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The Thoburn case

Yardstick April 2001

Heading a list of 'Heroes' in a feature on 'Heroes and Villains' in The Daily Mail's review of the year on 28 December 2000: "STEVE THOBURN, Sunderland greengrocer, who is facing prosecution for his patriotic and sensible decision to refuse the supposed Brussels 'order' to sell his wares in metric measurements."

From an article by ANDREW ROBERTS in The Sunday Telegraph on 24 December 2000: "When John Hampden refused to pay a mere 20 shillings of the - in itself perfectly reasonable - Ship Money, he started a movement of protest that ended in a revolution. When the American colonists refused to pay their taxes - which were a fraction of those being levied on their cousins back in Britain - they began a struggle that led to independence. When Gandhi refused to pay the Salt Tax - an imposition so low that it had never before been an issue - he helped the sun to set upon the greatest empire the world has ever seen. It is probably not too fanciful to suggest that the willingness of people such as Steve Thoburn, a Sunderland greengrocer, to fight for his right to sell his neighbour bananas in imperial measures might one day be seen as the first nail in the coffin of the new Euro-empire being created in Brussels."

From a letter, dated 11 January, addressed to our Director by our Patron The Rt Hon Lord Shore: "Let me say how delighted I am at the response that the BWMA have received in their sponsorship of the Dinner at the Stadium of Light, to raise funds on behalf of Steve Thoburn, who is rightly challenging both the legality and the legitimacy of the European decrees that seek to outlaw the use of our traditional imperial weights and measures in our own land. I send my good wishes to Mr Thoburn and to all who are assisting him in his most worthwhile cause."

This Gala Dinner at the Stadium of Light on Saturday 13 January - timed to maximise support for Steve as well as embarrassment for the City Council immediately before the start of the trial on Monday 15th - was a spectacular success, in terms of numbers attending (about 300), publicity generated (3 TV crews plus numerous radio reporters and a posse of press), funds raised and sheer entertainment. Four of our Honorary Members kindly joined us: Christopher Booker (with Dr Richard North), Robin Page (one of the principal speakers, R W F Poole (who treated us to an hilarious vocal epic) and Norris McWhirter - who made a special trip all the way from Chippenham. Vivian Linacre conducted an auction of the many items (inscribed books, etc) that Bill Peters had persuaded several other Honorary Members to send. On behalf of BWMA, David Delaney and Bill Peters presented a billboard cheque to the 'Metric Martyrs' fund for £8,960 (Why that figure? Because 8,960 lb = 4 tons!), and in the principal speech of the evening, Steve's local campaign manager, Neil Herron, revealed that what had made them determined to fight was a circular letter from John Gardner advising traders that they should continue to trade in pounds and ounces because the metric regulation were unlawful. The dinner menu included 'Three Stone of Prawns' (naturally - the price for a single ticket was the equivalent of £42 - but heavily discounted for a pair or a table), 'Chicken Gordon Blair with unelected brussels sprouts and a banana soufflé ('without abnormal degree of curvature'), while the wine list featured 'Cabernet Reshuffle' ('well past its sell-by date'), 'Kinnock Hock' ('slips down well'), 'Brussels Beaujolais' ('hard to swallow'), as well as 'Thoburn's XXXX Lager'!

The trial itself was attended by our Director, David Delaney, Bill Peters and Robert Stevens, throughout the three days allotted, and by several other Members for part. As you will mostly know, two more days proved necessary, which took place on 28th February and 1st March. We now await the judgment, to be delivered in open Court on 9th April, when Vivian will again attend with one or two colleagues. A copy of the judgment will be obtained on the day and a press release issued shortly thereafter. Whichever way the verdict goes, an Appeal seems inevitable, to be heard by the Divisional Court in London, well after the forthcoming General Election. So Members should be well informed in good time for our AGM and Conference on 19th May.

Our 'Times-spotter, Mike Plumbe, drew attention to the following three letters, published between 16 and 19 January.

From Clive Lewis (Past President of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Past World President of the International Real Estate Federation): "If greengrocer Steve Thoburn…or his defence counsel Michael Shrimpton were to challenge the prosecution to quote their collar size, chest and waist measurements…length of their longest golfing drive and the birth weight of their children, one wonders how many of the answers given would be in metric. I dread to think how many kilos of bananas could be bought with the money wasted on bringing this trial to court."

From Simon Holden (barrister): "I was astonished to read that Sunderland City Council had taken a local fruit trader to court on a ridiculous charge - "two counts of having imperial-only scales" - and, to compound the hilarity, had even instructed a Queen's Counsel for the prosecution. Realistically, however, the episode is far from funny. Instead it highlights the blatant disregard for reality with which local authorities use taxpayers' money. Central government should weigh up the alternatives of prosecuting an innocent self-employed trader or refuting what appears to be a wasted European piece of drafting."

An e-mail from Annandale, Virginia, USA, read: "Looks like the government has its hands full with ONE Steve Thoburn. Tell them if they don't straighten up I'll fly over and see how much they like dealing with TWO of them. Regards, STEVE THOBURN"!

From Frank Derrick: "Snipping tags from my January sales purchases, I came across one label which appears to have all the hallmarks of the EU. It was sewn separately into my new C&A jacket pocket, ran in total to 13 lines, was arranged alphabetically and stated in bold machine-embroidery: 'A54, B54, CH54, CZ54, D54, DK54, E54, F54, I54, L54, NL54, P54, UK L.' I must admit to experiencing a great pride in being British as I removed it with my scissors." If next year he gives it to the Oxfam shop in Sunderland which then sells it for £5.00, will Oxfam be liable to prosecution or will he?

There was also a nice strip cartoon, illustrating a dialogue between a solicitor and a barrister who are clutching papers marked 'Metric Banana Trial'. The former says, "This trial's a bit of a sledgehammer to smash a nut", to which the latter replies, "Society must have a constant standard of weights and measures. Enforcing the law is worth every guinea of our fee."

David Delaney issued a press release on 29 December following the National Opinion Poll organized by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (courtesy of Warwick Cairns) and conducted by ICM Research. With these credentials, this survey commanded the highest authority. The question put to a random sample of 1,000 people was: "On 15 January a greengrocer in Sunderland will appear in court charged with weighing fruit and vegetables in pounds and ounces, rather than EU approved kilos and grams. Do you think he should be prosecuted?" 91% of all replies said "NO!"

John Douglas reminded us that the great Michael Beloff QC, in his foreword to a book entitled "The Rape of the Constitution" had pointed out that if English judges ever decide that primary legislation is overruled by regulations from Brussels, then Parliament effectively abolished itself 29 years ago by passing the European Communities Act of 1972. That is the issue being tried by the Thoburn case.


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