LET ME make just one promise, just one vow. We the rabble army, we in the Referendum Party, we will strive with all our strength to obtain for the people of these islands the right to decide whether or not Britain should remain a nation – James Goldsmith, 1994.
Jimmy Goldsmith’s words are just as wise today. Dare one wish for an ideal result from our forthcoming General Election – a Leave government that delivers a clean Brexit supported by a sizeable number of Leave MPs from other parties as the voters’ quality control inspectors?
Why the quality control checkers? The Conservative Party in the recent Rotten Parliament has an earned abysmal name for not respecting the voters nor keeping its promises. This is not new. Over the years many Tory MPs have told me that the voters are too poorly educated to understand complex choices and that keeping the party together in the House of Commons is more important. One might ask whose fault it is that their education was so poor.
For a start I won’t vote for the European Court of Justice to have any influence on our independent judiciary. We were the original country to make our judiciary independent. There are more than fifty Commonwealth countries with an independent judiciary as part of our legacy to them.
Nor will I vote for a Remain MP who apparently ran so many errands for that arch-Remainer Philip Hammond that his nickname at Westminster became ‘the Chancellor’s tea lady’. Yet Nigel Farage and his party have stood down the local candidate for whom many people would have voted in a constituency where the Leave proportion was almost 60 per cent. My advice to Boris Johnson is don’t presume that if you take away the Brexit Party candidate we’re all going to fall into line and vote for whoever the Conservative Party deigns to offer. We might simply not bother to vote for anyone. My advice to both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson is talk to each other, today.
Our home politics needs a spring clean. Cobwebs lurk everywhere. The Brexit Party claim they are the solution, but I fear they must recognise that they too are part of the problem. Nonetheless, spring cleaning will not happen unless the Brexit Party win enough seats in the House of Commons to give them the casting vote over a potentially duplicitous Conservative Party government, or ultimately replace them by stealing the Conservatives’ political clothes as the natural party of government. The Brexit Party cannot hope to strive for the latter until they become a normal political party rather than a small private company. According to Politico there are only two directors of the company – Nigel Farage and his friend Richard Tice. The company secretary is Phillip Basey, a former UKIP activist, who was appointed in March. There are five other shareholders with each share worth £1. Over the last fortnight Farage has given plenty of signals that he still regards the party as his own private company. This won’t work. Look at the muddle over who is standing where and the absence of anything resembling a national manifesto until the last twenty-four hours. Voters would support the ideas.
Just over twenty years ago Jimmy Goldsmith stood for Parliament in Putney as the candidate for the Referendum Party. Anglo-French, a very successful businessman, Jimmy announced the formation of the Referendum Party on 27 November 1994.At one time a strong supporter of the EC, he grew disenchanted with it during the early 1990s, becoming concerned that it was morphing into a superstate governed by centralised institutions in Brussels. He opposed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, believing that it would result in even further German dominance in Europe. As an economic protectionist, reminding one a bit of Joe Chamberlain, he was critical of the EU’s signing of the GATT, believing that global free trade would damage both the EU’s economy and thereby his own business interests.
The Referendum Party did not contest any by-elections in 1996 and 1997.For the 1997 general election, there was a hurried selection of candidates, by interview and a few background checks or screening. The funding for each candidate’s official campaign was largely provided by the party headquarters.Jimmy had pledged to put twenty million pounds into creating the party but I don’t know how much he spent. Candidates were brought to a training day at a Manchester hotel in February 1997.
Jimmy’s party was the biggest spender on press advertising in the 1997 campaign; three times as much as the Conservatives and five times as much as Labour on press adverts. Its media profile eclipsed that of UKIP. A video was delivered to five million UK households in March 1997. The packaging of the videocassette carried punchy slogans: ‘The most important video you’ll ever watch’, ‘The story the politicians don’t want you to hear’, and ‘If you care about Britain, please pass this video on.’ This was a new strategy in British politics and he was among the first to reach the electorate through bypassing the mass media. Jimmy would have thrived in this age of social media.
The election took place on 1 May 1997. The Referendum Party polled 811,827 votes.This represented 2.6 per cent of the national total and the party averaged 3.1 per cent in the seats which it contested. My wife and I voted for them. Forty-two of the party’s candidates gained over 5 per cent of the vote and thus saw the return of their deposits, in those days £500; more than 500 deposits were lost. The party gained over 7 per cent in four constituencies. Much media attention was focused on Putney, where Jimmy stood against the incumbent Conservative MP, David Mellor.
Goldsmith won 3.5 per cent of the local vote but the seat went to Labour. The Conservatives accused him of splitting the Tory vote and handing Blair a landslide. He did – probably in less than half-a-dozen seats. Although he failed to win any seats, his party gave the strongest performance of a minor party in recent UK political history until the latest EU Parliament vote. Support had been strongest in the South and East of England, in particular in areas with high elderly populations and high rates of agricultural employment. This is why today’s not-so-young Remainers and the media are convinced that soon all Brexiteers will die off. The reality is that that most Brexiteers are young people. Support for the party was considerably weaker in Inner London, Northern England and Scotland. The party secured only 1.1 per cent of the Scottish vote. The Referendum Party had proved more electorally successful than UKIP, which averaged 1.2 per cent of the vote in the 194 constituencies that it contested.
According to Wikipedia, analysis by the political scientist John Curtice (yes, he was already going strong in those days) and psephologist Michael Steed showed that ‘only a handful of the Conservatives’ losses of seats can be blamed on the intervention of the Referendum Party’. Their estimate was that only four seats would have been Conservative without the Referendum Party standing.Others stated that the Referendum Party ‘had only a limited effect on the Conservatives’ fortunes’. On employing aggregate constituency data, Ian McAllister and Donley T Studlar disagreed, arguing that the Referendum Party had a greater impact on the Conservatives than previous research suggested. They argued that the Referendum Party cost the Conservatives an average of 3.4 per cent of the vote.Their analysis further suggested that there were 16 seats where the involvement of the Referendum Party directly cost the Conservative candidates their victory, and a further three where it was a contributing factor to the Conservatives’ failure.
When the Putney result was announced around midnight, we were watching the BBC in wildest Sussex; Jimmy was quite fed up, ignoring the ambush of TV cameras. In fact, across the nation, he had done incredibly well. A great shame he didn’t keep going. We might have been out of the EU years ago.
The following lunchtime, a little windswept, he arrived at our club bar in St James’s Street. Nearly all those present (overnight some had become ex-Tory ministers), offered their commiseration. He found himself among friends. John Young, from Glasgow, with business partner Ronnie Bloom, two of the club’s most splendid characters, suggested to Jimmy that a drink would work wonders. Why don’t you join us? Jimmy asked what we were all drinking. Gin and tonic, said John. Love one, confessed Jimmy.
Now John was a wise old owl with a message from Ancient Rome.
Jimmy sipped his drink.
‘How’s your drink, Jimmy?’
‘Tastes very good, John,’ he replied thankfully.
Nigel Farage confronts similar prejudice as Margaret Thatcher, but he should follow her determined example and Jimmy Goldsmith’s. Although presently his Brexit army stands aside from the fight, nonetheless its ranks should remain disciplined and visible along the skyline.