As British inch toward meters, some feet drag

Britain is producing a new breed of protester, and Steven Thoburn is leading the field of these "metric martyrs."

Like his father before him, Mr. Thoburn operates a market stall in Sunderland, northern England. The family business has been in operation for more than 50 years.

Then last month, local council officials turned up and confiscated his scales.

His offense? Weighing apples, tomatoes, potatoes, and other fruits and veggies in traditional pounds and ounces, rather than in kilograms, as required by European Union - and now British - law.

A defiant Thoburn is demanding the return of his scales and says he will be "happy to defend pounds and ounces against metrication and the [EU] bureaucrats in Brussels who are pushing it."

Thoburn will figure in a test case scheduled to be heard in September.

Far from being a solitary advocate of Britain's imperial measures, he is getting plenty of support.

The British Weights and Measures Association and the UK Independence Party are funding a legal challenge to the seizure of Thoburn's scales.

Perhaps more effective in the long run, Britain's main opposition Conservative Party - with an eye toward next year's elections - says it wants to bring back the familiar imperial measures that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government is trying to abolish.

Even Harry Potter, the phenomenally popular fictional schoolboy wizard, has weighed in, declaring, "Metric is for Muggles." (For the uninitiated, "Muggles" are ordinary, nonmagical folk.) The phrase landed Potter author J.K. Rowling an honorary membership in the Weights and Measures Association.

Since the United Kingdom joined the European Community (now the EU) in 1973, Brits have known that a switch to the mandated metric system was on the way. But things heated up at the beginning of this year, when the government decreed that henceforth, stores weighing goods in pounds and ounces would face fines of as much as 5,000 ($7,500).

Suddenly, the protests of a butcher in Essex, a curtain-maker in London, and a gas-station owner deep in the English countryside began to be heard for miles (not kilometers) across the land, and in the media.

Supermarket switch

But the anti-metric campaign really began to take off early in July when Tesco, one of the country's biggest supermarket chains, switched back to labeling goods in pounds and ounces after a six-month trial of the metric system. Tim Mason, Tesco's marketing director, said customers had been left "puzzled and bemused" by metric labeling. Nine out of 10 "prefer pounds and ounces," he said.

The day after announcing the switch, Tesco reported that 50,000 additional purchasers passed through the chain's checkout lines.

According to the European Commission, the EU governing body in Brussels, more than 95 percent of the world's population uses the metric system. Only the United States, Burma (Myanmar), Liberia, and a few parts of the old British empire are holding out against it.

Even in continental Europe, however, there are holdovers from the pre-metric era.

Vivian Linacre of the anti-metric Weights and Measures Association notes that some French grocers still sell goods in livres (pounds), equal to about half a kilogram. What's more, he says, "German shopkeepers still talk in 'pfunds'."

Mr. Linacre could have added that Dutch plumbers like to work in inches and that many grocers in France prefer to sell bottles of beverage in douzaines rather than in lots of 10.

It's little wonder that such exceptions persist. The historical record shows that, far from being a pushover, the metric system, evolved from a mixture of Roman and medieval measures, has had a bumpy ride just about everywhere.

American resistance

In the United States, George Washington called for "uniformity in currency, weights and measures" and managed to introduce a decimal currency. But he and Thomas Jefferson failed to persuade Americans to abandon the English-based system of weights and measures - although some changes were introduced. More than 200 years later, metric advocates in the US still face an uphill struggle.

Nor did the French instantly take metrics to heart. Four years after the 1789 French Revolution, an attempt was made to metricate time. In one of his last acts before being ousted and sent to the guillotine, revolutionary leader Robespierre decreed that a year was to have 10 months, each three weeks long. Ten days would make up one week, and one day would last 10 hours.

The revolutionaries who succeeded him were forced to withdraw the changes amid nationwide chaos.

Two years later, they turned their attention to weights and measures. But getting the new system accepted took 40 years, and bulldozer tactics by Napoleon Bonaparte. Later, as his armies fought their way across Europe, Napoleon forcibly imposed the system most of the world uses today. Of course, he famously never made it to Britain.

As the debate here escalates, there is no shortage of argument for letting Britain stick to pounds and ounces, or at least allow imperial and metric measures to exist side-by-side. Roger Scruton, a leading philosopher, says: "The distinction is between solutions achieved through custom and compromise, and those imposed by a plan. Muddled though the imperial measures may appear to those obsessed by mathematics, they are the product of life. "In ordinary transactions, measurements proceed by dividing and multiplying, not by adding. It makes sense to divide a gallon into a half, a quart, and a pint, and to have 16 ounces to the pound."

It would seem that despite his government's commitment to metrics, Mr. Blair, too, retains a soft spot for imperial measures. When his youngest son, Leo, was born in May, he announced the baby's weight as "6 pounds, 12 ounces."

Asked why Blair hadn't given a metric measure (it would have been 3.061 kilograms), a Downing Street official said, "Because no one would understand what on earth he was talking about."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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