print the ‘imperial’ equivalent next to it. But in 2002 Brussels issued a new directive designed to make even this illegal, and again the UK dutifully complied. It would become a crime for retailers to make any mention of the old weights and measures at all.

The new laws continued to throw up ever more anomalies until, in 2007, many giant US corporations, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, were warned by a clever pressure group, the British Weights and Measures Association, that this new EU law would make it illegal for them to export anything to the EU unless its packaging, sales literature and much else was given only in metric. It would even become illegal for them to refer to a ’42-inch’ television screen.

The US firms protested so loudly – estimating that it could cost them billions of dollars – that Brussels at last backed down. Not only did it scrap its demand relating to US goods, it also withdrew its law banning any mention of non-metric measures within the EU itself.

So embarrassed was Brussels by the anger its metrication laws had aroused in Britain that its trade commissioner issued a remarkable statement. He wanted the British to know that ‘imperial measures’, such as the mile and the pint, were ‘the very essence of the Britishness that Europeans know and love’. The British could continue using imperial equivalents alongside metric weights and measures as long as they wished.

On this last, carefully phrased fudge, 40 years of deceit and chicanery more or less came to an end. Never again, it seemed, would a greengrocer be charged with a criminal offence for shouting ‘lovely toms, a pound a pound’ to customers who hadn’t a clue what was meant by ‘half a kilo’.

But one legacy of this bid to impose metrication on the British people without ever consulting their wishes is that we are left with a strange hybrid system which is sometimes one thing and sometimes another. Fervent supporters of metric scornfully insist that it is so much more ‘rational’ than that
ridiculously antiquated system rightly consigned to the dustbin of history.

They try to overlook that the most modern and successful economy in the world, the USA, which landed a man on the moon in feet and inches, still somehow manages to survive with the imperial system.

And how many realise that the official EU definition of a metre is that it is ‘the length equal to 1,650,763 wavelengths in vacuum of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the levels 2p(10) and 5d(5) of the krypton atom’ You can’t get more ‘rational’ than that.

In truth the only way metric is more user-friendly than imperial is simply that it divides and multiplies by 10, But one thing I have learned from 50 years of observing all this is how, for everyday practical purposes, such as cooking or carpentry or measuring out a carpet, imperial wins every time.

We see this, as I said at the start, whenever reporters from the rigorously-metricated BBC come up against members of the public, as when they interview flood victims. The reporter may dutifully tell us that the floodwater in someone’s house has reached a depth of ‘300 millimetres’. But only when the victim tells us ‘it’s a foot deep’ do we really have a picture of what is meant – just as when we are told that some new-born royal baby weighs ‘6 pounds, 8 ounces’, rather than ‘2.72 kilograms’ or even ‘2720 grams’.

Despite half a century of trying to change the way we think, I suspect that, for practical purposes, those dear old pounds, feet and inches will be with us for a long time yet.

Photo by eamoncurry123