As the first female Speaker of the House of Commons in its 700-year history, Betty Boothroyd, who has died at the age of 93, brought rumbustious colour to a role that made her among the most popular parliamentarians of recent times.
Boothroyd was the consummate performer. From her first instruction to the House — a request to “Call me Madam”, a line from a Broadway show — she took to her task of admonishing wayward MPs with gusto. Yet beyond the stern calls to order, given extra resonance thanks to a habit of 20 Rothmans a day, Boothroyd held a life-long appreciation of Westminster and all its trappings. In eight years as Speaker until her retirement in 2000 she arguably did more to reinvigorate the image of the UK parliament than any of her predecessors, resplendent in bespoke silk robes embellished with Tudor roses.
The incarnation was a far cry from her working-class upbringing. Born on October 8, 1929 in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, Betty Boothroyd was an only child who enjoyed the undivided attention of her parents, despite the financial pressures on the family. Archibald and Mary Boothroyd were both textile workers — a weftman and a weaver — prominent voices in Dewsbury’s close-knit community and active supporters of the Labour party.
For Boothroyd, who said that she “came out of the womb into the Labour movement”, such influences were the foundation of a life-long loyalty to the working class and a powerful sense of social justice. Seeing her father laid low by regular bouts of unemployment fuelled a far-reaching ambition, coupled with her trademark toughness.
As a teenager, the only rival to Boothroyd’s passion for the Labour League of Youth was dancing. To her parents dismay, the allure of show business won out and their daughter became a Tiller girl in the popular dance troupe, albeit for only a few months until she trod on a rusty nail.
Buoyed by an award for public speaking, Boothroyd shifted her focus back to politics. She soon moved to London — driven by her fascination with the House of Commons — and took up a post as secretary to Labour MPs Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas. The company of two such vociferous debaters, and their unswerving support, gave Boothroyd the confidence to step out into political life.
Boothroyd pursued an active political life throughout the 1960s. She travelled extensively as a ministerial aide, and, with two lost elections behind her, took to John F. Kennedy’s 1963 campaign trail in search of inspiration. It worked — she was dazzled by him.
Back in Britain, she enjoyed the company of the Labour elite after becoming secretary to the politician Lord Harry Walston. She helped plan lavish parties thrown by him and his wife Catherine, attended by Labour’s glitterati. In return, her benefactor provided her with a cottage on the family estate.
It was to take her 16 years and five elections to win a seat — West Bromwich West, in the 1973 general election. Had she lost the vote, Boothroyd — then aged 43 — had vowed to turn her back on politics.
It was perseverance at the ballot box that earned Boothroyd her many plaudits. Once an MP, her reputation grew, first as a regional whip in Harold Wilson’s government, and later a star of Labour’s National Executive Committee when she fought off Militant, the Trotskyist faction that threatened to destroy the party in the early 1980s.
She then worked on the Speaker’s panel of chairs, scrutinising legislation, an appointment that she knew would end a possible ministerial career. But her sights were set on a different prize. After a spell in Europe, serving on the assembly that preceded the European parliament, and as a deputy Speaker for five years, Boothroyd moved into contention for the post itself.
When Jack Weatherill resigned in 1992, she stood against a Conservative, Peter Brooke. In a testament to her overarching popularity, she won by a 134-vote landslide, taking 372 votes, and was supported by a number of Tories. But she was quickly thrown into vociferous debates on the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the Maastricht treaty and Britain’s opt-out on its social chapter. By the end of John Major’s tenure in 1997 Boothroyd had been the subject of several whispering campaigns, accused of bias by both sides of the House.
Though she enjoyed an amicable relationship with Tony Blair, Boothroyd openly abhorred New Labour’s “Napoleonic” attitude, its spin-doctors and particularly its tendency to leak policy statements to the press before announcing them in the Commons. She was also against positive discrimination and notably disparaging of “Blair’s Babes”, the cohort of 101 female MPs elected in 1997, many of whom she believed lacked real political mettle.
The sheer scale of Blair’s majority precluded any significant attempts to limit encroaching governmentalism but, staunchly loyal to parliamentary tradition, Boothroyd countered his adjustments to Commons procedure. As the prime minister reduced Question Time to one session a week — without informing her — so Boothroyd doubled the number of questions the leader of the Opposition was entitled to. She also insisted that members of Sinn Féin, the nationalist party in Northern Ireland, swear the oath of allegiance, a move suggestive of her desire to re-establish, rather than reinvent, the role of Speaker.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the current Speaker, called Boothroyd an “inspiring woman” and “inspiring politician” whom he was proud to call his friend. Becoming the first woman Speaker was “truly groundbreaking and Betty certainly broke that glass ceiling with panache”, he told the BBC.
It had been “heartening” to hear a northern voice speaking from the Commons chair, Hoyle added. “She stuck by the rules, had a no-nonsense style, but any reprimands she did issue were done with good humour and charm.”
Since becoming a life peer in 2001 after her departure as Speaker, Boothroyd largely avoided political controversy. But she did criticise as “wantonly destructive” the proposals from the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg for a directly elected upper house. She was worried that such a chamber would rival the Commons.
She also made some trenchant contributions in the House of Lords on issues around the Brexit negotiations, criticising the handling by then prime minister Boris Johnson of negotiations over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Boothroyd never married, although she received three proposals. Her true affections, she always said, lay elsewhere. The two great loves of her life were the Labour party and the House of Commons.
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