Jenny Johnston, Daily Mail (London), February 4, 2008
What community wouldn’t be proud to have a Donna Bailey in its midst?
Committed to civic improvement, she’s just as determined to mend broken swings in the park as she is to stop teenagers hanging around the local corner shop in the evenings.
Such is the message coming from the fellow mothers huddled in the park in question, a sorely neglected corner of the quaint West Sussex village of Upper Beeding.
The mums here call Donna—a warm, blue-eyed beautician, who offers facials at very reasonable rates—one of their own, which in itself is something of an accolade.
They tell you that Upper Beeding is actually the sort of place where you are an outsider until your family has lived here for three generations.
Donna, 41, however, has been brought into the fold in an astonishing four years, since moving here with her three children to start a new life after a painful divorce.
“She’s a marvellous person. She’s just thrown herself-into helping the community, and there aren’t a lot of people like that around these days,” explains Lorraine Blain, 38, who runs the local pub.
“She raised money for the school, helping them buy laptops, and she’s forever talking about how we’ve got to do something for the youngsters, to stop them loitering at the local convenience store every night.”
No surprises then that her fellow mums supported Donna when she told them she was thinking of standing for the parish council.
Indeed, her being appointed seemed assured, given that at most meetings she was the only one of the public who deigned to turn up to watch the proceedings.
That was, however, until a startling discovery was made by existing members of the parish council. A little bit of internet research—carried out, it seems, more through curiosity than anything else—revealed that nice blonde, friendly, efficient Donna was, in fact, a member of the British National Party, and a very active member at that.
On two previous occasions she had stood, unsuccessfully, as a district councillor in neighbouring areas, representing a party that many on the parish council—indeed the country at large—regard as, at best, racist and unsavoury and, at worst, downright dangerous.
So was this really the sort of woman the village wanted at its core? The councillors thought not, and voted to reject her application.
Then something rather unexpected—some say, worrying—happened. Donna’s friends got to hear of the matter, and were outraged.
She asked some of them to come with her to the next parish council meeting, and voice their objections.
So they did. One night just before Christmas, some 23 of them marched into the meeting, where Donna demanded another vote. They got their wish, but her application was rejected once more.
By this time, Donna and her supporters were furious. Upper Beeding had never seen anything quite like it. Abusive posters had already appeared on lampposts—likening Donna to a Nazi sympathiser.
Insults were thrown, some in the street; friendships of many years destroyed. The whole village was in uproar.
And the upshot? Donna is still demanding her place on the parish council, and has forced a by-election for the seat. Now, two opponents have emerged—desperate to keep her, and all she represents, out.
On Thursday next week, villagers go to the polls for a parish election—something that has not happened since 1974.
The mums in the park will roll their eyes and tell you that this is nothing to do with the BNP, and that they are rooting for Donna simply because they want a new swing and, one day, maybe a youth club.
Yet her opponents say that their lovely little village is on the verge of being infiltrated by the darkest force of all.
“Can’t they see what is going on here,” says the parish council’s deputy chairman Simon Birnstingl, admitting that he is afraid of how the vote will go.
“You give the BNP a toehold in a place like this today—and what happens tomorrow?”
Democracy will decide this particular political hot potato in Upper Beeding. But we should all be watching. Because next week there might be a Donna Bailey in your street, and will you want her there?
Somehow it is shocking that Donna Bailey has peach walls in her living room. “What did you expect? Swastikas and skinheads?” she jokes, as she makes coffee.
“I think you’ll find I’m quite normal really.”
And she is. She is pretty and funny and helpful and bright. Her critics would say this is what makes her more dangerous than any bile-spouting National Front lout.
She describes how she got involved with the BNP in the same breezy manner that she tells me about the rest of her life.
She was born in East London, she says. Working-class parents. Dad was a bus driver, Mum a cleaner in an old people’s home. She isn’t sure, but they were “probably” Labour supporters.
She left home to go to university, studying German and business, then worked in retail, at one time as a buyer for Debenhams in the Midlands.
She had three children, but split up from their father and moved south, settling in the “idyllic, lovely” Upper Beeding, where she retrained as a beauty therapist “so I could spend more time with the kids, really”.
So, Donna, how do we get to the point where you are a card-carrying member of the BNP?
“It’s quite simple really,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in politics. I like to watch the news and keep on top of things. I like to get involved in local things, too.”
Her first port of call was the Tory Party. Upper Beeding is a true-blue sort of place, and Donna certainly felt at home there. “But I had a look on the website and, you know, it just didn’t talk to me.
“I wasn’t particularly impressed by Cameron, and I really objected to the Tories’ policy on Europe.
“So then I looked at the BNP website.” Hang on a minute. You leapt straight from the Tories to the BNP, just like that?
“Yes. Well, actually, it was the Europe thing that did it. All the other parties want us to be part of Europe, and I think it is only a matter of time before Europe is a superstate, and I object to that.
“Oh, of course I had the same preconceptions. I thought probably exactly the same of the BNP as you do. I thought, if this is all racist, offensive stuff then I am switching right off.
“But it wasn’t. It was all perfectly sensible. I found myself agreeing with everything—especially the immigration stuff.”
Now this is curious. There is no immigration “issue” in Upper Beeding. There seem to be only three families from ethnic minorities—one Asian family run the local shop, another the Chinese takeaway, and a third the Indian restaurant.
Yet Donna is concerned about “what might happen, in the future”.
“There isn’t a problem here, but if you go a bit further into West Sussex you start to see problems. I was in Tesco the other day and I heard lots of different languages. Not just one or two.”
This is a problem? “Yes. I think people should come here and speak English. That isn’t racist. It’s common sense. I think the same about Brits who go over to Spain to live. They shouldn’t be allowed to open fish and chip shops there. It is offensive.”
She says that “of course” she wouldn’t want to send any of the local Asian families back to their country of origin, but that repatriation is a jolly good idea.
“On a voluntary basis, of course. We aren’t going to force anyone out.”
So, her story goes, she found herself popping along for BNP meetings, discovering that the others there were “quite normal too”, and somewhere along the way she convinced herself that there was nothing remotely dangerous or sinister about the party.
“It’s just the bad press,” she insists. At one point, I refer to the BNP as a party to the extreme Right and she disagrees. “I don’t think they are to the extreme Right.”
I ask her to name me a party that is further to the Right. She flounders. “Well, oh, I don’t know. I don’t know the names of them but there are some. Maybe that Combat 18. Now they are extreme.2
What about the much-publicised fact that BNP leader Nick Griffin was filmed making overtly racist remarks, rather supporting the view that the BNP’s attempts to remodel itself as an acceptable political party is nothing more than a sham?
Her response is slick, and wellpractised.
“Obviously mistakes have been made in the past, but the party has apologised for these, and moved on. That is in the past as far as I am concerned, and a part of taking the party on is about the new membership. It’s like New Labour and Old Labour. Completely different.”
And that new membership would mean you, and people like you?
“Oh yes. You’d be amazed if you went to one of our meetings. It’s all people like me.”
While Donna makes no secret of the fact that she is ambitious—when I ask her how far she would like to go up the political ladder, she says, “MP, maybe”—she is adamant that her political views should not be a bar to a place on the parish council.
“I didn’t offer myself up as a member of the BNP, so it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Actually, I think they are discriminating against me by making it an issue.
“I’m not asking people out there to agree with my politics. If I win are people going to look at the new swing and say ‘that’s a BNP swing’? Of course they aren’t.”
But once you’ve said those three words, British National Party, there is no going back. And yet she’s in an odd position here.
Every friend or supporter of Donna’s that I meet is keen to tell me that “this isn’t about the BNP” rather than accept that they are publicly backing a BNP candidate.
The consensus here is that they love Donna in spite of her politics, rather than because of them. But can such a line really be drawn? How can you divorce the personal from the political? And doesn’t someone’s political beliefs speak volumes about the sort of person they are?
Her neighbour, James Palmer, is one of those who thinks so. It seems a bit surreal that I only have to hop next door after speaking to Donna to find someone who hates everything she represents.
Intriguingly, James and his wife were once good friends of Donna and her second husband Peter (whom she met after she came to the village and who works in the public sector).
“When we moved in she came round with tea and biscuits, and we thought we’d landed on our feet with lovely new neighbours,” says James. One day, however, Donna was in the Palmer house and all the normal neighbour stuff ended.
“We were having a cup of tea and a chat and she said, quite casually: ‘Oh, we’re getting quite political in our house.’ I said: ‘Why’s that?’ And she replied: ‘I’ve joined the BNP.’
“Well, I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything to say but: ‘I would like you to leave my house now, please.’ Donna wanted to talk about it, but to be honest I couldn’t stomach it. She went. Then I just sat there in stunned silence.”
Now he calls himself “Neighbour of the Beast”—tongue-in-cheek, granted, but he means it.
“I tried to understand. I went on the website and had a look at their policies but still, it disgusted me. My sister-in-law is Asian. If the BNP had their way she wouldn’t be in this country, and I can’t abide that.
“Yes, OK, when you look at the website, it all sounds plausible, but it is thinly-veiled racism, and I don’t think there should be a place for it in a village like this.”
He, too, questions how Donna can say that she would not use her position on the parish council for political gain.
“I know Donna and I honestly don’t think she has the best interests of the village at heart. She says she won’t use her position to promote her party, but I simply don’t believe that.”
So does he believe her very presence in this village is some sort of BNP plot?
“I have no idea, but that is what you worry about, isn’t it?”
It is a worry that is keeping Simon Birnstingl awake. As the council member who was most vociferously opposed to her application, he is very personally involved here.
Hhe made a passionate appeal for his fellow councillors to reject her, using his own emotive personal history as part of his argument.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have done that—and I had to abstain from the second vote because of it—but I told them that members of my family had been victims of the Holocaust.
The prospect of those cattle wagons is a very real one to me.
“I really have no idea if there is some organised BNP push here, but that’s what I am worried about. They are all about sanitising and making acceptable a very unpalatable set of ideals.”
Donna’s supporters scoff. “Dangerous? Donna? Of course not,” says Lorraine Blain down at the local pub, laughing at such a preposterous notion. “She’s just a mum like me who cares about what happens in this village.”
And this perhaps is the most terrifying part of all. Simon Birnstingl believes that real disenchantment with Westminster politics has brought the village to this point.
He says many locals are so far removed from the political process—and Westminster politicians so illinformed about what is actually happening in places like this—that parties like the BNP are being allowed to make themselves acceptable.
“There are real issues that are not being addressed, and people are just switching off. I think it is horrific that a lot of people just shrug when you say BNP. They honestly don’t care.”
And they don’t. I talk to Jo Horsby, a 28-year-old air hostess who plans to vote for Donna on Thursday. “If you are successful, won’t you have effectively given the BNP a vote of confidence?” I ask.
“Oh I stay out of the politics. It hasn’t got anything to do with me,” she says.
In truth, she hadn’t even heard the name BNP before all this fuss, and now it seems that what she has heard has come from Donna.
“The thing is I think Donna will do her best for the village. She has kids of her own. She cares about what happens here. And if we want the teenagers off the streets, she’s our best hope.”
So there you have it. If Donna wins on Thursday, Upper Beeding might well get its new toddler swing. But will the price be worth paying?
That is a whole new question.