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16th September 1915:
When prime minister Tony Blair was slow-hand-clapped and heckled while addressing the national conference of the Women’s Institute in June 2000, mainstream journalists (who are required under the terms of their licence to take a vow of historical ignorance) thought it was hilarious: even the most placid, respectable audience on earth couldn't stand this shiny-faced phoney!
What they didn’t know, or trouble to find out, was that the WI had been a rebel organisation right from the start.
The first WI meeting in the UK took place at Llanfairpwllgwyngyl (more commonly known as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair PG, and famously served by the railway station of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch) on 16th September 1915. It was a movement that had started in Canada, inspired by a Scottish prototype, and which today is found in countries all over the world. Each local WI is a democratic organisation run by volunteers, and scrupulously independent of religious or political ties.
Being non-partisan, however, has never made the WI apolitical. The first resolution ever passed by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, in 1918, was a demand for the state to get involved in the housing market. This was unsurprising; the NFWI was founded mostly by veterans of the suffrage struggle. (Copyright in the WI’s adopted anthem, Jerusalem, had been given to the National Women’s Suffrage Society by the composer on the grounds that “people seem to enjoy singing it, and having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy too.”)
Originally intended to bring women together in rural areas to help their communities thrive, the WI’s professed mission hasn’t changed much, except that it has long been active in cities as well as villages.
A visit to a WI jumble sale or fete was a treat in my small-town childhood, because of the unrivalled glory of the cakes the women made and sold to raise funds. But as a kid I had no idea what else they’d got up to over the decades.
They campaigned for education about sexually transmitted diseases – in the 1920s, when it was scarcely respectable for medical men, let alone non-professional women, to discuss such matters in public. They were for women being able to join the police, complete with powers of arrest (1922); in favour of the Bastardy Bill (1920), which would have given status and support to single mothers and their children; pro equal pay for men and women doing equal work (1944). They were against the patenting of lifeforms (1992), and against hospital closures (1963 – present). The “Care not Custody” campaign (2011 onwards) sought to prevent suicides by mentally ill people caught up in the justice system. They wanted rural telephone services to be available all night, not ceasing at 7pm, in case of fire or sickness (1927). They have supported the NHS, student grants, public lavatories, contraception and family allowances, and opposed cruelty to children and animals, pollution and war.
Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party at a time when the Conservatives were going through one of their periodic bouts of self-destruction. No-one has ever had an easier route to becoming prime minister, and as a result both he and his notoriously low-grade aides were untested, complacent and irredeemably arrogant. Ken Livingstone had been elected mayor of London the previous month, standing as an independent socialist and pushing Blair’s candidate into third place. The Blairies, having never faced a setback before, panicked.
After inviting himself to address the NFWI’s conference in Wembley in order to relaunch his vision of a government which married progressive ideas with traditional values (or it might have been vice versa), Blair idiotically ignored the strict non-party political convention and began giving the 10,000 delegates what some of them subsequently described as a “party political broadcast.”
An appeal from the chair for “politeness” subdued the whistling and hissing his own rudeness had provoked, but even so the PM cut his speech short and scurried from the podium. Contemporary accounts have it that he was shocked, wide-eyed, horrified, and that he demanded of an adviser “What the hell just happened?”