The British Election

The British Election

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 30 1997 3:30 AM

The British Election

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The other night over dinner an important British businessman explained to me that the "the single greatest power" of a prime minister was his control over the annual honors list. Rich men in Britain--unlike rich men in America--continue to feign respect for politicians largely because they hope one day to receive knighthoods. What loyalty prominent people still showed John Major, this man claimed, was inspired mainly by the hope that Major would add their names to the list he'll hand over on Friday, when he leaves Downing Street. To me this all sounded plausible enough. One of the stranger subplots of the Thatcher years was the way the Iron Lady used the honors list to goad British businessmen into profits, the way you might use a pungent piece of fish to lure a cat down from a tree. Money alone was less interesting to them--at least at the start.

Probably the prospect of being called "Sir" once gave the billionaire corporate predator James Goldsmith pause. But now he is "Sir James," and as contemptuous of his elected leaders as a man can be.

Early this evening I head off to watch Sir James' final plea to the British people. Two and a half years ago Sir James put up 50 million pounds to create the Referendum Party, the sole purpose of which was to prevent Britain from becoming further entangled in the European Union. The party has won just one seat in Parliament; polls show it tallying about 3 percent of the vote. But like fringe parties everywhere, the Referendum Party measures its influence not in votes but in attitudes. And if anything at all has been changed by this campaign it is public opinion toward European union--or at any rate the perceptions politicians have of that public opinion. In the final days of the campaign the most damaging insult one British politician can hurl at another is that he is "soft on Europe." Six weeks ago it seemed just possible that Britain would give up the pound for ecus (European Currency Units) in 1999. Now it does not.

The Referendum Party convenes its final rally in a lower-middle-class neighborhood called Wansworth, which Sir James seeks to represent but where, until just a few months ago, he would not have been caught dead. Maybe 300 mild-mannered middle-class citizens fill the old wooden town hall--more than usually turn up to hear either Blair or Major. Together with a fellow Referendum Party official, who behaves, understandably, less like a politician than an employee, Sir James climbs up on the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen," begins the underling, "our candidate from Putney, Sir James Goldsmith." The crowd cheers, raucously. "Here is your chance to stop Britain from disappearing forever," the man continues. "Help stop this tragedy by voting for Saint James."

Nervous shuffling.

"Uh ... Sir James."

The audience roars. Sir James roars louder, once he grabs the microphone. "He's barking mad," is maybe the kindest statement I have heard spoken about Sir James, and until this moment I have not understood why. Now I do. When he speaks his beady eyes circle madly in his gargantuan head, seemingly in opposite directions, and he has as much trouble with his "r's" as Elmer Fudd. "The Wefewendum Pawty stands wholly against Euwo-fedawalism," he says, rousingly, his eyes flying apart like the tassels on a gifted belly dancer.

It's all very strange. Sir James' argument that you can't have a single European currency without eventually ceding all economic power to a European superstate makes perfect sense to me--as does his suggestion that the tighter that Europe is glued together, the more violent the force that will eventually explode it apart. But the message is as difficult as ever to separate from the messenger. Sir James is the antithesis of say, Tony Blair. He uses political style not to paper over controversy but to create more of it. On his chosen subject, this is unnecessary. When he leans his six-foot-six frame onto the podium, glares straight at you, and announces, "I am puhwsonally, biologically committed to fighting a Fedewal Euwope, a Euwopean supuhwstate," you don't really pause to ask whether he's making sense. You look for the nearest exit. Too bad about that. He would have been a hoot during Question Time.

Just about all the political people laugh at Sir James behind his back. In politics this is a sure indication that you are having an effect: Sir James must be counted as one of the winners of this election season. Six weeks ago Major and Blair both claimed to endorse further European integration. But the Referendum Party targeted weak Tory Europhiles, and before you could say donnez-moi le fish et chips the Tories were warring over Europe. Having once said there was no place in British politics for referendums, John Major now swears that Britain will never trade in its pounds without one. And where Major has gone Blair has followed, quickly. "I have a very simple answer to the European commissioner's suggestion that our place at the world economic summits will be lost if we join the single currency," the future prime minister writes today in his column in the Sun (which appears daily alongside a photograph of a topless woman). "The answer is: no thank you."

On the way home I pass what appears to be a violent protest on the lawn outside of Westminster. Upon closer inspection it is merely several dozen men in teddy-bear outfits dancing loudly in a circle to the amusement of a large crowd. The Teddy Bear Party, they call themselves, and when they laugh the people laugh with them. They, too, are inspired by a single issue: Their quest for a single European honey.

Michael Lewis is the author Trail Fever, about the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, among other books.