Election '97: Faithful hear gospel of Sir James

Prayers, song and dance enliven Referendum Party rally
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Revivalist fervour was in the air at the Referendum Party's rally at Alexandra Palace yesterday. Replete with gospel music, moving testimonials from recent converts, dancing in the aisles, and prayers, the family service marking the Third Sunday before Election attracted a congregation of 10,000.

The high priest was, of course, Sir James Goldsmith. But it was the visiting preacher, Reverend George Hargreaves, who rallied the "rabble army" to its feet. "I wanna give you a song," boomed the black preacher. "You know the lyrics, they're very simple. 'Let the people decide.'... Let's sing it out loud. Let's sing it proud... we want our God-given right to decide."

Sir James' wife, Lady Anna-bel, wearing a summery floral print that subtly picked up the venison red in the flag, sang along with her sons Zak and Benjamin - although less comfortably. For the most part, however, it was not a titled occasion. Plain folk from across the country had travelled hundreds of miles in coaches laid on by the Party. Robin Page, television presenter of One Man and His Dog and chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust, was looking every bit the farmer.

He joked: "The odd thing is [the media] say that the Referendum Party is for the rich and famous. Where are you? Stand up. I can't see any fur. I can't see any pearls. Most of you seem to be as rough as I am. Wait till you've seen David Bellamy. He's even rougher."

Besides Mr Bellamy, the ecologist who is standing against John Major, speakers included Lord McAlpine, former Tory party treasurer, zoo owner John Aspinall, actor Edward Fox and the titled Sir George Gardiner, right- wing Tory deselected by Reigate Tories. They spoke of the birthright of Britons, of "the silent leaching of our ancient liberties," the nation's capacity for "instant arousal and cohesion when faced by a naked threat."

International television broadcast the event around the world. The degree of coverage at home however, was unlikely to match it. As Mr Page said bitterly: "I'll find out whether it is a Referendum Party rally at 6 o'clock. I'll see if there's any mention of this in the news. If we're not on, I'll know it's a Referendum Party rally."

By the end of the afternoon, everyone present was fired up by Sir James. All but the media. Edwin Roth, who works for Radio Uno, in Austria, said the "rampant, xenophobic populism" brought to mind The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Goethe. He said: "Oh, Master, I'm in terrible trouble because the genies I called I can't get rid of. The most appalling populist show ever seen in London."

Sir James blessed the party faithful and then went walkabout, Pope-in- St-Peter's-Square style. Mingling with his flock to the soundtrack of The Mission, the billionaire financier embraced his "friends". Some reached out to touch him, others thrust out service sheets in the hope of a signature. Yet more held their cameras aloft, in an effort to capture the historic moment on film.