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BRITAIN HAS just chosen a new prime minister, John Major, whose father was a vaudeville performer and who says he wants to see a "classless society" based upon merit. Thus, it comes as a shock that his Conservative Party is embroiled in a controversy over the selection of a black person as a candidate for Parliament.

Major, however, is backing the man's candidacy and speaking out firmly for racial equality.

The black candidate, John Taylor, 38, was one of 254 people being considered for the post by a 22-member selection committee in Cheltenham, a town about 100 miles west of London. The all-white committee did not know Taylor was black until he arrived for an interview, but they were so impressed with his qualifications that he became their overwhelming choice.

Not everyone agreed, however. Some district party members immediately began moves to reopen the selection process. One of the group, Bill Galbraith, objected vociferously to the choice. He has clung to his position and admitted saying that "we should not let bloody niggers into this town."

His frank racism is shocking. But it is to Britain's credit that a national furor quickly followed the revelations of his group's intolerance.

Cheltenham is a gracious, historic old town that was fashionable as a spa in Georgian times. King George III took the royal princesses there in the 18th century.

Today, it has a Conservative member of Parliament, with a comfortable majority, who is not running for re-election. Fewer than 100 black people live there. If elected, Taylor would be the party's first black member of Parliament.

The bigoted Galbraith soon faced a withering fire of condemnation from Conservative Party leaders. The prime minister said the racial slurs were "not sentiments that have any place in our party." Locally, Cheltenham's Conservative mayor called on anyone unwilling to accept Taylor's candidacy to resign from the party.

The tabloid Sun, Britain's most-read newspaper, was right, however, in identifying the "stench of racism" -- as ugly in England as anywhere else.

Britain is moving toward a society that is based not on old aristocratic traditions but on talent and individual initiative. The choice of Taylor shows its progress.

But the quick surfacing of a party official who seems to have had no shame about making blatant racist statements indicates the goal hasn't been fully reached.

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