Anglo-French industrialist, publisher, and politician, described as a ‘corporate buccaneer’, who built up a fortune during the takeover booms of the 1960s and 1980s, and then committed £20 million to pursue a political career by founding the UK Referendum Party in 1995.
Goldsmith was educated in England. He created the Mothercare store concept and Cavenham Foods. He retired from business in the mid-1980s and turned to politics, elected as a member of the European Parliament for France, and in 1997 stood unsuccessfully as a Referendum Party candidate in the 1997 general election in the UK. He was knighted in 1976.
Goldsmith was born in Paris, France. His father, a member of an old Frankfurt banking family, who had moved to England in 1895 and become a member of Parliament before settling in France after World War I, was a grand hotelier. Evacuated to Canada and the Bahamas during World War II, the family returned to France in 1944 and Goldsmith was sent to England to be educated at Eton school (where he was said to have once won £8,000 betting on horseracing).
On leaving the army in 1953 (following National Service as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery), Goldsmith set up a small pharmaceutical company in France which almost went bust, although he bailed out just in time (reputedly saved by a bank strike). In partnership with Iraqi businessman Selim Zilka he then created the future Mothercare concept, only to sell again for lack of capital (rumoured to have been linked to the outcome of a game of backgammon).
During the 1960s he created his Cavenham Foods conglomerate in the UK (and later the French holding company Generale Occidentale) with a series of aggressive takeovers, which included Bovril, Allied Suppliers (known for its Lipton stores), and the Grand Union supermarket chain in the USA. Moving into banking in the early 1970s (with his friend Jim Slater), Goldsmith's food assets saved him from the market collapse and fringe banking crisis of 1974.
He received a great deal of media attention for his audacious financial deals and for his tangled private life. Goldsmith responded aggressively to this, most notably in a libel action against Private Eye magazine in the 1970s. His own news magazine Now!, launched in 1979, closed down after two years. Having taken Cavenham back into private ownership, he went to live in the USA during the 1980s, where he staged a series of leveraged buy outs, which included Diamond International, Crown Zellerbach, and a daring, although unsuccessful, dawn raid on Goodyear Tire.
Goldsmith retired from active business and sold most of his assets just before the October 1987 stockmarket crash – Time magazine called him the ‘lucky gambler’. He turned to politics and was elected as French candidate for the European Parliament in 1994 (for L'Autre Europe, a group opposed to European Union and to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT). Next, he launched the Referendum Party (to force a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union) which fielded over 500 candidates in the April 1997 UK general election. Goldsmith stood unsuccessfully in the constituency of Putney (against the sitting Conservative candidate and former minister David Mellor), losing to the Labour candidate. He died two months later.
Goldsmith, James Michael