LONDON -- The gracious Georgian spa town of Cheltenham, traditionally associated with good manners, gracious ladies, fast horses and retired colonels in Bath chairs, is today the unlikely center of what Britain's most popular newspaper calls the "ugly stench of racism."
The all-white executive committee of the local Conservative Party chose a black candidate to run in the next general election in place of the town's retiring Parliament member.
The 22-strong selection committee did not know the candidate was black until he arrived for his interview, but he so impressed them that he alone won their endorsement.
Barrister John Taylor, 38, outshone 254 other applicants to win the recommendation to the 6,000 members of the town's Conservative Association. The choice of a black to contest the seat was not universally welcomed. A minority of the local party is now actively trying to get the decision reversed.
The British Broadcasting Corp. aired a comment Monday night by one of Mr. Taylor's detractors with the warning that many listeners would find it racially offensive and the explanation that it was being broadcast only to illustrate the nature of the row.
Bill Galbraith, who claims aristocratic lineage and is seeking 50 signatures to force reconsideration of Mr. Taylor's selection, told BBC Bristol: "Why was it we had to select a nigger from Birmingham?"
In another interview, he said, "I would never call anybody a bloody nigger in a public place. I called him that in private, in the heat of the moment."
Prime Minister John Major entered the row, which is being viewed as a test of his commitment to a "classless society" and a "society of opportunity," telling the House of Commons: "The reported remarks are not sentiments that have any place in our party."
Mr. Taylor, a lawyer for 12 years and a legal adviser to six government ministers, has the backing of the Conservative Party Central Office.
"He was selected on merit," said Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten. "I do not think that anybody has any time at all for the rather repellent views of a minority in our society." Mr. Patten also wrote to Mr. Taylor, saying, "I know how much you have done for the party over many years and I well understand why your qualities commended themselves to the Cheltenham Association."
Mr. Taylor would be the first black Conservative member of Parliament if he were to win the Cheltenham seat in the next election, which must be held by summer 1992. The Tory majority at the last election was almost 5,000.
Monica Drinkwater, chairwoman of the Cheltenham Conservative Association, said Mr. Taylor was selected in the normal manner and was the best candidate.
She said that calls for Mr. Galbraith's expulsion from the local association because of his offensive remarks would be considered by the executive committee.
Mr. Taylor said he was not "worried" by the minority reaction to his candidacy, adding, "I have got a job to do. It is a very enjoyable job, and that is getting to know the people of Cheltenham."
The editor of the local Cheltenham newspaper said she had been inundated with letters on the issue that were overwhelmingly supportive of Mr. Taylor.
Anita Syvret of the Gloucestershire Echo told The Baltimore Sun: "This story does not represent the face of Cheltenham as we know it. The image of Cheltenham is of Bath chairs and retired colonels. It is not like that at all."
The Sun, Britain's most-read paper, said in an editorial under the headline "Ugly stench of racism": "Throughout this affair, Mr. Taylor, an able, articulate lawyer, has behaved with total dignity. . . . The Tories would not be merely more popular without bigots like Bill Galbraith. They would also smell infinitely sweeter."