The heckling post on the blog reminded me of the hostile reception received by British Prime Minister Tony Blair by the Women’s Institute (UK) in 2000 …
The Women’s Institute’s slow hand clapping and heckling of Tony Blair gestured towards the pernicious spin machine of the Blair administration, the effects of which were to become increasingly visible over the next decade.
This was before the war in Iraq, before the scandalous misinformation campaign leading up to that war … before the iconic ‘Bliar’ Stop the War banners, the Women’s Institute led the way!
The audience were angered by the use of their Institute as a party political platform – Blair used the speech to stress the traditional civic values of the Labour Party. The speech explicitly tried to gain back the centre-ground from the Conservative Party who were gaining popularity in the polls at the time.
Here’s what Helen Carey, the Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes said about the event some years later:
At the time I don’t think we realised it was quite so seminal. It was quite amazing that he lost the plot. I wasn’t expecting him to give such a poor speech. We had said please remember we are non-party political, these are intelligent women, please don’t patronise them. And unfortunately he did all of those things. I gather that he wrote the speech himself.
You can read more about the slow hand clapping here –
Also, have a look at this clip – the audio cuts out a bit (sorry – I don’t seem to be able to find a better clip) –
What is it about this gesture of clapping? There’s a detournement of the approval that applause generally signifies, and a very effective disruption of the privilege of the speaker – his voice is drowned out by the wickedly slow-paced, repetitive, increasingly piercing chorus of claps. There is literally nothing Blair can do here but face up to the humiliation …
I enjoy the gender dimension of this moment – we see the disapproval of a man who should know better than to patronise and exploit ’10,000 women who represent the backbone of Britain’ as the Guardian article put it at the time. Thinking back – I remember an increasingly vivid sense of dismay, disappointment, anger circulating in the public sphere (following the euphoria of the Labour victory in 1997, after 18 long long years of Conservative rule) at New Labour’s ‘selling out’ of traditional left wing values. It is notable, as Carey notes in the Guardian article above, that the slow hand clap started with the part of the speech about the National Health Service. This was a signifier of national pride that the Labour Party was supposed to protect but was threatening to destroy through its various public-private finance initiatives.
But – it is interesting that it isn’t really clear even now why there was so much disapproval or information about how this came about. This wasn’t a planned intervention, but a spontaneous gesture that gathered pace and was then circulated via media networks globally. Whilst it appeared to have started with the NHS part of the speech, it wasn’t aimed at drawing attention to a particular policy or government initiative. It was a gesture that captured, focused, crystallised something and materialised itself ‘in the air’ – it was a prescient gesture that called attention to a felt thing …
‘It’s like a war drum’ – this comment beneath the You Tube clip (link above) – sums it up well. It was a drawn line in the sand, a signal of a limit … It was a visceral reminder that leadership is (or rather should be?) accountable to anonymous publics.
Readers with an academic bent may want to read Baz Kershaw’s rather brilliant account of applause as a way in to analysing changing nature of audience participation in twentieth century theatre –
Baz Kershaw (2001) ‘Oh for Unruly Audiences! Or, Patterns of Participation in Twentieth-Century Theatre’ Modern Drama, 42:2 (133-154).
This article was also developed further– and this later version can be read in chapter 6 of Baz Kershaw (2007) Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events (Cambridge University Press).