The dark spectre haunting West Sussex

Once the far right was confined to the inner cities. Now they turn up in the most surprising places

Nick Cohen
Sunday January 27, 2008
The Observer

Nothing happens in Upper Beeding, David Coldwell, editor of the village newsletter, used to complain. The ‘mooted bus shelter in the high street’ had been delayed by the planning process, along with the refurbishment of the village playground. As for his proposal to put up signs pointing visitors to the shops in Hyde Square, West Sussex County Council was so shocked by their radicalism it threw them out.

Until now, the most newsworthy event was the annual boat race in which well-lubricated contestants paddled down the River Adur to Shoreham-by-Sea in adapted baths, while being pelted from the banks with flour bombs, eggs and anything else that came to hand. Although it occasionally got out of hand, the jolly competition only reinforced Upper Beeding’s charming image.

‘The wheels turn slowly, but they do turn!’ Coldwell cried as he explained the sluggish pace of progress, but I wonder if he believed it. Upper Beeding seemed to fit a sentimental ideal of an English village where nothing changes.

Supplies of charm ran out just before Christmas when 23 villagers marched from the pub to the parish buildings to demand that a member of a neo-fascist party be put on the council.

‘I never realised the speed with which neighbours can turn,’ Simon Birnstingl, a gardener who sits on the council, told me. ‘One minute, we were discussing how to get the swings fixed, the next a crowd burst in calling for me to be barred from the meeting. I’ve learnt to toughen up. I look at politicians when they’re in trouble and feel sympathy now. Gordon Brown must go through the struggle I’m going through every day, so I am determined to see it through.’

However absurd it sounds to talk about an anti-fascist struggle in Upper Beeding, that is what he’s facing.

It began when he was talking to his wife about villagers who wanted to be co-opted into empty seats on the parish council. She heard the name Donna Bailey and thought something was wrong. She checked and found that Bailey had run twice for the British National Party in district elections.

Birnstingl assumed that once he told the rest of the council their task was to improve Upper Beeding, not divide it on racial lines, that would be the end of Bailey. Not so or, rather, not entirely. After her friends heard what Birnstingl was saying, they stormed into the meeting. Undeterred, the council twice voted not to co-opt Bailey as a member, but only by a majority of one on both occasions.

She has now forced a byelection on 7 February and although two candidates are standing against her, she may have many supporters in the village. Townies will say that they’ve always known that the countryside is full of dangerous fanatics. But it’s clear that not all Bailey’s friends think they are fanatics. They simply can’t see what is wrong with a member of BNP participating in village life.

Bailey put her case best when I tracked her down. She had helped raise funds for the local school for four years, she said. When the Round Table decided to stop supporting the Bath Tub Race because of the ubiquitous worries about health and safety legislation, she intervened to save it. The parish council didn’t make political decisions, but dealt with street lights and playgrounds. Why shouldn’t she be a member?

Many in Upper Beeding agree that being a member of the BNP is like being a member of the Liberal Democrats, a choice that has no effect on personal standing or moral worth. If she’s a help at the school, her politics don’t matter.

The same view can be found across the country, although how deeply it is held is impossible to determine. As I said a few weeks ago, the notion that the mass of people are racists, programmed by our imperial past to despise outsiders, has been shattered by the population movements of the past decade. The largest wave of immigration in British history wasn’t accompanied by riots, just grumbles.

But there has been a small but palpable electoral impact. Sean Fear of the website says that the BNP won an average 14.4 per cent of the vote in the 38 council byelections it fought between May and November and polled higher than 20 per cent in 10. This was a far better performance than the National Front managed in the Seventies and way above the average vote the Greens or Ukip win today. Like most other analysts, he expects that proportional representation will bring the BNP seats on the London Assembly in May.

The far right is as crippled by sectarian hatreds as the far left. The backstabbing of its leaders and rank incompetence of its councillors would make all but the most committed neo-Nazi despair. Nevertheless, significant minorities are prepared to vote BNP, even in districts with few or no immigrants. There are those, like Donna Bailey’s neighbours, who think there’s nothing wrong with being a BNP activist.

Gerry Gable, of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, told me theirs was a hard attitude to confront. The press and BNP rivals like to seize on the criminal convictions of BNP leaders or chronicle its splits and purges. Less easy to document is what happens when far right views become normal in a pub or social club. Are there more racial attacks by whites and blacks and Asians? Do blacks and Asians attack whites? No one can say for sure.

In Upper Beeding, Donna Bailey’s candidature is being opposed by Joyce Shaw, a former stalwart of the parish council, who’s come out of retirement, and Becki Davoudi, who has an Iranian father, and, like the Asian family who have revived the village shop, has good reason to oppose the far right. What they’re fighting is nothing as concrete as a political programme or the certainty of violence, but something vaguer: a chilling of the atmosphere, a potential for disgrace.

‘When I take my children to school, there are people who used to smile and say “hello”, who now give me hostile looks,’ said Simon Birnstingl. ‘They don’t realise that we’re trying to stop this village falling into disrepute.’