By Alec Fullerton
One of the side effects of Britain’s decision to quit the European Union is the revival of a seemingly quirky campaign to restore the country’s traditional weights and measures — to bring back old-fashioned pounds and ounces in place of continental Europe’s grams and kilos.
The media have treated this as light relief from the more worrying consequences of the June 23 Brexit referendum. But there may be a lot more to it than that.
The main character in this tale is a modest working man called Darren, the Brexit Butcher. His nickname might sound comic or menacing, but Darren Gratton is a butcher with a shop in Barnstaple, Devon.
Gratton’s Butchers made national headlines after he wrote to the local council on June 25 requesting permission to sell meat using the imperial system. This was seen as a bid by a local shop owner to reject bureaucratic rules and EU-imposed legislation.
After being bombarded with phone calls from journalists for a couple of days, the Brexit Butcher slipped back into obscurity. But the issue was thrown back into the media spotlight by the British Weights and Measures Association.
The group has gained the support of several members of parliament, including Sir Bill Cash, who wrote in the Sun newspaper on August 31: “The EU wanted to dictate to everybody the way in which they were supposed to make calculations, but that is going to change now because we are going to repeal the European Communities Act and other subsequent laws which made it illegal to sell a pound of bananas.”
“It’s about not being told what you can and can’t do.”
Under EU legislation, shops in Britain must advertise produce in grams and kilos. There are exemptions in other areas. British pubs sell beer by the pint, not in liters, and distances are measured in miles, not kilometers. (Editor’s note: For the time being News-Decoder uses American spelling, but we are flexible!)
But a shopkeeper who fails to display the weight of food in metric units faces prosecution.
Many of those who voted in favor of Brexit see the EU legislation as an unjust, bureaucratic imposition and an infringement on our freedoms.
On the other hand, supporters of the Remain camp and some commentators dismiss the call to restore imperial weights and measures as a backwards and out-dated idea pedaled by nationalists. Some have attributed racist and xenophobic attitudes to it.
For the Brexit Butcher, the question is choice. Here’s what he said when I telephoned him:
“Outside the EU, businesses like mine will be able to sell in pounds and ounces once again, and not be dictated to. By requesting permission from the council to do this, I was trying to make the point that what people like isn’t necessarily to have it in pounds and ounces, but the choice to have it how they want it. It’s about not being told what you can and can’t do.”
Fear of a loss of national identity motivated some Brexit voters.
But shop keepers already have that choice. Although the law forces them to sell produce using metric measures, they are free to display the imperial units as well, so long as those prices are not in larger letters.
The way we measure our fruit and vegetables isn’t the only thing determined by EU legislation. Many other examples could be used to make the same point about freedom.
But the cry for the return of imperial measures is a far more telling indicator of what motivated many Brexit voters.
It’s about more than simply buying your lamb chops with a different symbol. Imperial measures represent a traditional conception of British culture, a fading ideal that perhaps never even existed, but one that people feel is threatened.
They go hand in hand with other images: Churchill giving the V sign, fish and chips at the seaside wrapped in newspaper and sharing a Victoria sponge cake at a quaint street party.
Wrongly or rightly, there is a palpable feeling of anxiety that if these ideas and images fade away, so too will the notion of national identity, however vague or foggy.
To pass judgement on these attitudes would be both patronizing and foolish. The Brexit vote has made it very clear that people feel threatened, and the abstract notion of “British culture” — whatever that may be — is in the firing line.
The EU has endorsed special treatment for French cinema.
Britain is hardly alone in clinging to symbols and tradition.
Across the Channel, France has exploited the concept of “exception culturelle” to restrict American film imports and to protect its movie industry. The EU supported this move because under an international convention, it has an obligation to protect and promote the diverse cultures of member states.
This is an example of cultural derogation — the suppression or relaxation of legislation under exceptional circumstances to protect a particular culture.
Similarly, the Académie Française has tried to defend the French language from Anglicization — with decidedly mixed results.
Walk around any French town, and you’ll see examples of how the English language has crept in: le parking, le sandwich and le weekend, to name but a few.
These imported terms are seen by some as an insidious assault on the French language and consequently their culture. In 2013, the Académie Française tried to ban the word “hashtag,” suggesting that the French expression “mot-dièse” should be used instead.
So next time you see a news story about local butcher deciding to sell sausages in a different weight unit, don’t dismiss it straight away as just another silly season story. There might be more to it than you think.
Alec Fullerton is in his third year at Oxford University, studying French. He decided to focus on French after taking part in a school exchange with a high school in southwest France. He is aspiring journalist and has written for student newspapers and online publications in Britain, including The Spectator and Spiked-Online. This year he will be living in Nîmes and working as an English language teaching assistant in a lycée.