In recent weeks Ed Balls has been offering a new reason to vote Labour: it was his party, he says, that saved Britain from joining the euro. Now, the shadow chancellor is free to say what he wants — and in a way, I’m pleased that he feels the need to convey such an impression. But the true story of how Britain was saved from the euro is somewhat different.
It all happened nearly a generation ago, between 1995 and 1997, when I was in my very early twenties. It was my father, James Goldsmith, who set out to ensure that Britain would never join the euro without the consent of the people. He dedicated the last years of his life to the cause. My mother campaigned in his constituency for 12 hours every day. He gave it all he had: he was battling terminal pancreatic cancer and died in July 1997, just weeks after the general election.
James Goldsmith formed the Referendum party in 1995 and called for a full referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. In doing so, he unleashed a chain of events that led inexorably and inevitably to a public veto on joining the single currency.
It started with an interview on the BBC’s Breakfast with Frost. He pledged that he would fully fund a candidate in every constituency in Britain to fight the 1997 general election on a single policy: the right of the British people to decide their future in Europe. No political party was willing to offer a referendum — he wanted to put that right.
To my father, the euro was obviously the most immediate threat from the EU, but it was not the only one. He was appalled that EU law could override our sovereign parliament, and by the bureaucratic assault on ancient English civil liberties such as habeas corpus. He was dismayed by the destruction of British agriculture and traditional fishing communities. Above all, he rejected the idea that an unelected elite in Brussels should rule Britain while being answerable to nobody.
At the end of 1995 the Referendum party announced that it would field 547 candidates in the next election — fighting four out of five constituencies. The volunteers were men and women from all walks of life and shades of political opinion whom my father dubbed the ‘rabble army’. He launched a massive political campaign that was (and remains to this day) unique in British political history. It placed double-page advertising in all national newspapers, and issued five million videos and 46 million copies of a special newspaper — one for each household in Britain. There were 60 political agents training candidates out of ten regional offices, more than 300,000 fully audited members, and more than 300 public meetings throughout Britain. The campaign culminated in a rally of 9,500 people at Alexandra Palace.
An intensive public education campaign followed. According to internal Gallup polls, half the country was Euro-sceptic — and one in six Conservative voters was intending to vote for the Referendum party. This focused Tory minds. On 17 April 1996, Sir John Major announced that the Conservatives would go into the election promising not to join the single currency without consulting the British people.
I don’t think anyone believes this announcement was motivated by personal conviction. Sir John’s objective was to spike the guns of the Referendum party. For good measure, he also quietly offered my father a peerage. I am glad he did — the offer made my father laugh so much that, I like to believe, it may have prolonged his life by a few weeks.
The Referendum party had given the public a way of saying clearly that a general election victory did not mean permission to abolish the pound. Tony Blair grudgingly accepted this, which is why Labour’s 1997 manifesto said that if the pound was to be scrapped, ‘The people would have to say “yes” in a referendum.’ Blair wanted to ensure that the whole issue of Europe was pushed under the carpet and wouldn’t get in the way of a Labour victory.
Eighteen years after these events, which were so formative in my life, the true importance of what was achieved by the Referendum party ought to be more widely acknowledged. The pledge extracted from mainstream political parties by the ‘rabble army’ has ensured that Britain is safe from the disaster still unfolding on the continent. Nobody but the rabble army may lay claim to that achievement. Sorry Ed Balls — keeping Britain out of the euro calamity is my father’s legacy, not yours.
The era of stable government is over
Join us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.
Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, and a former owner and editor of the Ecologist.