In Brighton in 1996, an insurgent party held its first and as far as I can see only conference. Liberal journalists gazed on the gaudy spectacle with wonder and disdain. We could see that he Referendum Party was a sign of the coming age of the super-rich. It was created by Sir James Goldsmith, a corporate raider who inspired the English tycoon Sir Larry Wildman, in Wall Street, and, you may not be surprised to hear, was a vain and bombastic censor to boot. (He persecuted Private Eye in the courts for not treating him with the deference a mighty plutocrat deserved.)
Goldsmith spent most of his time in Mexico and France. During one of his visits to Britain he found the time spend some £20 million on funding anti-EU candidates in every constituency. What a crew his supporters were. To us they represented everything that was wrong with the old Britain we thought New Labour would sweep away: Andrew Roberts, Sir Charles Powell (pronounced “pugh-ell” if you please) Lord McAlpine, Alan Walters, Freddie Forsyth, John Aspinall and, inevitably, Taki, stood alongside women who slept with their best friends’ husbands and men who were best friends with Lord Lucan.
And yet from such unpromising company, the supposedly vainglorious Sir James put forward a programme that was not remotely grandiose. The Referendum Party was meek and modest, with a self-denial that bordered on the monkish. Goldsmith was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and wanted to see one simple thing before he died: a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. He told the conference
The sovereignty of this nation belongs to its people and not to a group of career politicians. It is the people and they alone who must decide, after a full debate and a public vote, whether Britain should remain an independent nation or whether her future will be better served as part of a new country - the single European super-state, also known as a federal Europe.
That was the limit of his demands. Once parliament granted a referendum, Sir James would dissolve the Referendum Party. He had no other ambitions. He did not say that you should support leaving the EU because you want to stop or slow immigration. A Britain outside the EU might have open borders or not, that would be its choice. He did not say that Britain should leave because it wanted an end to regulation and red tape. You could want, as the old left wanted, to leave the EU because you believed in socialism in one country, and thought the EU’s “bosses' club” stood in the way.
Sir James’s minimal programme had an obvious advantage. You could support it if you were left wing or right wing, green, yellow, blue or red. Signing up to opposition to the EU entailed a commitment to self-determination and nothing more.
The Referendum Party had another virtue that hardly anyone noticed at the time. Because its sole demand was so simple, there was no need for complicated pacts let alone for a governing coalition, which could destroy a party’s reputation, as the Liberal Democrats have learned. The only deal the Referendum Party offered sitting MPs was this: if they promised to support a referendum, Goldsmith would not run a candidate against them. Once again, MPs could be green, yellow, blue or red. They could want to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy or privatise everything. It didn’t matter. There were no strings beyond a commitment to popular sovereignty.
For all the advantages, the party faced an insuperable problem. As Goldsmith found, only a minority cared enough about the EU to vote for him at a general election. To be precise, Goldsmith found that just 810,231 cared enough – not a bad haul of voters, but the Labour landslide buried them.
As Tim Newark records in Protest Vote, his excellent and timely history of the decline of the old party system, a few of Goldsmith’s candidates yearned to break with the movement’s purity and harvest votes by taking stances on local and national issues, as Ukip has done now.
I don’t want to dismiss the triumph of its poujadistes. I wish my comrades could snap themselves out of their petty post-modern obsessions and accept that the Left is in the most terrible state if the main source of protest after a crisis of capitalism comes from the Right. Yet as brighter right wingers are noticing, Ukip offers them none of the old advantages of the Referendum Party.
Nervous Tories want local pacts with Ukip after its success in the European elections. They understand that although the right is advancing, its vote is split, and under first past the post, splits can let in the opposition.
But how would a pact work? It's not like in Goldsmith's day when all a sitting MP from any party had to do was say he or she supported a referendum. Today the only talk is of Tory/Ukip pacts, and only with suitably right-wing Tories.
I don't see how Nigel Farage can deliver even these. He has placed the conspiracy theory that we are ruled by an EUSSR-Zanu-NuLab-Lib-ConSpiracy in the minds of every know-nothing loudmouth in the land, and cannot now turn round and say he approves of sweetheart deals with the Con element of that conspiracy. Lord Pearson, Farage’s predecessor, proved my point when he asked Ukip candidates to stand down at the 2010 general election to give the fruity local Tories a free run. His candidates ignored him. "To stand down would be a betrayal,” said one.
Just so. If you build a political movement on the belief that democracy is a sham and ordinary politics is a fix, you run the risk that your activists may be stupid enough to believe you, and will turn on you when you try to engage in politics as usual.
David Davis regards Ukip supporters with an avuncular tolerance I cannot match. He sees the revolt against the established parties as an inevitable consequence of the elite populism of the Blair/Clinton era, where smart operators advanced their careers by manipulating the masses.
But he tells me that as he looks at Farage he thinks of the story of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, the French radical politician, who on seeing revolutionaries tearing through the streets of 19th century Paris, is meant to have cried: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."
Like Ledru-Rollin, Farage must ride his tiger. If he offers deals, his supporters would denounce him. In any case, Ukip's hard core is not going to vote for a Tory candidate anymore than moderate conservatives are going to vote Ukip if the Conservative candidate steps aside and allows it a free run.
For Ukip has added a baggage train to the simple demand for the British to have a say on whether they stay or leave, which appals moderate conservatives and many others. It has turned EU membership from a constitutional question into a culture war. Look at the British right today, and you see that Farage's chicanery has made being against the EU mean being against gay marriage and sexual and racial equality, and in favour of flat taxes and Vladimir Putin as well. We have yet to see what policies Ukip will offer at the 2015 election, but it would not be a wild guess to suppose that it will also be against the NHS, benefits for the working poor, the minimum wage, the living wage, social housing, alternative energy sources, unemployment benefit and comprehensive education.
There's a market for this, as Ukip's success shows. But there's a market against this as well. Ukip is telling people, who value progressive policies from the welfare state to the emancipation of women, that they cannot be anti-EU. All right then, we reply: We're not.
A perceptive Daniel Hannan has noticed that the first casualty of a right-wing culture war are its friends. As Ukip prospers, the Eurosceptic cause flounders
We’re losing, we Get-Outers. Every opinion poll shows that opposition to EU membership has fallen over the past 12 months. Most now have a majority for staying in.
No one should be surprised. Ukip has made a mistake Goldsmith never made. It has tied opposition to the EU up in a bundle with policies which have nothing to do with Brussels. And those of us who do not like the policies, find ourselves concluding that our enemy's enemy is not so bad after all.