Why one man's beef is good for us all

James Goldsmith's call for a referendum on Europe highlights the gap between people and politicians
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Why is Sir James Goldsmith like a mad cow? The answer is that both are pushing the argument about European integration out of the Tory party and into the consciousness of the nation as a whole. The anti-Conservative referendum campaign and popular anger over the beef ban are breaking open Eurosceptic politics. From now on, they represent something that will have to be resolved by the people, rather than simply by the government whips' office.

This is good news, though it may not feel that way for many decent, pro- European politicians. The beef industry, like the plight of the British fishing fleet, is one of those issues that generally has negative chattering class appeal. Among the metropolitan political elite it is a low-interest subject: it can leap briefly to the top of the political agenda when a public health disaster seems possible, but then it sinks away. It has none of the perennial interest of, say, John Major's relations with Kenneth Clarke.

Away from Westminster, however, it looms very large indeed. It interests people and affects them in a basic way. It is just the sort of issue that, coming at a critical moment, can change national perceptions about politics.

Dissident politicians can bang on for ever about Maastricht, or the sovereignty of Parliament or the Single European Act, and fail to stir the vast uninterest of middle Britain. But beef bans and the possibility of retaliation against French apples, or wine, or whatever, rouses instant attention. It twists the lion's tail. It raises old, half-dead devils.

In some ways this is regrettable. It smacks of populism and illogic. Should we really be blaming European commissioners, rather than our own standards on the use of animal feed and pesticides, for what happened to beef farms? The Common Fisheries Policy has damaged the interests of trawler crews and coastal towns around Britain; but the shortage of Atlantic and North Sea fish has more to do with a technology that has grown too good for its own good.

Yet our national fright when the BSE story first broke has been quickly replaced by national outrage at the European ban that followed it. A public health story has jumped the journalistic species-barrier to become a story about European integration. It is as if our emotional reaction to the fear of brain-rotting meat has been transferred. Though this was a nightmare hatched at home, already the blame has been shifted, and the direction of the shift is significant.

Nor is the shift occurring only on the right of politics. Hear the Oxford councillor John Power, a Labour man, on the need for the town to suspend its twinning links with Bonn, Leiden and Grenoble, as reported by Oxford's student paper: ``The destruction of our beef industry is being carried out with malice by our so-called European partners. So what is the point of our country pledging peace, friendship and co-operation with these cities?'' I cite this not to single Mr Power out for mockery - though he deserves to be mocked - but because he says what many think.

If post-war European politics has been about trying to outgrow mankind's old habit of blaming the strange-vowelled folk next door for local failures, then all this stuff about beef and fish is mere regression. For nearly half a century, smooth politicians and diplomats have been trying to calm this savage spirit.

But the island tribes have their truth, too. In this case, if the proposal is that authority should be passed to a supranational level, in order to achieve greater prosperity, but without a difficult democratic argument first, then Britain may be the first country to say no. But we will not be the last.

Enter Sir James Goldsmith, stage right, ice-blue eyes alight, demanding a referendum on ``who governs Britain?'' He don't want to fight, but, by jingo, if he do, he has the men, he has the pounds 20m and he has the manifesto, too.

Except, of course, that he does want to fight. Having had the opportunity to talk and argue with him about free trade, I have no illusions about his capacity. Mocked, feared and reviled by some, he is a man of huge energy and serious intelligence. Like many business tycoons, it is not a reflective intelligence, but a focused, passionate one. His mind is less a library than an armoury - a gleaming fact-bunker, bang up to date and stocked for offensive operations.

He seems determined to help split the Tory party and grab his place in history as someone who forced the European issue into the forefront of a general election. As a protectionist and an environmentalist, he makes odd company for almost all the Tory right. Government ministers splutter incoherently about the outrage of Sir James as a rich man trying to buy his way into a political argument. So, they are against opinionated billionaires all of a sudden? What about the guys who fund their party and their careers?

Sir James, meanwhile, is lucky in his timing: the Government is flailing desperately and under terrible internal pressure from its dissident nationalists. Their would-be leader, John Redwood, is to talk about a referendum with Goldsmith. The Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, is already being vindicated in his misgivings about the ratchet-effect of conceding a limited referendum (on the single currency) and then being put under pressure to go further.

But the current ``pro-European'' and ``anti-European'' positions on the referendum question are almost entirely the wrong way round. If the question is asked Goldsmith's way, as a straightforward pro-EU or anti-EU choice, then Britain remains likelier to go for integration than full independence. But then, Sir James was always brilliant-daft.

What of Britain's pro-EU politicians who mostly want to negotiate a new political order for Europe that involves sharing power and decisions while retaining ultimate sovereignty (the right to say no) with the old nations? They have nothing to lose by a referendum - or, indeed, by further referendums in the future. It has been the covert and elitist nature of the EU project that has always been its most offensive aspect. Without an emphatic popular mandate, regularly renewed, these schemes are doomed.

The pro-referendum movement may be misguided in its nationalist optimism, but it deserves support in principle from all good democrats. And in the end, it is no good complaining about populist anger over the beef ban, or the partial destruction of the British fishing industry. Political integration will never eradicate strong local feelings or competition for markets and resources. To treat these as the Old Adam, an ancient European failing which can be healed by directives from commissioners, is a fatal failure of imagination.

Better by far to recognise the beef row as a useful warning of things to come - under any system - and read its message now. If politicians have been shocked by the combination of the referendum campaign and the beef crisis, the shock has been salutary. A politics that forgets the basics - jobs and democracy - is dangerous stuff. Sir James, the reviled outsider, is wrong about many things. But he is right about that.