There are perhaps few more appropriate symbols of Britain's dysfunctional relationship with the European continent than the long-running row over weights and measures. For decades British children, along with those in the rest of Europe, have been taught to think in terms of litres, metres and grams. But when they emerge from school in this country they enter a world where retailers talk of pints and pounds and road signs measure distance in miles. Attempts to harmonise our system with the rest of Europe are met with fierce resistance from the anti-Brussels lobby. Any suggestion of moving further down the road from an imperial to metric is denounced as an assault on our national sovereignty. We have one foot in Europe and the other in a defunct empire. The result is widespread confusion and resentment.
A twist in the saga came yesterday. We learned that the European Commission will be dropping pressure on Britain to switch to metric. This decision is likely to owe something to a European issue even more vexing than metrication. Brussels wants to help Gordon Brown stave off domestic demands for a referendum on the European constitutional treaty. Giving ground on weights and measures no doubt seems a relatively simple way bolstering the Prime Minister's domestic position.
But both Brussels and the Government are making a mistake by trying to avoid a UK referendum. The case against a vote on the treaty is weak. The Government's argument that the new European treaty is significantly different from the European Constitution that was rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005 is unconvincing. The name may have changed but it is essentially the same document on which Tony Blair promised a national plebiscite shortly before the last general election.
It is true that the Conservatives and their right-wing cheerleaders are at the forefront of demands for a referendum. They calculate that a referendum is the best way of detaching Britain further from the EU. But it is by no means only the right that is in favour of a national vote. The TUC Congress is preparing to come out in favour on the basis that the treaty is inimical to organised labour. Such contrasting motivations show just how much confusion there is over the treaty and indeed over Britain's place in Europe.
This newspaper wants a referendum for different reasons. We have no time for either the reactionary Eurosceptic arguments about the overweening power of Brussels, nor the protectionist stance of the unions. We want a referendum because it would force the Government to come out and make the case for the European Union as a force for peace and prosperity, both in Britain and the wider world.
This is hardly an ideal place from which to begin a pro-EU referendum campaign. Years of hectoring from the Eurosceptic press have poisoned the wells of public discourse over European matters. And a generation of progressive politicians have failed to counter the distortions or explode the myths about the malign influence of the European Union in Britain. But the fight back must start somewhere.
Mr Blair promised a referendum for narrow political reasons and in the hope that other nations would reject the constitution before Britain came to vote on it. Yet the constitution did not die. It has returned and the case for a public vote is strong. Rather than trying to evade the moment of truth, Mr Brown should concentrate his energies and those of his Government on campaigning for a yes vote. It is high time that our relations with our European neighbours became a little less dysfunctional.Reuse content