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Betty Boothroyd: “I am a bit timid. But I’m dealing with the giants”

22 min read

Betty Boothroyd was one more election defeat away from giving up hope of becoming an MP. But at the fifth time of asking, the Yorkshire-born Labour activist realised her dream. With typical determination, she seized the opportunity with both hands – and went on to make history. Sebastian Whale talks to the former Speaker, and those who know her, about her landmark career


Betty Boothroyd took a deep breath and rose to her feet. “Order, order,” she instructed, her Yorkshire accent cutting through the hum of conversation that always seems to follow the end of prime minister’s questions.

The Commons was packed on the afternoon of Wednesday 12 July 2000. William Hague had tried to give Tony Blair a tough time over remarks made by his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, who had said it was “inevitable” that Britain would join the euro. Boothroyd had only felt the need to intervene once during the session, midway through the Conservative leader’s third of six questions. “The House must come to order – I cannot hear,” she had said, gesturing for Hague to continue.

With the session over, she was on her feet once more.

“It has been a great honour to serve the House as its Speaker for more than eight years,” she began. “As Honourable Members will recall, I have undertaken on several occasions that the House would be the first to know when I decided to retire. I now wish to inform the House of my intention to relinquish the office of Speaker immediately before the House returns from the summer recess.”

MPs were stunned. Desperate cries of “oh” were caught on the Commons microphones and immortalised in Hansard as Boothroyd confirmed she would be standing down too as MP for West Bromwich West.

Boothroyd paused, deviating from her script. “Be happy for me!” she commanded. The House, in an act even rarer than it is now, broke out into applause.

Margaret Beckett, who as Commons Leader was one of the few MPs that had been briefed of the plans, laid out the timetable for Boothroyd’s departure. With typical nonchalance, the Speaker replied: “Thank you, Mrs. Beckett. We now proceed to our normal business.”

Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunell, speaking in the subsequent debate, summed up the mood when he said: “I must say, Madam Speaker, that you have taken our breath away...”

“You see, Seb, that’s the time to go,” Baroness Boothroyd tells me now, her accent just as strong, her voice just as authoritative. “When people don’t want you to.”

It is just shy of eighteen years since Boothroyd stood down as Commons Speaker. On the warmest April day for 70 years, I am visiting Boothroyd, now a crossbench peer, in her home near Sloane Square in south-west London.

Boothroyd is in fine fettle, though we are both initially a bit nervous about meeting, or “timid” as Boothroyd describes it. Fortunately, Boothroyd’s arms that begin folded start to loosen quickly and rest in her lap at the base of her blue polka dot blouse.

As we reflect on that decision to stand down, Boothroyd has remained consistent with the view, which she articulated in her speech at the time, that a Speaker should retire mid-term.

“It should never be at the end of a parliamentary session,” she says. “I was in the unfortunate position of when [Jack] Weatherill retired, it was at the end of a parliamentary session. And therefore, you have a new House, you have new members, they don’t know who they’re getting. Whereas, if it’s mid-term, then they know the weaknesses and strengths of a candidate.”

She adds: “I believe all speakers should do that courtesy – it is a courtesy – to the House.”

A consummate professional, Boothroyd has given some thought to my visit. She sits opposite me in her living room across a circular table with a note of subject areas and talking points scribbled in front of her. Among those is a proposal that a Speaker, having been elected should resign as an MP and trigger a by-election in their constituency. This would free-up the Speaker to represent parliament across the country at educational establishments, voluntary and charitable organisations. Most importantly, she adds, it would ensure that the people in the constituency had a voice at Westminster.

“So, let’s say the Speaker-elect is the member for Tolpuddle. The Speaker retires from the seat and a by-election takes place. They are totally independent then in the Chair,” she says.

“Remaining as the member for Tolpuddle would mean the electors of that constituency are not fully represented in parliament. The democratic process is denied to thousands of citizens. It doesn’t matter whether the issue of the day is pensions or peace, that constituency has neither voice nor vote in the forum of the nation and I believe it should have.

“This is what I would like to see. I think there is merit in putting this issue to a constitutional committee to examine it all in detail.”

Boothroyd’s words carry significant weight. There are few better acquainted with the responsibilities of the Speakership. The deference she has long felt to the position and indeed parliament is as strong it ever has been.

But it’s remarkable to consider that Boothroyd was just one by-election defeat away from giving up her hopes of becoming an MP. Sixteen years after she first stood in Leicester South East in 1957, Boothroyd, famed for her determination, didn’t know if she could take another loss.

Her journey to the evening of 24 May 1973 in West Bromwich was full of graft and, as you might expect, full of surprises.

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Betty Boothroyd was born on 8 October 1929 in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, to Archibald and Mary. Her parents were both textile workers and trade unionists. “I lived among the dark satanic mills of west Yorkshire,” she adds. An only child, Boothroyd says what there was went to her and as a result she was “quite indulged”.

Boothroyd’s first exposure to politics came through her mother’s membership of the women’s section of the Labour party. She would take Boothroyd to rallies in neighbouring Wakefield, Leeds and Huddersfield, where leading political figures including Clem Attlee, Nye Bevan, Bessie Braddock and Barbara Castle would address huge meetings.

“We had a coach and off we went on a Saturday morning to these great rallies. I saw all the national leaders there, wonderful speakers. Families would share the refreshments we took. Mother would make jam sandwiches and hope for spam. Spam was a delicacy in those days,” she says.

Though not an academic, Boothroyd says she was well served by “excellent” teachers at school. Her father was pleased when she became a pupil of Dewsbury Technical College and learned skills such as bookkeeping, typing shorthand and French to keep her away from those dark satanic mills.

Boothroyd was closer to her father, who passed when she was 19, than her mother. Archibald Boothroyd instilled in his daughter a lasting belief in the need to be well turned out. Every night her shoes were stuffed with newspapers to maintain their shape, her clothes hung up and her collars brushed.

“I was brought up very strict in that way and that I always had to look my very best and spend just that little bit more than one could afford so that they were good quality and lasted,” she says.

“I often say to people now, I scrub up well - my father taught me how.”

Boothroyd’s sartorial elegance comes up frequently in conversations about her. Tory peer Lord Cormack, a longstanding friend, says: “She was always impeccably dressed. She has a wonderful sense of colour and of course, is emphatically not a feminist. Very feminine, but not a feminist.”

Her politics was driven by a desire to change the conditions in which her family lived – Boothroyd’s mother developed emphysema from her time working as a weaver in the heavy wool industry. Boothroyd was active in the League of Youth, an organisation within the Labour party and showed an early proficiency for public speaking by winning a national contest.

In the 1950s, she moved to London after getting a job as secretary to two Labour MPs, Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas. Her love affair with the Palace of Westminster was instant. She would carry out errands for colleagues just so that she could wander the estate.

“I thought this is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I just absolutely loved it. To be able to walk into Westminster Hall every morning and walk across it during the day to various offices, to pass all that history. I was just thrilled,” she says.

“I still do pinch myself. I could almost shed a tear thinking about it now.”

Boothroyd earned seven pounds, ten shillings a week, with an extra one and ninepence (spent on egg and chips from the policeman’s canteen in Westminster Hall) gained by writing letters dictated by Barbara Castle.

By 1960, she had become disillusioned with “the three old men of Europe”, namely Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle and Harold Macmillan. On the other side of the pond, the Democrats had just selected John F Kennedy as their candidate for president. The draw to “a bright new star” proved too alluring.

With just a return ticket and £200 in her pocket, Boothroyd travelled to the states to work on Kennedy’s campaign. She went across America with Democrat senator Estes Kefauver, attending fundraisers and events. She was present at Kennedy’s inauguration on that freezing snowy January day in 1961. “I wasn’t going to miss that for the world,” she says. “It was a fairyland.”

The newly-elected president signed her inauguration programme, ‘Thanks for coming over, JF Kennedy’.

What was he like? For the first and only time, I receive an infamous Boothroyd rebuke.

“How do you know what someone is like if you meet them for five minutes? Seb, you can’t ask questions like that. I could make something up. I don’t make things up.”

Boothroyd went on to work for left-wing Republican congressman Silvio Conte. Following two years in which she got a deep understanding of the contrasting US and UK political systems, she was ready to return home, where she worked as a political assistant to foreign minister Harry Walston.

After her years working in Westminster, Boothroyd felt that she could do the job of an MP “just as well” as those currently in position. On her first attempt to enter parliament, she finished fewer than 7,000 votes behind Tory candidate John Peel at the Leicester South East by-election in 1957. Boothroyd tried and failed a further three times, twice in North West England and once in Peterborough.

“At that stage, I thought I would go into the Guinness Book of Records as the girl most unlikely to succeed,” she recalls.

But in 1973, Boothroyd was selected to stand in a by-election in West Bromwich West in what she had concluded would be her last crack at entering parliament.

“By this point, I thought if I don’t win this, that’s it. I would have to quit.”

With a majority of more than 8,000, and after a bruising “racialist contest” in which the National Front finished third and the Tories in second, Betty Boothroyd, at the fifth time of asking, was elected a Member of Parliament.

---

The 1974-79 parliament has become the stuff of political folklore. Boothroyd, re-elected as MP for West Bromwich West after her former constituency was abolished, was quickly thrown in the deep end, after being appointed assistant government whip for the Labour party.

During the most notorious hung parliament in recent history, whips went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their colleagues would attend important votes. Boothroyd was made to keep tabs on the yard of the Commons to make sure that no MP was sneaking away or calling taxis. Suffering with illness, Boothroyd herself was once brought in via an ambulance to vote. “It was a tough time,” she says with some understatement.

Of all the incredible stories from the period, none are more bizarre than that of John Stonehouse, the Labour MP who attempted to fake his own death. Boothroyd, who was his whip, came back from a morning meeting to find a note on her desk:

‘Dear Betty, thank you very much for allowing me to pair for the next few days. It’s very good of you, see you soon. John Stonehouse’

“Well, I mean I almost fainted,” Boothroyd says. “Nobody is allowed to leave the House. Bob Mellish was the Chief Whip, he went berserk.”

Stonehouse left a pile of clothes on a beach in Miami. Presumed dead, he was in fact heading to Australia where he was hoping to start a new life with his mistress and secretary, Sheila Buckley. Boothroyd, who like everyone else was none the wiser, called Buckley into her office.

“I will remember this to my dying day. I said I can get you a job with another Member of Parliament. ‘No, I was only valuable to John’, she replied.”

In 1975, Boothroyd was elected a member of the European Parliament and had become a vocal advocate of what was then referred to as the Common Market. Labour’s own pro-Europe position is one of the main reasons Boothroyd was drawn to the party.

What informs Boothroyd’s view? “I’m not a little Englander. I’m an internationalist. We live on a great continent; the greatest continent I think in the world and we want to be part of that continent.

“When I went to the states, I never intended to stay. I told you, I had a return ticket. I was coming back to Europe. Our forebears fought for the freedom of this continent. I am pro-European to my bones.”

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There is a surprising self-doubt that lies behind the confidence that Boothroyd exudes. I did not expect, for example, Boothroyd to reveal that she has always had an element of nervousness when speaking in the Commons or Lords chambers. “I’ve always got a lot of work to do beforehand. I’m always nervous about it to a degree. I think if you’re not nervous about something like that then you can’t put your heart and soul into it,” she says.

A lover of good oratory, Boothroyd enjoys listening to debates in the House of Lords. “There are times when I feel a little inferior because of the experience and hands-on knowledge of some of my colleagues. I’ve had experience of a different kind I know. But they’ve spent a lifetime doing all these things, whether it be the defence forces, as scientists, lawyers, agronomists, engineers, whatever,” she explains.

“This all goes with timidity. Yes, I am a bit timid. But I’m dealing with the giants.”

In the 1980s, fighting off these symptoms, Boothroyd served as a member of the Labour party’s national executive committee. She never coveted nor received a frontbench post. “I was never ambitious about a ministerial role, no. Not at all,” she says. “I don’t know why, it was just not for me.”

Lord Cormack, who served as an MP for 40 years, explains: “She thought politics is about more than party politics. She recognised from the word go that no political party had the monopoly of wisdom, the command of all the good ideas and that what our country depended upon completely and absolutely was a well-functioning constitutional monarchy of which parliament was the most important part.”

Lord Foulkes, a former Labour minister and friend, says: “She obviously made a conscious decision, which some people do, that her career was going to be there and not as a minister or shadow minister. Because of course she could have been, but she knew what she wanted to do.”

After the 1987 election, Boothroyd was elected deputy speaker under Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill, where she would serve until 1992. She proved herself to be a person with real authority as deputy speaker. But weary from her defeats trying to enter parliament, Boothroyd was content with her lot. That was until three Labour colleagues, Gwyneth Dunwoody, George Robertson and Giles Radice, approached her to run after Weatherill announced he was stepping down.

“They came to see me and they said, ‘go for gold, Betty. We will do what we can for you’,” she says.

Her competency also caught the eye of John Biffen, a Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister. He tabled an amendment to a motion that was lodged originally to elect Peter Brooke, a Tory, to succeed Weatherill as Speaker. Biffen’s amendment called for the election of Betty Boothroyd.

Boothroyd asked the House “to elect me for what I am, not for what I was born”. She won the vote by 372 to 238, to spontaneous and sustained applause. In doing so, she became the first opposition MP to be elected to the Chair and, most significantly, the first woman Speaker.

“It was just the greatest thing of my life that happened to me that day,” she says. “I had to have a sizable majority, especially coming from the opposition. I wanted the confidence and authority of the House and they gave it to me.”

---

Tradition dictates that the Speaker is dragged from their seat to the Chair. Such was Boothroyd’s excitement at taking on the role that friends felt this was an unnecessary symbolic gesture. “She was so delighted to be doing it that this pretence at reluctance was very inappropriate,” quips Lord Foulkes.

Boothroyd quickly became referred to as Madam Speaker. She sought the authority of the House not to wear the wig and MPs agreed to her request. Her flowing, electric grey locks remain to this day.

Those present at the time say any resistance to the notion of a woman Speaker was either muted or quickly dissipated, especially after 11 years of a female prime minister in the shape of Margaret Thatcher.

With the aid of a televised Commons, Boothroyd quickly became a household name. Her quick wit and sharp put-downs of MPs who were guilty of prevaricating or being disorderly gained notoriety.

“I don’t know that I used put downs,” she interjects. “I just needed to assert myself. Let me put it to you like this, I have been in many parliaments all over the world and they are all like mortuaries.

“I do not want that for the House. I want a virile, argumentative, adversarial House. But it mustn’t get out of hand. Give them a bit of rope and then move in.

“People come to make change - to change the flow of the Thames, Seb. You can’t be shutting them up all the time.”

It is surprising to learn that Boothroyd only ejected one MP during her time in the chair (Boothroyd insists Labour’s Dennis Skinner walked before he was pushed after he branded a minister a “squirt”). That MP was Ian Paisley, who was suspended for 10 days after he accused a minister of lying.

Paisley went to visit Boothroyd sometime after, in what she expected to be a clear the air meeting. But the DUP leader, who Boothroyd speaks of with great warmth, was grateful.

He said: “Madam Speaker, I’ve come to thank you for the gracious way you threw me out the other day. I got page one of the Belfast Telegraph and you got page three.”

Boothroyd replied: “Step inside, Ian. You’re welcome, I’ve never been a page three girl before.”

Boothroyd’s time in the chair coincided with fierce Commons debates on the European Union. She even had to use her casting vote on the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. She side-lined her devout European views in devotion to the impartiality of the Chair.

This is testament to the value Boothroyd places on the Houses of Parliament and the Speakership. Janet Fookes, now Baroness Fookes, a Conservative peer, served as one of three deputy speakers under Boothroyd. She was deputed to attend foreign meetings in Boothroyd’s place when the House was sitting. “She put the job first, which I admired and do admire still,” she tells me over coffee in the Lords.

Every day, Boothroyd and her deputies would go through the list of people due to speak in the Commons, interspersed with cigarette breaks for Boothroyd. Often a sensitive task, Fookes recalls that MPs could make representations if they were unhappy with their position.

“As Betty used to say rather briskly when somebody complained they hadn’t been called, ‘they must pace themselves’.”

Baroness Fookes introduces me to another side of Boothroyd, her compassion. Her gratitude to “the boss”, as she calls her, is everlasting. Fookes’ mother had cancer towards the end of her time as deputy speaker. One Thursday, Fookes was on duty in the Chair, but she knew that her mother did not have long left.

“Betty said, ‘I’ll do your stint, you go home’,” she says. “It meant that I was able to be with my mother for the last 24 hours of her life. Throughout the time when my mother was ill, she was always very kind. I’m eternally grateful to her. I adored my mother, it meant a lot to me that the boss was so understanding.”

The most iconic image from Boothroyd’s time as Speaker came during the state visit of Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, in 1996. She met Mandela at Buckingham Palace the evening before he was due to address both Houses in Westminster Hall. “I had a private talk with him and I said now take your time down those steps, they’re a thousand years old,” she says.

Boothroyd reminded him of the precarious nature of the steps when they convened at St Stephen’s entrance the following morning. “Don’t worry, Madam Speaker,” Mandela responded. “I came at six o’clock this morning to look for myself.”

Mandela took Boothroyd’s hands as trumpets sounded. They walked down the steps at Westminster Hall, hand in hand. “If you were to ask me which was my finest day, that was it,” she says with pride oozing off every syllable.

Boothroyd retained cordial but transparent relations with party leaders throughout her Speakership. Tony Blair praised her as a “truly outstanding Speaker, who has greatly enhanced the reputation of the office”. Prior to her farewell speech in the Commons, a row of parliamentary staff lined up to clap Boothroyd out. By the time she reached the Chair, Boothroyd was fighting back tears.

During her tenure, she spoke in the Russian Duma, twice in the Indian Lok Sabha (once on the 50th anniversary of the independence of India), and most central and European parliaments. She stood down with 20 invitations still outstanding. In a personal capacity, she enjoyed travelling to exotic parts of the world including Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and Cyprus.

As for her legacy as Speaker, her colleagues rate her as one of the greatest to have sat in the Chair.

“I think she must rank as a really good speaker – one of the best. She stamped her authority on the place,” says Fookes.

“As far as I am concerned, I think she was a very great Speaker. There’s been no better Speaker in my time,” argues Cormack.

Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords and a former MP, adds: “Oh, gosh. She’s got to come top, hasn’t she? She’s got to be very high up there.

“She was the first woman and don’t underestimate how important that was. But she expects no compromises for that. She was a hugely effective Speaker.”

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Boothroyd was created a life peer in January 2001. In April 2005, she was appointed to the Order of Merit (OM), an honour in the personal gift of the Queen. Along the corridor in her London home, Boothroyd has pictures of OMs and the Queen taken at annual lunches. In each, Boothroyd stands out both for her brightly coloured clothes and for often being the only woman present bar Her Majesty.

Boothroyd is still very much active in the House of Lords, though, now 88, she picks and chooses her moments to intervene. Her topics of choice – Brexit and Lords reform – speak to her lifelong passions of Europe and the Houses of Parliament.

“When she stands up to speak in the Lords it matters and people want to hear what she’s got to say,” says Baroness Smith.

While Boothroyd, who is no fan of referendums, says Brexit must take place, she is determined that “we get the best out of it that we possibly can”. On Lords reform, Boothroyd wants a mandatory retirement age of 80, for membership to be reduced to 400 and for hereditary peers not to be re-elected. “When they fall of the perch, that’s it,” she adds.

Boothroyd still has words of advice for her parliamentary colleagues in the corridors of Westminster. Baroness Smith was somewhat in “awe” when she first met Boothroyd after entering parliament in 1997. “She was this huge character. Betty has star quality. She’s engaging, she’s witty and she’s forthright,” she says.

Sitting together in the House of Lords, a struggling minister prompted Boothroyd to turn to Smith and whisper, “I wouldn’t have let you get away with that.”

Betty Boothroyd’s dry, often cutting humour is just as I expected it to be. But it comes from a place of great compassion and kindness. Truly a one-off, her charisma brightens the day of many who encounter her.

I have one question left to ask. If she had her time again, would she do anything differently?

“I don’t think I would have. I had a very, very happy and a very fulfilling life. I was quite content with my life and what I call the inevitability of gradualness. Gradually, I moved things,” she says.

“Perhaps what I miss now, quite a bit, is the fact that I have no family, I never married, I have no children. When I see other happy families, I rejoice for them. I think that that might have happened to me.

“But I wonder also at the same time, I don’t think that I was capable of achieving what I did achieve and having a family at the same time. I had the time to do it because I didn’t do other things.

“I do admire young women very much who are in parliament, who have a home to look after, who are raising children. How they do the two jobs I think is very difficult. I don’t think I could have done it.

“We all have to make choices, Seb. And I made my choice, and they made theirs.”  

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