It’s tempting to ignore the government’s announcement
, made in the doldrums between Christmas and the New Year, that it is to become legal to sell wine and champagne in pint bottles. It seems such a silly piece of fluff designed either to trigger remainer jeers or leaver cheers, and so it’s better not to rise to the bait. Yet on closer inspection it has more significance than that.
It certainly wasn’t ignored as fluff by Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake, who was moved to tweet
that “this will help support businesses and grow the economy”, whilst the Mail celebrated
it as an example of “post-Brexit freedoms” from what the Sun called
the “Brussels killjoys”. For this reason alone, it’s worth discussing as an antidote to the still active, albeit increasingly risible, Brexit lie factory.Myths about myths … built on myths
As with most Brexit stories, there is much which is obscure and convoluted, starting with whether pints of champagne were ever on sale and if so when. Without exception, every news report of this made mention of Churchill having supposedly favoured champagne pints, as if they rank with the Spitfire, or Vera Lynn singing of the white cliffs of Dover, in the endless mythologization of the Second World War
that so pervades and deforms Brexity folklore. That Churchill did so was confirmed by a 2018 BBC interview with Hubert de Billy
, the head of the Pol Roger company that supplied it. But it does not follow that the practice was widespread, and in that interview (which also features Brexit dunderhead ‘Sir’ Tim Martin getting all moist about Churchill), de Billy also explains that this bottle size was already dying out from the 1940s.
Meanwhile, Simon Berry, Chairman of Berry Bros and Rudd wine importers, a keen Brexiter who has campaigned for the re-introduction of champagne pints, mentions that
the Conservative politician and diplomat Duff Cooper was bemoaning its demise as early as the First World War, and Berry’s own campaign started in the 1970s. At all events, it is unclear whether pints were ever available on the shelves of British shops, as opposed to direct supply, and, however supplied, it seems as if they had disappeared well before Britain joined the EU. So the whole idea of this being some fabled British tradition killed off by Brussels is a myth.
The government’s announcement implicitly acknowledged this, with the press release being titled “’Pints’ of wine stocked on Britain’s shelves for the first time ever
” (emphasis added), making it clear that it is not the restoration of a pre-EU ‘freedom’ but a novelty. That press release title contains another implication, in its use of speech marks around the word ‘pints’, for, as the text of the release makes clear, what will be permitted are 568 ml bottles – in other words, a metric measure (the other new provisions are that both still and sparkling wine can be sold in 200 ml and 500 ml containers, whereas, currently, still wine cannot be sold in 200 ml and sparkling wine cannot be sold in 500 ml).
So, not only is this not a return to previous customs, it isn’t an end to even a single case of the use of metric measurements. It may well be that these 568 ml bottles – if they are ever produced, which I’ll return to – will also say on them ‘one imperial pint’, but this just opens the door to more myths.
Although the idea of champagne pints as a Brexit benefit has never been widespread – the Berry interview from August 2016, referenced above, is the first mention of it I can find – that of the restoration of imperial units of measurement has a much longer and deeper significance going back to the 2002 ‘Metric Martyrs
’ prosecutions, to the extent that these are seen by some as the ultimate origin of Brexit
. One myth in play here is that metrication was something imposed on the UK by the EU, whereas in fact
it was a process which had begun long before joining, and the Metric Martyrs case arose within a confused mélange of EU and domestic law
. A second myth is that metrication made it illegal to use imperial measures, whereas in fact it only prohibited the use of those measures alone, without also displaying their metric equivalent more prominently (it was for refusing to do this that the ‘Metric Martyrs’ were prosecuted and, in some cases, convicted). In this sense, the fact that 568 ml bottles of champagne will be permitted to also be marked as imperial pints represents no change at all.The will of the people
Building on these myths, ever since the referendum the idea of restoring imperial units of measurement has regularly been dangled in front of leave voters, almost half of whom supported it
according to a 2017 opinion poll*. It featured in Iain Duncan Smith’s TIGGR review in May 2021
and again in the government’s January 2022 ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report
. Then, to coincide with the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, Boris Johnson announced that there would be a public consultation exercise on the matter, enthusiastically overseen by Jacob Rees-Mogg, holder of the now defunct post of Minister for Brexit Opportunities. It’s of note that even some of those who reacted to that announcement with enthusiasm were confused about what was at stake, with one market trader appearing to think
it was to do with the use of decimal currency.
The consultation was launched in June 2022 and concluded in August 2022, and the results were supposed to have been announced in November 2022. However, little was then heard about it
until now when, in fact, the substance of what was announced in the ‘pints of wine’ press release was the outcome of that consultation
. It was presumably headlined in that way so as to distract attention from the embarrassment of what that outcome consisted of, and this probably also explains the obscure timing of the announcement. For, as anyone might have known without going to the wasted expense – the kind of waste which Rees-Mogg, who at the time was also the Minister for ‘government efficiency’, himself so often castigated – it reveals
that the public regard the idea as a complete dud.
Thus, despite using a survey design widely criticized as flawed
towards garnering support for the use of imperial units, of the over 100,000 responses to the consultation 98.7% were in favour of continuing to use metric measurements, whilst an utterly miserable 0.4% favoured returning to imperial units only. As a result, even this government has finally realized the game is up, and although the unteachable Rees-Mogg continues to moan (£)
that this is an example of “government of the bureaucrat, by the bureaucrat, for the bureaucrat”, it is rather more obviously a case where ‘the will of the people’ is abundantly clear. Indeed, what would Rees-Mogg have the bureaucrats do? Impose imperial measures on a population almost unanimously opposed to them?
Others were more ebullient, none more than the ever-peculiar Mail
columnist Peter Hitchens who rejoiced
at this “blow against the metric commissars”, apparently not grasping that the only thing that has been achieved is to allow bottles of a distinctly metric 568 ml. In calling for an official pardon for the original Metric Martyr, Steve Thoburn, Hitchens also seems to have missed the fundamental point, that nothing about metrication has actually changed. Former Brexit Minister and ERG hardliner David Jones was equally easily gulled, welcoming the champagne pint but calling on the government
to “go the whole hog and allow people the freedom to use imperial measures if they wish” as if the horse he is still flogging had not now been definitively pronounced as dead by this announcement.
Taking everything together, then, this is a dismally instructive story, enfolding generalized myths about the second world war and specific myths about champagne bottles, metrication, and the supposed outlawing of imperial units, stirred in with the faux-victimhood of martyrdom. Layered on this are the silly Brexit boosterism of Boris Johnson and the laboured antiquarianism of Jacob Rees-Mogg, all topped off with the disingenuity of the manner in which the whole stupid episode has finally been laid to rest. Even treated as no more than a symbol of Brexit, that makes it revealing. But there is more to it than that.The power of size and the size of power
When Hollinrake was challenged on X-Twitter about his claim that wine pints would help businesses and economic growth he rowed back slightly
, saying that “No-one is claiming this is some kind of economic game changer, just one of many incremental improvements across the business landscape that add up to £bns of benefits” and linking, presumably in support of this claim, an article from The Drinks Business
, although, in fact, the article suggests that champagne and sparkling wine producers have no plans to produce pint bottles.
That was published in February 2022, so it could be argued that the latest announcement will spur a change, but it is unlikely to be extensive. Non-UK producers have little incentive to take on the extra costs of producing pint bottles, since they will probably only be sellable in the UK (or, possibly, though I am not sure, only in Great Britain). It’s true that the UK is quite a large market – for champagne, specifically, it is the sixth largest importer by volume in the world
, though, even within the EU, the Netherlands imports more – but it’s unlikely that it can be much expanded by a pint product. Perhaps some will think this worthwhile – Pol Roger, with the ‘Churchill’ association, might find it viable to produce a niche, super-premium product, and there may be others. Equally, some UK producers might create a pint product for the domestic market, though the early indications are that they will not
In short, for the most part, wine producers in both the UK and elsewhere will continue to conform to the established global norm, including the US, of the 75cl (750 ml) bottle. It is worth reflecting on why this is the norm. Hitchens’ article actually touches on it when he notes that it is “because that is the size of bottle most people like. And — because we in Britain have always been such good customers for European wine — it is based on an old English wine measure, of roughly a pint and a third, known amusingly as . . . a 'Bottle'.” This explanation is partly based, as with some other examples in the article, on the idea that ye olde Englishe measurements are somehow ‘natural’, and so “what most people like”. But the more substantive point is the allusion to the historic importance of the British market.
Specifically, according to almost all sources
, at a time when most wine was consumed in its country of origin, the main export market for French producers, especially those of Bordeaux
, was Britain. The wine was shipped in barrels and, since the British measured in gallons and the French in litres, in the nineteenth century the practice emerged whereby barrels of 50 gallons or 225 litres were used, thus yielding 300 bottles of 75 cl each (clearly this is compatible with Hitchens’ account, as there are eight pints in a gallon, yielding six bottles of a pint and third, although I can find no other reference to such bottles being a traditional English measure). This 75 cl bottle size eventually became a European, and later a global, norm.That was then, but this is now
So this is a story about the market power of Britain when it was the wealthiest country in the world and (probably) the biggest importer of wine. It could, effectively, set the standard even of a product it scarcely produced itself. This is no longer true, and, in endless different versions, that fact lies at the heart of almost everything which is happening to regulation in post-Brexit Britain. Britain has, in theory, ‘taken back control’ of the laws and regulations that govern it. In practice, it has virtually no power to do so without imposing exorbitant costs upon its already ailing economy. There may be the odd exception but generally, as Joel Reland of UK in a Changing Europe
has explained, “non-divergence [from the EU] is the new consensus in British politics”.
That in itself might be enough to show the fatuity of Brexit. All that effort and expense, and the outcome is not just to stay aligned with the EU but to actually lose all control over its decisions. But the reality is worse than that. For if ‘staying aligned’ demolishes the central argument made for Brexit by its advocates, it still does relatively little to allay the costs of Brexit: Britain is aligned with single market rules, which is certainly less costly than diverging, but does not get most of the benefit of that in terms of single market membership.
What makes the single market function as such is not just
shared standards but a shared system of registering, certifying, and enforcing those standards so as to remove the regulatory borders between the countries who are members of that market. Aligning standards is a necessary condition for accessing the single market, and avoids the costs of producing to dual standards, but it is not sufficient to enjoy the benefits of single market membership which entail what Michel Barnier frequently described
as the EU’s “common ecosystem of rules, supervision and enforcement mechanisms”.
It is an issue which is about come to the fore again when the UK finally begins to implement full import controls on goods coming from the EU at the end of this month
(unless there is a sixth delay in doing so). Why bother, if the standards are the same? Because it’s not just about the standards
, it’s about the systems for ensuring and demonstrating those standards are met (it’s exactly the same issue, in reverse, which explains why the ‘Not for EU’ labelling now appearing in the UK doesn’t tell us anything about the standards
to which the products so marked are made). Outside of the single market, that means border controls in some form, even if not literally ‘at the border’, which means costs and, potentially, delays.Betwixt and between alignment and divergence
However (although, really, it is another aspect of the same basic issue) the situation of post-Brexit Britain is worse still than that of largely maintaining alignment with single market standards whilst not reaping the benefits of single market membership. What has actually been created is a situation of complete confusion because, whilst remaining largely aligned, the UK is no longer in lock-step with the EU (except for goods in Northern Ireland). It’s not just that in some relatively minor ways the UK has chosen to diverge from the EU, it is that EU regulations themselves are constantly changing, but with no UK commitment to track them (or to be bound by any disputes arising from them) or any process to do so, or even the state capacity to create such a process.
One consequence of this is that much of the burden of compliance falls on individual firms and their trade associations, which must try to keep abreast of EU changes and to comply with them. Because these changes are ongoing, it means that, as William Bain, Head of Trade Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce explained recently, it is a burden that is growing
rather than being “a static mechanism” of one-off adjustment to Brexit. Stephen Phipson, CEO of MAKE UK, has a similar message
: “we don’t have the regulatory capacity to keep up: it’s not intentional but we’re lagging behind”. That same report shows how the government does not even have a consistent or logical approach, so that, having dropped the general requirement
on UK firms to adopt the UKCA mark rather than continuing to use CE, the construction sector is still supposed to do so by 2025. Perhaps, even probably, that, too, will end up being dropped but, for now, businesses in the sector are obliged to continue to prepare for it.
The same basic problem of having to align with the EU, for economic reasons, whilst having refused, for political reasons, to be in lockstep, is evident in the emerging situation with the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and the associated issue of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS)
. It is a complicated story, but in very brief the UK is set to create its own CBAM
on similar lines to that of the EU. The UK can’t just ignore the EU because, despite having left it is directly affected by what the EU does. In this case, for example, a consequence of ignoring EU CBAM might be to end up having high-carbon steel from China dumped on the UK market.
However because the UK is not in lockstep, UK CBAM will come into force later (creating a ‘window’
for dumping) and, as things stand, without linking the UK CBAM and ETS and EU CBAM and ETS
. Such linkage is something which might, in fact, be achievable via the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and it is probably something that the next government, especially if it is a Labour government, will do. But even if so, the point holds: extra costs, uncertainties and complexities are incurred to no conceivable benefit or advantage, and with an outcome which in substantive terms is defined by the EU rather than the UK.Self-punishment
Compared with these things, the champagne pint announcement may seem trivial. It will most likely be almost entirely ignored. But it is illustrative of a far bigger issue. It arises from a wholly nonsensical and imaginary idea of sovereignty, itself predicated on a nineteenth century view of Britain and the world. This creates a self-punishment machine where we pay a massive price to have a freedom to diverge which in most cases is too costly to exercise, like someone spending a fortune on a new car and then finding that, as they had been warned, there are no roads to drive it on.
It is easy to get lost in the detailed weeds of all this, and also to be distracted by the endless gaslighting from Brexiters, but the reality is straightforward, and the public are all too well aware of it
: there is nothing that Brexit makes easier, cheaper or more pleasant. And it’s going to get worse, not better.
*The survey question asked itself confuses the issue, since it asked whether “selling goods in pounds and ounces” should be “brought back”, as if doing so had been outlawed.