Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the former professional dancer who became the first woman Speaker of the House of Commons, was a stern, noisy but always affable and homely disciplinarian of MPs.
Apart from the novelty of her gender as Speaker, history will record her as one of the outstanding holders of this office. With an unsubtle, cheery and broad Yorkshire quip, she could defuse a dangerous or tense situation in the Chamber, and transform the snarls of MPs into gusts of laughter.
It was with a winning smile and a raucous shout that Betty Boothroyd regularly reduced rowdy MPs to something approaching silence. And it was typical of her breezy nature that when she was asked how she would like to be addressed as Speaker, replied instantly: “Call me Madam.” When the House voted her into the chair, she snubbed the traditional full-bottomed wig. But this did not detract from the authority she exuded – her silver-grey hair and no-nonsense approach to the task made her a formidable and imposing Speaker.
Before her days as a Deputy Speaker and then as Speaker itself, she was an active Labour back-bencher, proudly on the right of the party and scornful of intractable left-wingers as well as being the scourge of infiltrating Militants. As a member of the party’s ruling national executive committee in this period, she was a staunch defender of Labour’s traditional values and made no secret of her hostility towards those hard-liners who constantly peddled the “red blood of socialism” theme.
But she continued to hanker after her Labour roots, even when she was Speaker. And although she could not demonstrate this in public, Lady Boothroyd once confessed that her associations with the party remained with her “like the dirt in your fingernails”. And shortly before she retired as Speaker – in October 2000 – she confessed that “the red blood of socialism” still flowed through her veins.
Betty Boothroyd was born in 1929, the daughter of textile workers in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where she attended council schools, followed by a spell at Dewsbury Technical College of Commerce and Art. She joined the Labour League of Youth at 16 but her first instinct was to be a dancer. Lady Boothroyd worked as a professional dancer from 1946 to 1948 and appeared in pantomime in London’s West End as a member of the Tiller Girls’ chorus line.
But her first love was politics – and she quit the dance studios. She contested a seat on Dewsbury Council in 1950 and was elected to Hammersmith Borough Council in 1965. Lady Boothroyd unsuccessfully contested four parliamentary seats before being elected to West Bromwich (later to become West Bromwich West) in 1973.
The following year she became an assistant whip. She supported the idea of Labour joining the Socialist group in the European Assembly against the general line of the party at that time, June 1975. In fact, her commitment to Europe was such that she resigned as a whip to concentrate on the European Assembly later that year.
However, she made her name within the party structure by her unrepentant, straight-from-the-shoulder condemnation of the left. Lady Boothroyd described the selection of Michael Foot as leader as “a disaster” – which in electoral terms proved to be accurate.
And she called on the party to rid itself of “headbangers, extremists and Militants”.
Lady Boothroyd led the women’s section of the executive with 4.8 million votes in 1983, and the same year she said that every male chauvinist was “some woman’s son misshapen by her”.
She bitterly opposed moves by left-wingers Tony Benn and Eric Heffer to suspend the Commons over the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s.
Her actions vividly epitomised a commentator’s description of her at the time as “a hammer of the Left, who comes gift-wrapped and smelling of roses compared to the terrible Edith Summerskill”. Lady Boothroyd was the second woman (and first Labour woman) to be voted a Deputy Speaker, in July 1987. She quickly stamped her style and authority on the job, demonstrating she could be tough and successful when some of her colleagues were timid and less impressive. She was a cross of wit and practicality, blending discipline and jocularity, someone who, according to another commentator, “enjoys large gins and large diamonds”.
She was elected Speaker in April 1992 at the age of 62. The voting was 372-238 – a majority of 134 – over Peter Brooke, the former Northern Ireland Secretary. Her vote was boosted by 74 Conservative MPs.
Lady Boothroyd was fearless in her protection of MPs’ rights and the authority and sovereignty of Parliament. Once she warned High Court judges not to interfere in the way Parliament handled the Maastricht Treaty when the Bill was passing through its tumultuous parliamentary procedures. And she was prepared to adopt a firm line over those who like, Peter Preston, then editor of the Guardian newspaper, forged a fax on House of Commons notepaper in an investigation into Ministers’ alleged sleaze.
She also unhesitatingly rebuked even Cabinet Ministers if she thought fit. Once, in a criticism of the then Education Secretary, John Patten, she said she “deprecated most strongly” the leaking of education spending proposals in the Budget some hours before the Chancellor had risen to his feet.
And she roundly rebuked left-winger Dennis Skinner for taking the Speaker’s chair while most MPs were listening to the Queen’s Speech in the Lords in November 1993.
Bluntly she told him she took “the most serious view of this type of horseplay”, adding: “I think we have heard and seen enough of the Honourable Member for Bolsover for one day.”
She was even popular with those who occasionally proved troublesome in the House. Once after she had ejected the Democratic Ulster Unionist leader Dr Ian Paisley from the Chamber, he later congratulated her for the “gracious” way she had thrown him out.
She once said that her worst moment, which occurred early during her Speakership, was her tussle with Tory Michael Mates when he tried to make his resignation speech after quitting as a Northern Ireland Minister following an incident involving the fugitive from justice Asil Nadir.
He persisted in making his speech, even though Lady Boothroyd continually accused him of breaching the sub judice rule.
Lady Boothroyd strongly deprecated the growing habit, during the Tony Blair 1997 administration, for the Government to announce new policies to press conferences rather than face the Opposition in the House of Commons.
She described herself as “pleasantly plump” and had no inhibitions about what she ate. “I just like good food, beef steaks, and I enjoy the House of Commons chips. They are terrific.”
And Lady Boothroyd attributed smoking – “about a packet a day” – to what she described as her “lovely deep voice”. Of all her attributes for the chair, her voice was an important feature.
She retired from the Speakership in October 2000. Her announcement the previous July about her impending retirement took MPs by complete surprise. After stepping down as Speaker she was elevated to the House of Lords, and took her seat in January 2001. She was awarded an Order of Merit in the spring of 2005.
In July 2009, she underwent successful open-heart surgery.
Lady Boothroyd was an outspoken critic of Brexit, campaigning to remain in the European Union and after the referendum urging peers to use the “entire arsenal of our powers” over the legislation to “limit the damage” to Parliament and the national interest.
Lady Boothroyd never married and once insisted that although she was a loner she had never been lonely.
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