Visiting Houses of Parliament with the WI

An opportunity for visiting Houses of Parliament! This week our local WI group went for a visit. The trip was arranged for us by our local MP, Amber Rudd – who is a member of our WI.  However, she somehow managed to pass the hot potato of facing a roomful of WI women to Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle. More about that later..

All the photos on this post are from the internet – you are not allowed to take photos in Parliament.

    We had to leave (on a coach) at the crack of dawn to be at Westminster by 10am, but we arrived in plenty of time. You have to go through airport-level security. I felt a bit stupid becasue having lectured the ladies about not taking any weaponry, turns out I had a Swiss Card in my bag – it is a credit card sized piece of plastic which contains tiny tools, including a penknife about an inch long – and they found it.  I had to hand it in. Daft really. I wouldn’t have got very far trying to assassinate Boris Johnson with that knife – it wouldn’t even have gone through his fat layer.
Next thing, much of the Palace of Westminster is totally unheated and absolutely freezing cold. Westminster Hall is like a cold store… Battleaxe handy hint: if ever you go, take warm clothes.

Westminster Hall
St Stephen’s Gallery – our way in….

We divided into two groups for our tour. Our guide, Barry, was excellent. We started off in what they call the Royal Apartments.  Not so much apartments, but a series of galleries and halls decorated with outrageous Victorian gothic ornateness by Augustus Pugin, and with painted wall frescoes chosen by Prince Albert and his Fine Art Commission. It was quite appropriate for Battleaxe to see this after our visit to Osborne on theIsle of Wight (see previous post). Philospher and I are fond of Pugin – a while ago we visited his house in Ramsgate. Looks like I didn’t blog about it….

Royal Robing Room
Royal Gallery
House of Lords
House of Lords
Peer’s Lobby
Ceiling of Peer’s Lobby

The Victorian high camp extends through the House of Lords and into the Central Lobby that divides the Lords from the Commons. The architecture and decoration is stunning. The Commons was bombed in WW2 and was rebuilt in a simpler style.

Royal Robing Room – I think…
Central Lobby
Central Lobby
House of Commons

Overall, Battleaxe felt that the place was like an old-established boys public school, or an Oxford College – carved wood, gothic arches, men in strange uniforms sitting behind funny little windows, chilly corridors, arcane sets of pigeon holes with yellowed labels. You could imagine a whole host of unwritten rules of conduct, handed down for centuries: ‘Back-benchers must not cross the lobby with their hands in their pockets.’ ‘No attendance at Prayers without a tie.’ ‘This staircase reserved for Peers and Senior Ministers only.’ All made up, but very possible…  You can see oh so easily why the old Etonians feel so at home here, and why women and those from different social and cultural backgrounds may struggle.
As mere visitors we were not allowed to sit down on the benches of either the Lords or the Commons – they are reserved only for the hallowed backsides of the elected and God’s selected. This was a bit hard on some of our older members, but Barry did allow us to have a rest on a bench in one of the Division lobbies, where MPs file through to vote. We sat opposite all the copies of Hansard..

Division Lobby

The place has a real feel of history about it, and it was all really, really interesting, but I also got a sense of stuffiness and entitlement that needed a stiff wind to blow it away….
Last, Barry showed us a new art work, ‘New Dawn’ by Mary Branson, marking women’s fight to get the vote. It alters its display with the tide in the Thames.

     Next ,we went up to one of the Committee Rooms – just like you see on telly, to meet with Huw Merriman. I had said to the women on the coach that they could ask him whatever they liked, but to try and stick to issues that affected women, and issues that the WI campaigns about, but not to get into party political argument. WI rules state that we are not a political organisation and not affilated to any party, but at the same time we are always being asked to lobby MPs about this that and the other.
I think many WI members are confused about our role as members of a campaigning organisation. In the meeting with Huw, as WI President, I tried to give a lead to the others that it was perfectly OK to raise, for example, the impact of Universal Credit on working women, the WASPI issue, local authority funding cuts and impact on libraries etc.  Of course this meant I did plenty of yapping… no surprise there… Others did join in, and we had a robust discussion on a range of issues.  Of course he gave us politician’s answers, but I did feel we showed him that the WI is a force to be reckoned with.
Battleaxe felt like a teenager again – when I was young my mother was a leading light in the local Conservative Association, and we used to have the local Tory MP for lunch after his Saturday surgery.  (David Mitchell, MP for Basingstoke, who incidentally is the father of Andrew ‘Plebgate’ Mitchell MP… but then look at what I found on Google..) I used to argue with Mitchell senior so ferociously that either I ended up in tears of frustration or was told to leave the room. However, the MP always was very patient with the earnest, stroppy teenager.
Huw Merriman was also very civil – he listened to us non-defensively, gave back reasoned arguments and was able to admit that in some cases he was sorry that the Government had got it wrong…. (Hmm. Have just Googled him up. Battleaxe is not into gutter gossip, oh indeed no. Look it up for yourselves…).
After, we headed to the Westminster cafe and shop – loads of nice Houses of Parliament tat on sale. All in all, it was an excellent day out.

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