On a Tuesday morning in July , Steve Thoburn charged a customer 34p for a pound of bananas. The transaction was secretly filmed and, later that day, two trading standards officers, accompanied by the police, swooped on his shop and confiscated his scales. With a sense of priorities that it may find difficult to explain to its council taxpayers, Sunderland council then prosecuted Mr Thoburn for failing to apply the EU's metrication directive.
Mr Thoburn refused to be browbeaten and, backed by hundreds of small contributions, went to court. The trial began yesterday. The basis of Mr Thoburn's case is that the 1985 Weights and Measures Act allows traders to sell in either metric or imperial units - as they have since the 19th century. This Act, argues Mr Thoburn, takes precedence over EU rules, whose jurisdiction in the United Kingdom stems from the 1972 European Communities Act, because no parliament may bind its successor.
What mighty contests rise from trivial things: a 34p transaction has now escalated into the question of whether Parliament is still sovereign. If Mr Thoburn was to win his case, he would be establishing the precedent that Westminster may, as it were, unilaterally set aside EU directives. If, on the, other hand, Sunderland's large legal team carries the day, we should know that any European laws, however disproportionate, unjust or asinine, are immune to subsequent parliamentary modification.
Let us not lose sight, amid all the lawyerly wrangling, of what is going on here. An honest man faces ruin because he continued to treat with his customers in the units of their choice. The full force of EU law is being deployed to prevent a free transaction between willing parties. An ancient and trusted system of weights and measures is being tossed aside with no thought for the preferences of the people who use it. This case should make us very angry.
The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 16th January 2001