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Fear and Loathing in Europe

1.

Don’t think of who I once was. Reflect on who you are now, and who you would like to be in the future.”

—A tombstone found near Strasbourg

Tony Banks, Labour MP, was working himself into a telegenic lather in the House of Commons the other day. When I say telegenic, I don’t mean to imply that Banks was insincere; his rage positively reeked of sincerity. Who, he said, did this, this…greengrocer, who lived in Mexico and didn’t even pay tax in Britain, think he was an meddle in British affairs? It was an oddly snobbish thing to say about an international tycoon, and Banks spat out the word “greengrocer” as though selling food were a form of mass murder.

The greengrocer in question was Sir James (“Jimmy”) Goldsmith, Anglo-French businessman, member of the European Parliament, leader of the French L’Europe des Nations party and the British Referendum Party. The Referendum Party is actually not so much a party as an electric cattle prod to force the Conservatives to hold a referendum on Britain’s future in Europe. If the referendum is held, the party will cease to exist. Sir James is opposed to further European integration. He is, unusually for a global trader, against global free trade, and he wants to “encourage family units rooted in their own stable communities, bound together by ancestral cultures and confident in their traditions….” He thinks a federal Europe will destroy the “identity” of such communities. And so will global free trade, and too much immigration. “Market forces,” he says, “must be harnessed to the needs of stable communities.”1 Competition for cheap labor, in his view, will enrich big corporations, dislocate people in poor countries, and deprive European workers of jobs.

Since the Tories have so far refused to hold a referendum, Goldsmith has promised to spend twenty million pounds to field four hundred candidates in the next general election. They will be competing mostly for Tory votes. The candidates are, besides Sir James himself, a curious group, including some louche socialites, the odd celebrity, and retired army officers. One of Goldsmith’s most famous backers is the thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, whose views on Europe read like a blurb on one of his books: “Twice this century Germany has sought to impose a megastate on Europe, and twice is quite enough.”2 Fatally divided on the European question, the Tories stand little chance of being reelected as it is; Jimmy’s cattle prod might make it impossible. When John Major found out that a chunk of Goldsmith’s money was also being gratefully received by a Tory MP named Bill Cash, who started a European foundation against a federal Europe, he was as furious as Tony Banks. Not only was this suspiciously foreign tycoon buying himself into British politics, but he was paying MPs to undermine their own government.

While this was going on, the same government enraged the rest of the European Union by going to war over beef. It is a sordid story that sums up Britain’s current relations with the continent: for ten years the British government, keen to please Tory-voting cattle farmers, ignored expert warnings about BSE, or “mad cow disease.” It couldn’t affect other species, said the government. When it affected cats and pigs, we were assured that people could still eat beef without risk. When a dozen or so people died, the Health Secretary admitted there might be a connection after all. Consumers all over Europe panicked, the meat business collapsed, British beef, as well as British tallow and British bull semen, were banned on the continent, and Britain was asked to sort out its problem forthwith.

Nothing much was sorted out, but Major thought a good little war might rally the troops of his divided party, so a “war cabinet” was convened. Battle plans were drawn up. The Union Jack was waved on the front pages of tabloid newspapers. The public was informed that yet another Finest Hour was at hand. And for several weeks the British government blocked virtually all EU business, on which a unanimous vote was required. Among other things, Britain obstructed funds to support elections in Bosnia. The “Euro-skeptics” rejoiced, continental Europeans despaired. It was farcical enough reviving Churchill’s ghost for a tiny island off Argentina, but to do so for bull semen and hamburgers was pathetic. This was in June. Europeans are still quarreling about the number of cows to be culled.

Beef is not just any old product. Roast beef—honest, plain, robust—has long been a symbol of British identity, of the honest, plain, robust British spirit. Like “spirit,” identity is something intangible that people seek to defend or invoke, sometimes in a belligerent manner. The type of identity British (or English) nationalists want to defend against Europe might be gleaned from the tabloid press. On St. George’s Day (April 23), for example, the Sun (circulation over 4 million) likened the European Union to St. George’s dragon, which would “devour our national identity.” By signing up to “Brussels,” it said, we, the British, “are signing away our rights, our independence, our freedom, our culture. Everything that has been built up in a thousand years of civilisation is being tossed away.” But in the name of St. George and Winston Churchill, the dragon would be slain: “Let Britain lead the way—as it has done so many times before in Europe’s crisis hours.”

Euro-skeptic politicians make the same case, sometimes in less flowery terms. One of the young pretenders to John Major’s throne, John Redwood MP, also known as “Vulcan” for his resemblance to a humanoid in the TV show Star Trek, began his speech at last year’s Conservative Party Conference by saying: “I am glad I was born British.” His idea of Britishness is of course programmed by his party: it consists of a belief in the absolute sovereignty of Westminster, global free trade, the United Kingdom, and the transatlantic alliance. Labour politicians who believe in sharing sovereignty with the European Union, in constituting Scottish and Welsh parliaments, in regulating markets, and in less dependence on the special relationship with the US are at best not really British, at worst traitors, for, as Redwood put it: “They will be giving away our country.”3

Bill Cash, also known as “Crash” for being a crashing bore on the subject of “Europe,” is a walking advertisement for the British identity: a tall man with a wavy head of hair and a taste for loud pinstriped suits, stripey shirts, and wide shining banker’s ties. His message is much like Redwood’s. Both men say they want Britain to stay inside the European Union, but only if the Union were to be a free-trade association of sovereign states, the balance of whose powers would be maintained by Britain. Since this is unlikely to happen, many suspect they actually would prefer to see Britain leave the Union.

What, then, is a nice half-Jewish businessman of dual nationality like Sir James Goldsmith doing with these pinstriped defenders of free trade and national identity? How did a borderless takeover artist, a jet-setting ladies’ man with families in three different countries, a beneficiary of the global market, become a spokesman for ancestral cultures, protected markets, and rooted family values? Why does this member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg appear to hate the idea of a European federation so? The answers to these questions could tell us a few things, not only about Goldsmith himself, but about Britain, as well as the problems of nationality in Europe today. For the Goldsmith case, and indeed the British one, shows in a dramatic form what is simmering under the surface of all members of the Union.

2.

If the Jews were the truest citizens of the Habsburg Empire, the Goldsmith family could be said to be true Europeans. Like the Rothschilds, the Goldschmidts were a banking family in Frankfurt, with business (and relatives) all over Europe. Sir James’s grandfather, Adolph Goldschmidt, married an English woman, Alice Emma Moses, moved to England, and adopted the airs of an English lord. He bought an estate in Suffolk; collected fine furniture, and played polo. German was only spoken when there were no guests at Cavenham Hall.4

Sir James’s father, Frank, changed the name to Goldsmith and ran for a London County Council seat in 1904, against George Bernard Shaw. He won. Shaw announced that “beauty had beaten brains”—a bit of an obsession with Shaw. Frank proceeded to do everything by the book: commission in a good regiment, seat on Westminster City Council, Free Masonry, Justice of the Peace, the right clubs in Pall Mall, friendships with the right people, including Winston Churchill, F.E. Smith, and Sir Edward Carson, the prosecutor who put Oscar Wilde away. Then, in 1914, his carefully constructed world came tumbling down. His sin was to have had a German—not Jewish—background, at a time when the Hun was the demonic enemy. Frank Goldsmith MP, the popular clubman, was suspected of being “pro-German.” There were riots against him in his constituency. His army commission was under threat. Some of his friends stuck by him but others shunned him at his club.

Frank still served as a major in the British army. In 1917, he marched into Jerusalem with General Allenby (and with my grandfather, a lowly stretcher-bearer named Schlesinger, who did not appear to have suffered from the anti-German hysteria, and remained a devoted British patriot all his life). But as soon as the war was over, Frank moved to France, where he married a French Catholic woman and became a successful hotelier, addressed as Monsieur le Major. Frank’s experience deeply hurt his old Anglophile father Adolph, who died in 1918, and would continue to haunt his youngest son, Jimmy.

Sir James’s relationship with upperclass England has always been a complicated mixture of ambition, paranoia, and rebellion. Like his friend Alan Clark,5 he is in the upper class, but not of it. The desire to avenge his father would seem to be as strong as his wish to be placed among the toffs. He has taken a singular delight in besting upper-class Englishmen in the City and at the gambling tables, and charming their wives and daughters. He named his first food company Cavenham Foods, after grandfather Adolph’s Suffolk estate. And he ran around with some of the gamier members of London society: Lord Lucan, the man who disappeared after braining his children’s nanny, mistaking her for his wife, was a crony. So is the casino owner and private zookeeper John Aspinall, or “Aspers,” who is running as a candidate for Goldsmith’s party.

The British establishment has always been deft at using talented outsiders, in exchange for titles, decorations, and other tokens of official flattery. While enriching himself, Goldsmith did not mind being used; a steady flow of cash has for years found its way into mostly Conservative coffers. He received his knighthood for “services to export and ecology” from Harold Wilson, a Labour prime minster, which might seem odd, but like Mrs. Thatcher Wilson rather favored talented outsiders and financial buccaneers. Still, fancy titles and lavish parties don’t automatically make one an insider at the great British clubs, and Wilson’s so-called “lavender list” was tainted anyway. Like some others on it, Goldsmith could never shake off a reputation for being a bit loose, a bit pushy, a bit too, well, how should one put this…rootlessly cosmopolitan, shall we say?

  1. 1

    Sir James Goldsmith, The Trap (Carroll and Graf, 1994), p. 178.

  2. 2

    Forsyth, “Will I Too Have to Fight the Germans,” in The Sunday Telegraph, December 17, 1995.

  3. 3

    How to Exert Real Influence,” a speech given by the Rt. Hon. John Redwood in Blackpool, October 10, 1995.

  4. 4

    These biographical details are all from Geoffrey Wansell’s authorized biography, entitled Tycoon: The Life of Sir James Goldsmith (Atheneum, 1987).

  5. 5

    See “Action Anglaise,” The New York Review, October 20, 1994.

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