LONDON — Like Ross Perot, Sir James Goldsmith is mobilizing his personal millions to push the politics of a nation in the direction he wants it to go.
He wants Britain to distance itself from the rest of Europe, and judging by the size and tone of the first rally of his Referendum Party (RP), the Anglo-French tycoon is succeeding in his aim.
Buoyed by the attendance of 4,200 delegates at the English seaside town of Brighton on Saturday, Sir James says he is opening ten regional offices over the next four weeks, all dedicated to a single aim: to force the government to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union (EU).
Claiming that the RP has the support of a majority of Britons concerning such a referendum, Sir James says he will stage a series of regional rallies in the runup to the general election, now expected to be held May 1, 1997.
"We are planning a recruiting drive and hope to fight the election with 400,000 paid-up members," says one of Sir James's aides. RP members currently number around 50,000.
Sir James told the rally that Britain was "being led blindfold into a federal superstate."
'Like an iceberg'
A head count by journalists covering the Brighton rally indicated that most of those attending were disaffected members of the ruling Conservative Party. Most were middle-aged and financially well off. Sunday's Observer newspaper commented: "A huge chunk of the Conservative Party has broken off like an iceberg and is now adrift in British politics."
Senior government ministers over the weekend refused to comment on the RP rally and its claim to represent, as Sir James has said, "the true feelings of Britain about Europe."
Prime Minister John Major in the past has called the RP a "fringe organization" that would attract few votes in a general election. But after last weekend's rally there were signs of a reassessment. One official at Conservative Party headquarters said the large numbers attracted to the RP rally were "a cause for worry."
The main concern centers on Sir James's intention to run RP general election candidates for up to 600 seats. The House of Commons currently has 651 members. The RP will concentrate on affecting the outcome in constituencies where sitting members have a slender majority and have refused to call for a referendum on relations with the EU and British membership of a single European currency.
Christopher Monckton, a former member of Mr. Major's policy unit, notes that the RP is attracting 71 percent of its support from former Conservative voters.
Using a fortune
The billionaire businessman who is spending 20 million ($31 million) of his personal fortune in a bid to distance Britain from the EU gained a reputation in the 1970s and early 1980s as a highly successful international corporate raider.
Prime Minister Major in attacks on Sir James has accused him of being a "single-issue politician" and has called on him to say what question he wants British voters to be asked if he succeeds in forcing a referendum on Europe.
So far Sir James has refused to oblige. Instead, he has been running double-page advertisements in British national newspapers, attacking the EU and urging voters to support his cause and sign up as members of the RP.
Last week he challenged EU Commission president Jacques Santer to debate with him about Britain's place in Europe. But Mr. Santer rejected the call, saying "I am not at the beck and call of billionaire Goldsmith."
Sir James may not be persuading the likes of Santer that he has a point, but in Britain there are signs that the argument is moving his way.
An editorial Monday in the London Times said the RP's Brighton rally included "reasoned and intelligent debate on the real dangers of further European integration."