|Wednesday 24 October, 2001
Betty Boothroyd: To Parliament and beyond
From chorus girl, to first ever woman Speaker of the British Parliament and now Baroness, Betty Boothroyd is one of the best loved British political figures of the last decade.
Having retired from the House of Commons last year, she has now written her autobiography. Here she talks to Everywoman about her political ambitions and her ‘leftover life’.
Ruling with an iron rod
A year ago Betty Boothroyd announced her retirement from Speaker of the House of Commons, the lower house of the British Parliament.
A much loved and widely respected figure, she was the popular choice in 1992 when Parliament elected her to be the first woman Speaker of the House.
Madam Speaker, as she liked to be addressed, ruled her often-boisterous MPs with an iron rod. Amidst calls for “order” she has also been known to mime a yawn if speakers have gone on a bit too long and famously once switched off Tory Minister Ann Widdecombe’s microphone when she felt that she was steering a debate into unrelated territory.
Her unusual method of management led one commentator to describe her as being like ‘a headmistress, nanny and pub landlady’ all rolled into one.
Betty Boothroyd, now Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell, firmly believes in what one of her predecessors in the House of Commons said:
|‘The office of Speaker does not demand rare qualities. It demands common qualities in rare degrees.’ |
She has said herself that Parliament should be ‘a vibrant institution’ and told a British newspaper that:
‘I like a robust parliament, the cut and thrust of debate. Silence in the House is neither golden, realistic nor democratic.’
However, her early life did not suggest politics as an obvious choice for the young Boothroyd. Born in Yorkshire in the North of England, she was a late and only child to a poor but hard working family.
She dreamed of the stage and, bolstered by her friends’ beliefs that she could dance, she became a member of the high kicking dance troupe the Tiller Girls. Of this time she comments:
‘There was a time when I wanted to take the West End by storm. I had a go at it - I was good at high kicking, the splits, and the routine of dancing - it was like politics. [You] turn your head all the same way at the same level, you all kick at the same height; you all do it together. I like team work.’
Once when speaking of her upbringing, Miss Boothroyd said, ‘I came out of the womb of the Labour movement’, it is therefore unsurprising that politics soon overtook her show business life.
However her entry into Parliament was not a smooth one. In the 1950s she lived in the US where she helped John Kennedy on the campaign trail.
On returning to the UK she worked her way through the ranks, but failed four times to get into Parliament before becoming elected MP for West Bromwich in 1973.
Of her determination to succeed she comments:
|‘I thought I can do this, I want to do this as I have politics under my fingernails. It took me four elections and 16 years to get elected.’ |
‘I wanted to make changes. I wanted to have a peaceful revolution in the United Kingdom whereby people who came from my background, people from a “normal” background, hard working, young people had opportunities to fulfil themselves.’
In 1992 she became the first female speaker of the House of Commons. Far from being a ceremonial function, Boothroyd had the difficult task of keeping 650 MPs in line.
Unaccustomed to a woman, one MP once approached the Speaker with some trepidation as Boothroyd has recalled:
‘The first time I got in the chair as Deputy Speaker, Peter Pike, the MP for Burnley, looked up and saw me. He was a bit aghast and said: “What do we call you?” I said “call me Madam’”.’
Over the years Boothroyd has had her fair share of run-ins with MPs. Most recently many of the Labour Party’s 1997 intake commented on their frustrations with her attempts to prevent the modernisation of the Commons.
Female MPs in particular called for more “family friendly” hours. A suggestion which, in principle, Miss Boothroyd agreed, but in practise found difficult.
Whilst in her career she may enjoy ‘team work’, privately she has made the conscious decision to go it alone and, despite several offers of marriage, Miss Boothroyd has remained wed only to her career.
She claims that she couldn’t have managed a husband, family life and politics and has therefore devoted the majority of her life to her work. Speaking directly after her retirement from the Commons she commented:
|‘This is a calling. It is not a nine-to-five job. And if a government to which you are committed needs you to be here, then that has to take priority.’ |
When Betty Boothroyd announced her intention to take leave from British politics she asked the members of the House Of Commons to ‘Be happy for me’. She was about to enter into what she has described as her ‘leftover life’.
But far from taking a back row seat, less than a year after her announcement, Boothroyd is back.
Withholding a reputation for being a no-nonsense Speaker, Miss Boothroyd’s new self-titled autobiography is currently being advertised as a ‘No spin. No sleaze. Just straight talking’ book. The author claims it was written because,
‘I believe that Parliament is worth defending, and that this book will help others to do so.’
In compiling her memoirs, Betty Boothroyd has recalled an extraordinary life. From high kicks to hard campaigning, she has never been afraid to put her foot down.
In her own straight talking way, when she looks back on her life she has been led simply to comment:
‘There are times when I think, “You’ve come a long way baby”’.
| Poll position
|In 1992 Betty Boothroyd was named Parliamentarian of the Year and was elected as 55th speaker of the House of Commons.
In 1999 she was voted 18th in Good House Keeping Magazine’s poll of the most influential women in the UK – the Queen came 89th.
She has at least eight honorary degrees and several ‘Freedom of the City’ awards.