June 15, 2007

We must all share shame at BNP's joy

A West market town became the first to see the race war close up this week, but those involved should be ashamed of themselves, according to Wiltshire reporter Tristan Cork

On another balmy June evening in another West Country market town, you might have thought it was carnival time. Drummers, singing, people dressed up, the police stopping the traffic and flags a-waving.But there was tension in the air, abuse and vitriol, and the smiling faces barely hid the grimaces of hatred flying across Corsham High Street.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of writing my first ever report in a local newspaper in Wiltshire, and in the decades since I have never experienced anything quite like the hours leading up to a town council meeting in Corsham this week. I have never seen, or heard, anything like it in this normally peaceful, picturesque part of the West. In Corsham? If I hadn't been there to see it, I wouldn't have believed it.

How did this happen? How did a race war you'd normally find in Bradford or Brick Lane, in London's East End, come to sleepy Corsham? And in one phrase we have the heart of the matter - 'sleepy Corsham'.

For in Corsham, like the sleepy market towns right across our region, many people who put their names forward to be councillors just walked right into the position without doing anything other than writing their name.

It's not just Corsham, it's everywhere. Let's take, purely for argument's sake, South Somerset. Of the 95 parish and town councils that held elections last month, 74 actually didn't. Now although most of them are little parish councils where things are done much like they are on the Vicar of Dibley, there were many market towns in that list of shame: The likes of Wincanton, Castle Cary and Ilchester, for instance.

All of these councils did not have enough people standing to have the need for an election. Many of them, perhaps most, still had spaces, and chairmen and clerks are now spending the summer months cajoling the local shopkeeper, WI leader or vicar to join them to make up the numbers.

It's a pretty sorry state of affairs. I'm not going to comment on the BNP, their policies, their overt discrimination - people who aren't deemed by them to be British enough can't take up full membership even if they wanted to - or their followers. But if they were just twice as organised, well supported and clued up as they are now, it isn't difficult to imagine how they could have a seat or three on town and parish councils across the West by now.

Obviously the 350 demonstrators shouting and bawling at the 25 Union Flag-waving young men in Corsham don't like the BNP, and don't think a political party like theirs should be able to be anywhere near anything approaching political power.

But none of this would have happened had any one of those chanting demonstrators had the slightest bit of interest in the town council elections that took place in their community in early May.

Corsham may be sleepy, but it appears its people, like people from Wincanton to Stow on the Wold, are sleepwalking. They may be passionate about protesting in Corsham, but where was their passion for town hall democracy when it actually mattered?

The protest is too much, too late. I would imagine almost all the people demonstrating - the ones from Corsham at least - would struggle to name any of their town councillors anyway, let alone whether any of them are from political parties they might not like.

In fact, it's not the done thing to be party political on Corsham Town Council, so the chances are Councillor Mick Simpkins will never get to spout the BNP's views on immigration at a meeting of the finance and general purposes committee, or maybe the Summer Fete working group, even if he wanted to.

I'm not sure the BNP has a policy on the imposition of unpopular parking charges by North Wiltshire District Council in market towns like Corsham. But Mick Simpkins - irrespective of his odd views on the inclusion of Islam as a world religion in the national curriculum's RE syllabus - probably has a personal view, and one that now, given that he put his name forward, he is entitled to provide.

The fact is that he stood for election in the Rudloe ward, and no one else did. Those hollering demonstrators from Corsham should actually be ashamed of themselves for their apathy, and should have quietly slunk away vowing to get involved in the community politics of their town so that there wouldn't be a next time.

They might be entitled to stand up to declare that Corsham isn't the kind of racist, intolerant town people might think it is for having a BNP councillor, but they are quite wrong to try to pressure a democratically non-elected councillor to stand down.

The campaign organiser grandly announced at the end of this week's demo that they would be holding some kind of alternative election: As if Mick Simpkins had got in sneakily, somehow unfairly, that these good demonstrators had been somehow denied the right to vote against him and as if someone else was to blame. The irony and hypocrisy of this was lost on the crowd. They had their chance and they couldn't be bothered to even realise.

People queue for days just to exercise their right to vote across Africa and Asia. People put their lives on the line from Colombia to Iraq to stand for election, and many die for it.

It was Edmund Burke, the brilliant MP for Bristol, who apparently said 230 years ago that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. He must be turning in his grave at our apathy.

Western Daily Press

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