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Betty Boothroyd's last speech

Baroness Boothroyd was the first female speaker of the House of Commons (Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo)

Sir Nicolas Bevan

9 min read

Westminster gathered to celebrate the life of Betty, Baroness Boothroyd “the gold standard for Speakers” earlier this month. Her memorial service heard she wanted to “go out with a bang not a whimper” with a final speech but her health had failed before it could be delivered. Here her former secretary Sir Nicolas Bevan introduces that last address

After her retirement, Betty Boothroyd kept in close touch with me and asked me from time to time to help her with the drafting of a speech or a lecture. The final occasion was two years ago when she told me that she intended to retire from the House of Lords but wanted to make a valedictory speech in which she would set out her fairly trenchant views about the composition of the Lords. She agreed the text of her speech in its final form a few months before she died but sadly ill health prevented her from delivering it. I hadn’t had the courage to ask her what I should do with the speech in those circumstances, but I am sure she would not have wanted it to die with her. For that reason the text of Betty’s intended valedictory speech is printed below.

The 10 years that I spent as speaker’s secretary were both the culmination and the highlight of my public service career. Most of that time was spent in support of Betty and I shall be forever grateful to her for giving me that opportunity.

"My Lords, I rise to address this House for the last time. Virtually my whole working life – 70 years or so – has been spent in this iconic building. For the first 20 years I worked as a secretary to fine Labour parliamentarians, during which I took a couple of years off and went to America to join the ‘Kennedy for President’ team. It may surprise your Lordships to know that after he was elected I ended up on Capitol Hill working for a Republican Congressman; but he was the sort of liberal Republican that seems no longer to exist. 

“Working as a backroom girl in the Palace of Westminster and as a political activist outside I developed the ambition to become a Member of Parliament myself. After being defeated in four parliamentary campaigns I finally hit the jackpot in May 1973 when the people of the West Bromwich constituency elected me with a bumper majority as the 27th woman in the House at that time; now of course there are 225 women in the Commons, so we are making some progress there. 

“After some years as a modest back bencher, including a spell as a nominated Member of the European Parliament, I was appointed to the dizzy heights of a government whip. And in 1992 after 19 years’ service my parliamentary colleagues did me the honour of electing me as their Speaker. What was most important to me was that I was the first Speaker in modern times to be elected from the opposition party in the House and I believe that underlined the great strength of our democracy. I took my responsibilities towards the interests of minorities in the House especially seriously, including minorities within the major parties. 

“My Lords, I vividly remember an occasion when I talked to some schoolchildren. A little girl had the task of moving the vote of thanks. She said that they had talked the day before about what she should say and had decided that she should describe me as being cool, real cool. That was a new expression to me so I just smiled. It was only the following day that I asked my private secretary what the expression meant. He said that being called cool meant that I was doing well but being called real cool meant that I was the tops. I still think that that was the nicest compliment ever paid to me.

“I stood down from the office of Speaker after eight and a half years and since 2001 I have been in the fortunate position of being a crossbench Member of your Lordships’ House. 

“My Lords, I am by nature a forgiving person and I quite understand that many of you may well be inclined to say that I am now well past my sell-by date. But I hope that I may be permitted to draw on a lifetime’s parliamentary experience to make a few observations about the composition of this House and I trust that these may tickle your Lordships’ palates.

Successive prime ministers have attached importance to their power of patronage; in my view this should be exercised far less generously

“I take it as read that a bicameral system is good for democracy and for effective and efficient government. But a necessary condition of that is that one House must hold supremacy over the other. In our system that has to be the House of Commons, which derives its authority directly from the electorate. So what is the function of our House? It is primarily to review, to scrutinise, to amend and to improve draft legislation and, if we wish, to request the Commons to think again about a particular proposal. But if, after full and proper discussion and consideration, the Commons are resolved to reject our views, we have to leave it at that.

“If that is the role of this House, how should it be composed? I reject absolutely the suggestion that members should be elected, either directly or indirectly. We should not be encouraged to think that we enjoy the democratic accountability that rightly rests with the Commons. We are not in competition with them.

“That means that the basis of membership of this House should be one of appointment. But what sort of people should be appointed? Essentially in this House we need men and women of expertise and experience. In addition to those who are here primarily for their political affiliations (and of course there should be some of those), we need business people, trade union leaders, economists, health professionals, lawyers and scientists. We need retired senior public servants, civil and military, and leaders of the many faiths now represented in our diverse community. In all those categories we need people who are prepared to commit time and energy to their duties here. Successive prime ministers have attached importance to their power of patronage; in my view this should be exercised far less generously than has tended to be the case in the recent past. Of course prime ministers should be permitted to make appointments on leaving office but they should be limited in their proposals and they should not include those who are simply friends or have no other qualifications than having fat bank accounts from which they have bankrolled the party in power. 

“I am firmly of the view that all appointments to this House should be subject to the agreement of the Appointments Commission and that the commission’s powers should not simply be advisory but should be put on a statutory basis. Nobody should become a member of this House if a statutory Appointments Commission has reservations about their suitability. Nor do I myself see a role any longer for members who are here simply as a result of their heredity. I do not question the merits of colleagues who fall into that category, but such members should be appointed like any other members of the House; and the farcical system of by-elections to replace deceased or retired hereditaries should be brought to an end.

“My final reflection concerns the size of this House. At more than 800 members we are the largest second chamber in the democratic world. That is absurd, as has been clearly recognised for many years now. Not only do we not need so many members to carry out our role, but our size positively militates against effectiveness and efficiency and is unnecessarily expensive. Quite simply the government has to bite the bullet of reducing our numbers. There have been many reports about this but it has all been jaw-jaw-jaw with no action taken. A few years ago a report from the Labour Party came up with various suggestions for a system of retirement. Other proposals have been made such as fixed-term appointments, expulsion for non-attendance, abolition of hereditary membership. Probably a mixture of all these measures will be needed. But above all what is required is a personality in Downing Street with leadership qualities who is willing to accept limits on his or her power of patronage and to act in the interests of improved governance. Nor do we need to wait for a comprehensive package of reforms. Some obvious steps should be taken now: for example ending the hereditary system and giving the Appointments Commission statutory powers.

“My Lords, I have spoken long enough. But in conclusion I want to say two things. Firstly, when I was Speaker I updated the prayer that is used at the beginning of each day’s proceedings. Members now pray that “they may never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please or unworthy ideals but, laying aside all private interests and prejudices, keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”. That is a pretty good manifesto and I have always tried to carry out my own responsibilities in accordance with it. My Lords, parliamentary politics for me has never been just a career; it has been my life and, like miners’ coal dust, it cannot be scrubbed out from under one’s fingernails. 

“Secondly I wish to express my deep gratitude for the fellowship that I have encountered throughout my parliamentary life and my acknowledgement of the loyal support that I have always enjoyed from the staff of the Commons and of this House, not simply from the senior officers of both Houses but from the security staff, the members of the catering departments, the librarians, the members of the finance departments, the domestic staff and the Hansard reporters. All of them have made important contributions to my effectiveness and welfare and I cannot thank them enough. To my colleagues in this House I say simply this: I thank you for your friendship, I wish you health and contentment in the future and now I bid you all a fond farewell.” 

 

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