LONDON, DEC. 4 -- Prime Minister John Major, Britain's self-proclaimed apostle of the "open society of opportunity," today found himself embroiled in a nasty and embarrassing controversy over his party's attempt to elect its first black member of Parliament.

Some members of Major's Conservative Party in the small city of Cheltenham about 100 miles northwest of London have rebelled against what they see as the party's attempt to impose a black candidate on their virtually all-white community.

One of them, real estate agent Colin Lear, said: "This man has been bulldozed into the constituency by {the party's} head office, which is determined to have a black man in the House of Commons. I am not against black people, but a lot of people in Cheltenham are, rightly or wrongly."

Another, self-employed publisher Bill Galbraith characterized the candidate, prominent London lawyer John Taylor, with a racial slur.

Lear and Galbraith are among a movement of local members hoping to have Taylor removed as their nominee. But they have run into opposition both from local and national party leaders.

Chris Patten, the new party chairman, called Galbraith's use of the racial epithet "repellent" and said the publisher's views were "held by a minority of our society." Major said in Parliament today that those views "are not sentiments that have any place in our party."

But while the party leadership and its followers among the young, urban elite see Conservatism as a progressive force for social change, away from the capital the party remains a haven for traditionalists who have a different notion of what it represents, some critics contend.

"Just as John Major was relishing his success in putting forward the Tories as the party of a classless Britain, members of the Cheltenham constituency association have succeeded in reviving the impression that the Tories are the party of blimps and bigots," said an editorial in the London Evening Standard .

About 5 percent of Britain's population is categorized as "non-white" -- mostly of Asian, West Indian or African origin. But the Conservatives have never had a member of Parliament from any of these groups; the opposition Labor Party has four black legislators.

The Conservatives have run black candidates before, but always in urban districts where they had no chance against entrenched Labor incumbents. This time they decided to run a black for what is considered a safe seat and chose Cheltenham, a picturesque, Georgian-era city of 86,000 noted as a retirement town.

Unlike in the United States, candidates for Parliament are not required to live in the districts they represent and are chosen by a centralized process in which party head offices in London often seem to have as much or more say than the local members.

The party's central office pushed hard for Taylor, 38, a born-again Christian who has served as a staff member in a half-dozen government offices, most recently as a special adviser on race relations in the cabinet ministry that oversees police matters.

Local party leaders were given Taylor's name and qualifications by staffers at the party's central office, but they did not find out he was black until he appeared for an interview. But members said Taylor, son of a Jamaican-born cricket player, proved charming, personable and articulate and won their backing.

"The color of his skin had nothing to do with it," said local party chairman Marion Drinkwater. "We looked at 250 names. He was picked because of his abilities."

Taylor had a more difficult time last weekend, winning an endorsement by 111 to 83 at a selection meeting at which he was the only candidate proposed.Taylor insists he will weather any criticism. "I am not going to trade insults with people who dislike me for whatever reasons," he said. "I want to get as many Conservative votes as I can."

Some of his disgruntled opponents say they will switch to the opposition Liberal Democrats, and they predict that the Liberal Democrats will attract enough disenchanted Conservatives to capture the seat.