Seven years since the Blair slow hand-clap

Seven years since the Blair slow hand-clap, the WI is getting tough in Wales

By Rhodri Clark 

GETTING a slow hand-clap from the massed ranks of Women’s Institute members was one of the first public displays of discontent with Tony Blair.

And while it was seen as a pivotal moment in his premiership, it has also proved a turning point for the WI, which had languished for decades under its “ jam and Jerusalem” label.

The protest at the 2000 conference marked the increasing politicisation of the movement, and has coincided with a growth in interest and more vociferous campaigning in Wales.

Four new WI branches have been established in Cardiff recently, because young women and professionals have suddenly started to notice that the WI is a campaigning organisation.

Although the WI is traditionally strong in rural areas — having started in Anglesey in 1915 — it is now attracting growing interest in urban areas of Wales.

Merched y Wawr, Wales’ own breakaway version of the WI, may also be taking notice of the WI’s campaigning edge.

It is now demanding a Welsh-language commissioner and other measures to strengthen the language.

Tegwen Morris, Merched y Wawr’s national director, said, “The movement wants to see Welsh become an integral part of daily life. As things stand, the rights of our members are not respected.

“They cannot use numerous services through their language of choice and, as long as this continues, their rights are being trampled over.”

The language was the reason Merched y Wawr was established in 1967, when WI members in Bala were unhappy that all the WI correspondence they received was English-only and there was not a word of Welsh in the North Wales edition of the WI magazine.

Today Merched y Wawr and the WI still compete for members in Wales. If campaigning has drawn attention to the WI and attracted new members, it could achieve the same for Merched y Wawr.

“There’s always a bit of competition between organisations, even the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides,” said Eoin Redahan, of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI). “The Boy Scouts now accept girls, therefore the Guides could lose members.”

He said Merched y Wawr could be copying the WI’s approach.

“Certainly people learned from the WI’s calendar girls nine years ago. The number of calendars of half naked women and men has mushroomed.”

The WI had always campaigned, founding Keep Britain Tidy for example, he said.

“It’s just attracted more attention since the Tony Blair clap. Since then the media has realised how involved the WI is within the community.”

Rhian Connick, head of NFWI Wales, said, “Most of our members are in rural areas, but we’re seeing more and more branches opening in the towns and cities.

“Women come in and say they’ve got an interest in campaigning work. They see that we make a difference. That attracts people, including young women in their 30s and some in their 20s. Most are young mothers and professionals.”

In the past two years four new branches have opened in Cardiff, doubling the total. Four others have opened in the Newport area, two in Swansea and one in Efail Isaf, near Pontypridd.

She said overall Welsh WI membership had fallen from 19,000 in 1997 to 16,000 now, but the decline had bottomed out.

The WI’s current campaign topics include farm-gate milk prices, too much packaging, climate change, saving community hospitals, children’s diet, and the effect of chemicals on public health.