Britain & Europe
The British people were given a referendum on Europe in 1975 and voted decisively for joining the Common Market, then defined as an economic alliance of individual nations.
But by the early 1990s public concern about the direction of the European Union had risen sharply and the Euro-skeptic movement although embraced by only a small group of Tories in Parliament was well underway in the Conservative ranks.
The deal-breaker for the Tories was “Maastricht” when more of them became angered by regulations passed by the European Commission in Brussels which took precedence over laws passed in Westminster.
Concerned about the strengthening of European bureaucracy and its effect on Britain’s democratic sovereignty, more and more Tories joined the Euro-skeptic wing.
By 1996 the Tory Party was in trouble. After 18 years in power, it was losing ground with the British electorate despite an economic boom financed by oil revenues from Scottish oilfields. The Tories had squashed the unions, decimated social-welfare programs, privatized many key state-owned industries and promoted a free low tax business environment. London and the South East had flourished at the expense of North East England and Scotland who had borne the brunt of Thatcher’s excesses.
Since his election as Labour Party leader in the spring of 1994, Tony Blair alerted to the failure of the Tory Party had captured the public imagination by moving the Labour Party to the centre-ground of British politics.
On just about every economic issue, Blair’s party co-opted Tory promises pledging not to increase public spending or raise taxes with result that the Labour Party enjoyed a consistent lead of some 20 points over the Tories in the months before the 1997 election.
The late Sir James Goldsmith (1933-1997) & the Referendum Party
The Goldschmidts, neighbours and rivals of the Rothschild family, were a wealthy, Frankfurt-based, Jewish family that had been influential in international merchant banking since the 16th century.
James Goldsmith was a billionaire crusading politician who fought to change the future of Europe. A high-flying financial buccaneer he was the father of eight children, who lived an infamous unconventional life, sharing homes in London, Paris, Burgundy, Spain, and Mexico with his wife, a British aristocrat born Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the sister of the Marquess of Londonderry, and the inspiration for the eponymous “Annabel” nightclub in London’s Berkeley Square. His ex-wife (the former Ginette Lery, his one-time secretary) and a mistress (Laure Boulay de la Meurthe, a wellborn French magazine editor), who at one time lived in two parts of the same house in Paris. Like an Arab pasha, Goldsmith moved among all three households, supporting everyone with lavish generosity.
Having multiplied his fortune as a brash corporate raider in the United States during the 1980s, Goldsmith was an unlikely politician. But his retreat from business led him to question many of his assumptions about the world and he came to believe that global free trade would lead to severe societal dislocations. He also concluded that the movement to unify Europe politically, as well as economically, would restrict national sovereignty and undermine democracy as unelected European Union bureaucrats assumed greater control.
His beliefs spurred in him the impetus for the creation of the “Referendum Party” which he launched in November 1997 when he concluded he could have a greater impact in Britain because democratic traditions were stronger than on the continent and in an early statement using rhetoric that was direct and withering he said: “European nations are deeply rooted but you cannot push nations together against their will. The Conservative government is appalling on all the most important issues that matter and John Major thinks leadership is equilibrium but he is the ultimate rubber-man and “New Labour” is nothing more than a soft Tory Party. They are all as one.”
For Goldsmith, being attacked meant being noticed, and being noticed meant being taken seriously. At the start of campaigning, he said: “I am prepared to spend upwards of £30M fielding Referendum Party candidates against every member of Parliament in the 1997 general election who argues against a plebiscite. We will pressure the British government into giving its citizens a chance to vote on the extent of their involvement in the European Union.”
In 1994. in France, he was elected to the European Parliament. Then terminally ill with cancer, in 1997 he failed in his bid for a seat in the British Parliament.
Goldsmith knew he would never be the British Prime Minister and his bid for a seat in parliament was unsuccessful, two months later he died but he altered the mood and the thinking in Britain about the value of a unified Europe and elevated a political concern into a national preoccupation.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIRP)
The financial backing of Goldsmith supported the early careers of prominent members of the Bruges Group, formed in 1988, under the leadership of University of Oxford undergraduate student, Scotsman, Patrick Robertson.
Alan Sked (who went on to found the UK Independence Party in September 1993).
Its founding chairman, Lord Harris of High Cross (former head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, 1957-1987 and board member of Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers Holdings Ltd from 1988 until 2001).
Many of the Referendum Party’s activists and voters went on to join and support UKIP which ultimately led to a sea-change in English politics and twenty-three years later the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union.
Patrick Robertson Founder & Chairman of WorldPR
Robertson is an international political strategist and professional public relations, consultant. He founded WorldPR in the early 1990s and has been an advisor to many British and international political and business leaders for nearly three decades. He currently offers strategic advice to foreign corporations and governments on, among other matters, the opportunities and implications of Brexit.
His experience of frontline political campaigns started early, in 1988, when as an undergraduate at Oxford he founded the Bruges Group to campaign against European federalism. In recognition of the group’s remarkable success in provoking a nationwide debate, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, became its Hon. President in 1990. The Bruges Group is credited with having played an influential role in Britain’s ultimate decision to leave the European Union in 2016.
After a period based in Geneva as a Special Advisor to the World Economic Forum Robertson went into business with Gerald Howarth and Lord Parkinson, former Chairman of the Conservative Party and cut his teeth as a political adviser to senior British Tory government ministers, including Neil Hamilton, Corporate Affairs minister, and Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Secretary. He also enjoyed, for a number of years, a highly successful business collaboration with Lord Tim Bell, PR adviser to successive British prime ministers.
In 1994, Sir James Goldsmith, the Anglo-French billionaire and financier, hired WorldPR to orchestrate the campaign of the Referendum Party, the most ambitious eurosceptic campaign of modern times, with an unprecedented spend of £35 million.
As the party’s Chief of Staff, Robertson was responsible for executing its strategy for the 1997 British general election in which it fielded 547 candidates and, as a measure of its success, secured the historic commitment from both the Conservative government and the Labour Opposition not to join the European single currency without a binding referendum.
Among the early staffers of the Referendum Party who went on to achieve front-rank careers in British politics is The Rt. Hon. Priti Patel MP, Home Secretary, and Ben Elliot, Chairman of the Conservative Party.