Worlds apart

Who would have thought that a mere bunch of bananas could have caused so much fuss? But according to Michael Shrimpton, the lowly banana could threaten the entire British constitution.

Shrimpton is, of course, the Tanfield Chambers barrister who is acting for the so-called ‘Metric Martyrs’, the five traders brought together by a desire to sell a pound, rather than 453.6 grams, of bananas.

He has tried – so far unsuccessfully – to argue that the humble Weights and Measures Act 1985 impliedly repeals the 1972 European Communities Act. If the group gets leave to appeal, Shrimpton will try to persuade the House of Lords that arguably the UK’s single most important case since joining the EU, Factortame, was decided wrongly.

If the Lords agrees with him, then our entire relationship with the EU is up in the air – if EU legislation is no longer viewed as supreme, then all hell will break loose.
Of course, there is then the European Court of Justice, which is kind of unlikely to agree, but let’s not kill the buildup just yet.

So as the EU’s future within the UK reaches the edge of the abyss, I meet the man poised to throw it over the edge. (I’m trying to build up the tension again – can you tell?)

But, of course, bar rules dictate that he cannot talk about the case in particular, so none of this interview has anything at all to do with the Metric Martyrs. With some interviewees this might be a problem, but Shrimpton barely draws breath for the time we are together.

He is an interviewer’s dream – a complete no-brainer as every five minutes he stops himself to highlight another avenue I could choose to address, stating: “You might want to ask me about that.”

The first thing that becomes evident about Shrimpton is that he is not merely going through the motions of a case brought to him by the taxi rank rule – this is a personal crusade.

“It was a tragic mistake for the UK to join the European Community,” he starts, as I imagine he has at many a dinner party. “I agree with de Gaulle, who twice vetoed the UK application to join because de Gaulle knew us well. He was a great Frenchman and a great European, but he understood that the English were not European and would not allow themselves to be partners in a federal Europe.”

Any government that signed us up to a federal Europe would be destroyed, believes Shrimpton. “The British are an island people. Our history, language, culture and way of life are different, and of course we have the experience many times over the last millennium of being invaded by Europe and that governs our approach, as we see Europe as a threat.

Those who believe that the EU has helped maintain peace in Europe since World War II, adds Shrimpton, are “talking through their hats”. The peace, which firstly extends only to Western Europe, as the former Yugoslavia is only too aware, was brought by a combination of the depth of Germany’s defeat in the last war, the fear of the Soviet Union and Nato.

I could go through Shrimpton’s other arguments against the EU, but to be honest a page would not be enough. In essence, membership is expensive, it has stalled the UK economy, it is undemocratic and it has damaged our relationship with the US.

But most importantly, in Shrimpton’s eyes, the EU threatens our sovereignty. This is a big issue with Shrimpton and he feels that nothing should threaten it. For example, he says that the current International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Milosevic is wrong because it is interfering with the former Yugoslavia’s sovereignty.

As was the “very shabby” treatment of General Pinochet from this country. Rumour has it that Shrimpton advised Pinochet, but he is unable to confirm this, although he laughingly admits to having “had the privilege of meeting General Pinochet and he is the nicest dictator I’ve ever met”.

As for Milosevic, Shrimpton says: “I apply the same principle that I would to any head of state. I doubt that I’d find Milosevic as charming as Pinochet and I can’t imagine that I’d wish to meet Mr Milosevic or would enjoy the experience. In my view, the tribunal in The Hague lacks the authority to try him.”

As Shrimpton points out, President Kostunica, Yugoslavia’s current president, is also a constitutional lawyer and also opposed to the ICC trial, believing that Milosevic should be tried in Belgrade. Besides, says Shrimpton, the ICC does not even have the power to impose a death penalty, which if the crimes against Milosevic are proven, their magnitude would demand.

Shrimpton says that, despite being able to impose the death penalty, the Nuremberg trials following World War II were also a mistake.

“One of the greatest influences of my early life as a lawyer was the delightful man Lord Elwyn Jones,” divulges Shrimpton. “I was president of the Law Society and then president of the Students Union at Cardiff University, and Elwyn Jones was president of the college, so I saw him quite a bit in Cardiff. I remember having a conversation with him in my left wing youth, full of enthusiasm; I enthused about his role in the Nuremberg trials as junior presiding counsel and said how marvellous it was.

“But he said that, while at the time he thought it was right, looking at the shambles that resulted he later thought that they [the Nazi leaders] should not have been put on trial and he regretted taking part.”

Instead he believes that Nuremberg should have been replaced by some sort of military trial. Military issues loom large in Shrimpton’s interests, so it is no surprise to learn that he is from a services family.

Both of his parents were in the Royal Air Force and Shrimpton would have liked to follow them. Unfortunately his eyesight, which was 20-20 when he joined university, deteriorated while he was there, and under the rules he would have been unable to fly. Not, he admits, that he was any great loss to the aviation world. While at the university’s Air Cadets he learnt to fly at St Athens and laughs when he says that the last time he touched down the skies became immediately safer.

Another great influence on his thinking is the US, which he likes a whole bundle more than he likes the EU. He’s more a Bush-and-burgers than Schroeder-and-sauerkraut kind of a guy.

Since Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who Shrimpton rates highly, the UK Government has neglected its special relationship with the US in favour of turning towards Europe, he believes. “This led very much to the UK’s decision not to participate in Vietnam, which I regret, and our disastrous withdrawal from Suez.”

Now here’s the funny thing about Shrimpton: he constantly comes out with statements that you thought no one believed anymore. Or if they believed them, they did not utter them in front of strangers. While I am sure that if I was sitting next to him at a dinner party, after a few glasses of wine I would want to swing for him, he is actually really likeable. While his views might be eccentric and grate on a politically correct listener, Shrimpton’s bumptious enthusiasm and energy is charming. What is astonishing, however, is his confession that he used to be quite a lefty, leading rent strikes while president of the Cardiff Students Union and becoming a labour lawyer in his early days of law centre work. Then in 1987 he left the Labour Party over disagreements on – guess what – its approach to Europe and its proposed cuts in defence spending, and joined the Conservatives. His personal swingometer has gone the full 180 degrees, with seemingly astonishing speed.

But before I can relax into liking him, I have to deal with the nagging worry that Shrimpton’s views make him, well, racist. Does he trust foreigners?

“I do trust people who aren’t Anglo-Saxon,” he says. “Eurosceptics are often described as xenophobes or little Englanders. Not only do I reject the challenges of isolationist and little Englander, I describe [Europhiles] as little Europeans. Europe in an ethnic context is largely white and Europhiles tend to see the world as white and are very dismissive of the Commonwealth because it’s not purely white.”

Shrimpton doesn’t seem to trust the Spanish much, however, as he confides that he has heard from a secret source that the Spanish government is planning a military invasion of Gilbraltar if our own Foreign Office doesn’t sail the rock down the river to Madrid first. Apparently – and remember you read this here first – the plan of attack is being drafted outside Madrid to prevent it leaking.

Instead of aligning ourselves with Europe, Shrimpton would like to see us concentrating on the Commonwealth. “My perspective on the world is global as opposed to regional, whereas the pro-European lobby see the UK as regional.”

But surely the whole basis of the Commonwealth is a bit dubious, being based on the old Empire and all the exploitation that entailed.

“The relationship I see as a free association of sovereign member states is not a colonial relationship. It’s bound together with historical ties of mutual affection, of mutual sovereignty and economic interests.”

Much of the anti-US feeling that Shrimpton fears has become fashionable in Europe is, he argues, anti-Semitic. “The Nazis openly said that the Americans couldn’t fight successfully because they’re a multinational nation. I think that America’s success as a multiracial democracy is the reason why many Europeans are against them.”

Unfortunately, Shrimpton’s role on the Asylum Appeals Panel means that he cannot answer whether the UK ought to allow more foreign nationals in, but I would have loved to have known the answer.

As I leave Shrimpton, my brain still trying to catch up with the speed at which he has flung his arguments at me, he calls after me as the lift door is closing.

“Don’t make me out to be a big ogre,” he smiles. “I’m quite cuddly really.”
Michael Shrimpton
Tanfield Chambers