The first woman Speaker in Britain's House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd (born 1929), a Labour Party member, was the first Speaker in the 20th century chosen from an opposition party.
MPs (Members of Parliament) dragged Betty Boothroyd to the speaker's chair despite the traditional show of reluctance on April 27, 1992. Her triumph by 372 votes to 238 over former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke marked the first contested election for the coveted position for 40 years. MPs marked the occasion by breaking with another tradition and giving her a round of applause, normally not heard in the British House of Commons.
As controller of the Commons proceedings and spokes-person for the lower house of Parliament, Boothroyd became a familiar figure to the British nation. Although she refused to wear the knee breeches and wig traditionally worn by her predecessors, she added her own trademark to the familiar cry of "Order, order" long used to urge unruly MPs to behave themselves. She ended the twice weekly Prime Minister's Question Time sessions with a cry made familiar by barmaids in public houses and bars across the country: "Time's up."
Betty Boothroyd was born an only child in a politically active household in Yorkshire in October 1929. Both her parents were textile workers and trades unionists, and she joined the Labour League of Youth at only 16. After a brief spell as a dancer in the London West End Theatre she held a series of jobs as secretary to leading politicians. These included two years in Washington D.C. as secretary to a Republican congressman and involvement in the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign. She was also secretary to the one-time Labour cabinet minister, Barbara Castle. She shared Lady Castle's brisk, no-nonsense style but opted for a different brand of Labour politics. Boothroyd was known in her time on Labour's National Executive Committee (1981-1987) as a right-center opponent of what she called "headbangers … and extremists and militants" and a supporter of what was later to become the European Union.
It took five attempts before she was able to enter Parliament. Boothroyd contested seats in Leicester, in Peterborough, and two in North West England before being elected for the West Midlands seat of West Bromwich (later reformed as West Bromwich West) in 1973. An early sign of her ability to invade what were previously male-only preserves was her appointment as a Labour Party whip the next year. From 1975 to 1977 she was a member of the European Assembly, the unelected predecessor of the European Parliament. She served her apprenticeship for the Speaker's post as a deputy from 1987 to 1992. It was when she took on that role that a backbencher asked her how she wished to be addressed and she replied, appropriately for one with her show business background, "Call me Madam."
Madam Speaker Boothroyd never married. She preferred to concentrate her efforts on forging a ground breaking career in British politics. "The Commons has never been just a career," she told an interviewer from People Magazine, "It's my life." She proved an adept disciplinarian with Parliament's unruly elements. Some of her success in what remained a predominantly male-oriented world, was that MPs believed she had earned the status of "good chap." During her tenure, although she presided over a chamber containing a record number of women MPs, she clearly relished her position. She controlled the daily proceedings with considerable gusto. Boothroyd remained meticulously fair in her dealings with MPs, maintaining statistical records of exactly whom she called on from which parties, so that there would be no accusations of bias.
The Speaker is traditionally a guardian of back bench rights, and Boothroyd amply demonstrated her independence of the executive. "I rub my hands with glee when I am unpopular with both sides…. You've got to ensure that holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their points of view," she told People. She permitted lengthy questioning of ministers over statements and in response to emergency questions. In July 1993 she was in the spotlight when she ruled that the Labour Opposition was entitled to stage the vote it sought on inclusion of the controversial social chapter covering workers' rights in the bill to ratify British acceptance of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union negotiated by Prime Minister John Major. She did so despite having to overrule an earlier decision by her deputy that such an attempt was out of order. When the vote on the Labour move was tied, Boothroyd used her casting vote to defeat the amendment and preserve the government's position.
There had been some criticism of her the previous month after she clashed repeatedly with ex-minister Michael Mates during his resignation speech in the Commons. MPs felt she had been unduly restrictive in application of the sub judice rules under which comment is limited if it could affect future legal proceedings.
The firmest indication of her readiness to protect the rights of Parliament came in July 1993 with what was perceived as a warning to the courts that Parliament did not interfere with their jurisdiction and they were not to interfere with Parliament's doings. Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of the Times and an opponent of the Conservative government's Maastricht treaty bill, was seeking to challenge the government's legislation in the courts. Left wing Labour MP, Tony Benn, asked the speaker for a ruling on whether Parliament's sovereignty was being challenged. She replied that the way courts were using the words spoken during parliamentary debates to assist in the interpretation of laws was questioning the Commons in a way previously thought impossible: The 1689 Bill of Rights provided that freedom of speech in Parliament "ought not to be questioned in any place out of Parliament" and when the Rees-Mogg case began she trusted that the judges concerned would respect the Bill of Rights. The case was dismissed and Benn and others believed that Boothroyd had earned her place in parliamentary history alongside the famous Speaker Lenthall in the 17th century, who defied the orders of a king who was seeking to seize five parliamentary opponents with the response: "I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
Following the election of Tony Blair as prime minister, and Labour's return to dominance in the House of Commons in May 1997, Boothroyd was unanimously re-elected Speaker. During the speeches and accolades that accompanied her renomination to the post, members of Parliament referred to her as "Speaker of the Commonwealth. She not only has a public persona in Britain, but is well known all over the Commonwealth. She welcomes people of every nationality, colour, and religion throughout her working term to show them what we do, why it is important, and why that tradition of democracy needs to be spread even further … [S]he tries to spread friendship, kindness and understanding among Members of parties of all sizes and shapes and now even between different genders."
Further details of Betty Boothroyd's political career can be found in the latest series of "Parliamentary Profiles" edited by Andrew Roth and available from Parliamentary Profile Services Ltd. (2, Queen Anne's Gate Buildings, Dartmouth Street, London SW1H 9BP). The role of the Commons speaker is outlined in Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, the bible of parliamentary procedure, periodically revised and published by Butterworth & Co. (London). Valuable information, including speeches and parliamentary procedures, can be found on the World Wide Web under the pages devoted to the British parliament. Both the Economist (November 19, 1994) and People Magazine (February 28, 1994) wrote profiles on Betty Boothroyd. Parliamentary proceedings can also be seen each week on C-Span, the U.S. Congress' cable network. □
J. A. Cannon