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June 14, 2013updated 29 Jan 2016 6:43pm

Andrew Roberts on Sir James Goldsmith's Eurosceptic legacy

By Spear's

’Jimmy already knew that he was suffering from cancer, but he was determined to make one last Herculean effort for his country’


‘Jimmy already knew that he was suffering from cancer, but he was determined to make one last Herculean effort for his country’ 

The British press was almost unanimous in acclaiming as ‘historic’ David Cameron’s speech of 23 January, which announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union would be held in 2017. For the sheer revolutionary nature of that commitment — going far further even than Margaret Thatcher did — they were right.

Yet nowhere in the media’s extensive coverage of that speech, or in its coverage of events since — 114 Tory MPs voting against their own party’s Queen’s Speech because of a lack of a referendum bill, and Cameron being compelled to offer that bill — was tribute paid to the man who originally put the whole concept of a referendum on Europe on our generation’s political agenda: Sir James ‘Jimmy’ Goldsmith. 

In January, Cameron made Jimmy’s dream a reality. After being ridiculed and vilified by all three major parties in his lifetime, simply for offering an idea that the British people wanted but the Establishment did not, Jimmy has won vindication. It is nothing short of tragic that it had to come posthumously, over fifteen years after his death.

Jimmy was one of the most extraordinary people whom it has been my privilege to have known; an industrialist, financier, politician (in the best sense of that word), wit, gambler, life-affirming force, forward-thinker, bon viveur, he was also something of a philosopher. Magnetically charismatic, incredibly intelligent and Napoleonically ambitious, he was one of those few people in life who mould their environments rather than allowing their environments to mould them.

Far from average

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Jimmy was an unlikely person to become a popular hero, yet he certainly became one. A billionaire Old Etonian financier with a very irregular love life — he was, needless to say, irresistible to women — he was certainly not your average politician. He led rather than consulted focus groups, took risks rather than forever trying to play the angles. Crucially he was always able to back up his statements with hard facts and, with the Referendum Party, hard cash. Above all he was utterly honest about the disasters facing Britain if we abolished the pound and joined the euro. In the past five years in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain, everything he warned of has come to pass with an eerie accuracy.

When Jimmy set up the Referendum Party in 1994, not one of the other parties was willing to promise a referendum on Europe. Jimmy already knew that he was suffering from cancer, but he was determined to make one last Herculean effort for his country, regardless of the damage to his immune system. Deciding to use the party as leverage to force Labour (led by Tony Blair) and the Conservatives (led by the ludicrous John Major) to promise the people a referendum on the future of sterling probably shortened his life, but nonetheless he went ahead with the project. In a very genuine sense, therefore, he gave his life for his country. 

Referendum News was sent to every household in Britain. Six million copies of a video were sent to people in marginal constituencies, flown in from the US on three jumbo jets; 600 candidates stood for parliament, helped by 300 political agents, nine regional directors and an HQ staff of 150.

Some £35 million was spent telling the public the truth about sterling versus the euro; 12,000 people attended the Alexandra Palace ‘Rally for Britain’. (I myself spoke — an experience both terrifying and exhilarating.)

With the polls showing Major that he was going to lose up to 15 per cent of Tory voters to the Referendum Party, he suddenly announced on 17 April 1997 that there would have to be a referendum before Britain entered the single currency. Within days, Blair was forced to follow suit with an identical pledge. 

No Spain, no pain

The fact that one single inflation rate and one exchange rate simply does not fit all economies does not matter to the ideologues of European integrationism. The economic pain and unnecessarily high unemployment suffered today by Greece, Portugal and other economies is all so that the Brussels superstaters can push through their project.

David Cameron’s determination that such havoc should not be wrought here, and his promise of an in/out referendum, came about solely because the referendum concept had been placed on the agenda back in 1997.

So when the history of postwar Britain comes to be written in a rational, objective way, one man above all others will be lauded for having had the vision and determination to force the politicians in Westminster to listen to the demands of the people of Britain. That man was Sir James Goldsmith.

In death, victorious.

Read more from Andrew Roberts

Read more from Ben Goldsmith’s guest-edit

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