Paul Vallely: A glimpse into the dark recesses of Middle England

The only time they ever talk about trial by jury is when the choral society does Gilbert and Sullivan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was as preposterous as if the newsreader had said Cheltenham or Harrogate. There had been, the report on the radio said at the end of a quiet Sunday afternoon, a violent demonstration against the British National Party in Altrincham. It was, in our household at any rate, one of those moments when you catch yourself doing a double-take. In where? In Altrincham?

Altrincham is the next leafy suburb up the road from where I live. Only it's much posher. It's a nonpareil of English middle-class affluence. A market town with a charter dating back to 1290, its streets are dotted with upmarket boutiques, shops and French restaurants, one of them with a Michelin star. It has a twice-weekly market whose 180 stalls have a reputation for specialist food products, particularly fish, game and cheeses. On Thursdays it does antiques. There is a farmers' market on the first Friday of every month. The place has not one golf course but five.

OK, so it's not quite what it was since the ghastly behemoth of the Trafford Centre opened a few miles down the motorway. Some of Altrincham's more exclusive shops transferred their business there to benefit from the gravitational pull of Selfridge's food hall and all the other delights of designer shopping on a massive mall scale. In their place, Altrincham now has a few more charity shops and even, heaven forfend, an everything-for-£1 shop.

Even so, with its run of Waterstones, Next, and Marks & Spencer outlets, the place could hardly be mistaken for anywhere other than solid Middle England. It has some of the most expensive houses in Cheshire and boasts the best schooling in south Manchester, in both independent and grammar school sectors. The only time they ever talk about trial by jury in this part of the world is when the Altrincham Choral Society does Gilbert and Sullivan (the next concert of favourite choruses is on Saturday 19 July at 7.30pm).

Now it may be that the local Cresta Court Hotel just happened to be the only venue in the area where the BNP could book a decent-sized room in which to welcome their weekend guest of honour, the French nationalist extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. No doubt the worthy burghers of the town would point out that the BNP got just 149 votes, less than 1 per cent of those cast in the 1999 European elections - though it is interesting to note that the parliamentary constituency of Altrincham & Sale West is top of the list of what the BNP on its website calls the battlegrounds for its European Election campaign in the North West Euro-Constituency in the next few weeks.

But, be warned, Altrincham is as much a metaphor as a place in these matters. The cliché which comes to mind when most people think of areas likely to support the extreme-right racists of the BNP is one of those sink estates, perhaps in the former mill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire - an inner city area of what was once the white working class, now alienated from employment and social engagement, high on drugs and discontent. The kind of place where half the terraced houses are boarded up, or demolished, or which carry For Sale signs with the plaintive sub-heading "Best offer" revealing occupants trapped in negative equity by property prices plummeting in contrast with the rest of the nation.

There are such places, in Burnley and Oldham and other areas that were torn by race riots a couple of years back. And the BNP does well there. But there is something else.

At the last local elections in Halifax the BNP came within 100 votes of knocking one of the town's most respected Tories from the council in the semi-detached suburban white fastness of Northowram. In Calderdale in the coming elections the party is contesting 22 seats, including the affluent middle-class area of Warley. In Burnley, where one in 10 people in the town voted BNP, one of the places the extremists did best was Worsthorne. It is an ivy-clad village on the outskirts of the town, which looks to outside eyes an English idyll with its village green, gothic church and clematis-creepered pubs and cottages.

Political scientists may talk of poujadisme, after the right-wing populist movement of shopkeepers and other small businessmen led by Pierre Poujade in the last years of the French Fourth Republic. And, true, there are some poujadiste economic and social grievances. The locals in Worsthorne talk about how they couldn't get the council to put new litterbins in the village while the "Pakis" in the town centre got millions in government grants. Which is not, of course, quite how Burnley's Asian population see things.

All this is a window through which a light shines into the dark recesses of the British soul. Ron Atkinson did something similar last week, uncovering the lingering attitudes of an older generation when racism was commonplace and more socially acceptable. The trouble with the BNP is that it reveals among us a younger generation that is willing to embrace hatred out of choice rather than from inherited prejudice. Which is a lot more worrying. Altrincham, it turns out, is a lot nearer than we like to think.