When Baroness Boothroyd announced that she was to retire as Speaker of the House of Commons in 2000, there was an audible groan among Members. “Be happy for me,” she appealed, with a twinkle in her eye, but it was not a happy occasion for many of us, who had held her in such deep affection. So yesterday, when her passing was announced formally, there was shock and sadness all around, because Betty was one of a kind. She was not only the first woman Speaker, but a force to be reckoned with.
The only child of two textile workers, Betty was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. She was first a dancer in the popular Tiller Girls troupe, before turning her attention to politics—and thank goodness she did. Having worked as an assistant to Labour MPs, including Barbara Castle, and spending time in the United States observing the Kennedy campaign, she contested four seats unsuccessfully before finally, in 1973, being elected in West Bromwich, a seat that she held for 27 years.
As well as being an effective and active constituency MP, Betty served as an assistant Government Whip, and as a Member of the European Parliament at the same time as being an MP, as well as being a member of Labour’s national executive committee—where she met my father, Doug Hoyle, who was on the opposite side of the NEC in those days—and, of course, becoming Deputy Speaker, under Speaker “Jack” Weatherill.
But all that changed in 1992, when Betty was elected to the role that she was made for, and that we all remember her for: that of Speaker. It was a role that she held for eight years. She was there when I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Chorley in 1997. She was there again in the House of Commons, supporting me when I was elected Speaker in 2019. She was forthright, fair, strong and certainly no pushover. She commanded respect across the House, and we knew it and gave her that respect. She was expert in keeping us all in check one minute, and then offering help to a newcomer the next, be it an MP, a staff member or, indeed, a Deputy Speaker.
As I am a proud Lancastrian and Betty was a proud Yorkshirewoman, there was always friendly rivalry between the red rose and the white rose, but we were always united when it came to the south. When I became Speaker, she regularly, and rightly, offered me advice, whether I wanted it or not, but it was always well-meaning—well, I hoped it was, anyway. “Lovey, you’re doing very well, but...” she would tell me during our many calls and meetings. She was quite interesting when she telephoned. She would ask, “Is that you, Helen?” “No, it’s Jo.” “Well, I don’t want you; I want Helen—you’d better get her.” Then she would say, “Just tell him I want dinner tonight, because I’ve some advice for him.” That was Betty, and that was why we loved her.
Like me, Betty believed in the formality of the role of Speaker and the attire that goes with it, apart from the wig, which she refused to wear—a tradition that I have gladly continued.
Let us begin to think back. Betty was known for travel, both professional and personal. Cyprus was her favourite holiday destination, a place where she famously took up paragliding in her 60s. But she was also the perfect host in Westminster, be it at a singalong around the piano in Speaker’s House with parliamentary colleagues—Speaker’s House was well known for its receptions—or welcoming international guests. Who can forget Madam Speaker walking down the steps of Westminster Hall in 1996 holding the hand of Nelson Mandela, the South African President. She was there to make sure the House was truly represented. That sense of humanity is what endeared us all to Betty.
One of Betty’s trademark appeals to Members who took too long to get their words out during Prime Minister’s questions was, “Time’s up!” Well, Madam Speaker, we are devastated that your time is up, but on behalf of us all, let me say that you will never be forgotten. You made history, so please rest in peace.
I rise on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to pay tribute to a remarkable figure. I know how many will be affected by this sad news of her passing and I know that the whole House will want to send their thoughts and prayers to her dearest. I was two months old when Betty was elected to this place on her fifth attempt. By my reckoning, fewer than 30 of our current right hon. and hon. Members were contemporaries of hers—I can see many of them in the Chamber today—yet we all knew her. We knew her before we arrived here. We knew her before she wrote to us, talked to us, encouraged us and made us laugh.
There are few political figures who get cut-through with the public, but she was one of them. It was not just her features or her fantastic voice that were recognised; we all knew what she stood for. Hers was a character that was forceful enough to transcend time, Parliaments, partisanship and generations. It was who she was and what she did; her trailblazing legacy not just as the first woman Speaker, but the first from the Opposition Benches. She was of a generation who took ground for women’s progress. She had been inspired by vinegar and gunpowder. She was a moderniser—she demystified. Her 50-year parliamentary career and all she did for national life, in particular for women, inspired and paved the way for future generations, but also she commemorated and got credit for those who had gone before her. She felt keenly that the privileges of this House were dearly won in toil and sacrifice, and the monument to the women of the second world war stands in great part because of her.
But it was not just her considerable achievements that made her recognisable; there was something more. It was how she made us feel. Like the Pennines from which she hailed, she gave our nation backbone. She gave us courage, because she reminded us that we were no cowards. Her warmth, entertainment and no-nonsense approach helped to restore trust. She made this place accessible, and she commanded us with the salty glamour of a pub landlady: “Time’s up!” Her gritty pragmatism sat comfortably alongside her optimism and hope and a deep faith in future generations.
She gave us confidence and pride in this place, and that was no accident. She wanted to give all a chance because she had cherished every chance that she had been given. For me, that care was evident in a particular letter she wrote to me after I had proposed the Loyal Address in 2014, and I was so grateful for it. She concluded that she wanted me to “flourish”—not just to be successful or to do well or to get on, but to flourish, to excel, to be all I could be, to have a ruddy good time doing it and to understand what my purpose was. She knew her purpose: “I speak to serve”, she said, and she served us well. May she rest in peace, and may these tributes to her remind us all of the responsibility and the opportunity it is our privilege to have. Thank you, Betty.
It is a pleasure to follow the Leader of the House and an honour to lead the Opposition’s tributes to a giant of our Labour party and of this House: Betty Boothroyd. Our condolences must go out to her friends, family and all who knew her. I hope that we can spend this afternoon joined in celebration of a wonderful life well lived.
Born in Dewsbury—a part of the world I know well—Betty’s story is one of a proud working-class Yorkshire lass taking on the many challenges stacked against a woman from her background. She was a Labour woman who rose to the very top of her game, but she set a profound example to all women of this House who came after her, and we all thank her for it. Her story starts with humble beginnings, knowing all too well the challenges of growing up poor, witnessing her parents dropping in and out of insecure work in the textile industry. She enjoyed occasional holidays to Blackpool, but she strived for more. At 13, she won a scholarship to Dewsbury technical college, but it was her passion for dancing that she first pursued. What a joy it has been to see the beautiful black and white pictures from her stint as a member of the Tiller Girls dance troupe, which clearly instilled in her the art of performance—a trait that served her well in this place, especially during her eight years in the Speaker’s Chair. What a performer, Mr Speaker.
It is Betty’s career change from dancing to politics for which we remember her so fondly today. She worked hard and made the most of her opportunities. Her former boss, Barbara Castle, for whom she was a secretary, wrote that the moral of Betty’s career was that
“You never know what people are capable of until you give them the opportunity to show it.”
Maybe others could not have seen where Betty’s capabilities would take her, but I like to think that she knew her potential, and she worked damned hard to realise it and never gave up. That characteristic stood her in good stead during the four unsuccessful election campaigns in which she stood as parliamentary candidate. All of us who have stood in election campaigns will know what that feels like; it shows true Yorkshire grit.
Following Betty’s success in the West Bromwich by-election, she quickly became a Government Whip and then a Deputy Speaker, but she did not settle for that. As some of her friends told me this morning, she chose to go for gold. Her landslide election as the first and, so far, only female Speaker of the House of Commons rightly earned her a place in history as well as in our hearts. More than that, she will be remembered for how she carried out her duties: her trademark warmth and wit, and her firm but fair approach that defined her years as Chair. Dare I say that she also brought a swathe of glamour to the role? She spoke about the need to take pride in yourself and to turn yourself out every day looking the best you can—I am a bit nervous delivering these lines, but I hope she would be proud of her legacy, and I did apply my lippy very carefully this morning.
I met Betty only once—when she was in the Chamber to witness your election, Mr Speaker—and had a lovely chat with her, which was a real treat. Perhaps what I admire most about Betty, however, was her unapologetic admiration for the House of Commons. She upheld standards and kept order during the challenging debates of her times: on the European exchange rate mechanism, and the Maastricht treaty, which some hon. Members here no doubt remember well. She stood up for the role of Parliament and championed MPs scrutinising Government, particularly after Labour’s ’97 landslide. As she looked back on her time as Speaker, she said
“I couldn’t let Parliament down. I love Parliament, and I was its servant and not its master.”
She did love Parliament. She did not let it down. She lifted it up, and she is lifting it up still. She is one of Parliament’s greatest servants. We thank her, and we remember her incredible life today.
It is with great sadness that all of us will rise today to pay tribute to the late Baroness Boothroyd, and our condolences are with her family and friends.
To go from high-kicking on the theatrical stage to mastery of the tumultuous stage of the House of Commons is quite a journey. As the woman who broke that glass ceiling to become the first woman Speaker in 700 years, Betty Boothroyd will always have her place in history but, as the shadow Leader of the House said, for those of us who served in this Chamber when Betty was Speaker, we remember not just her historic achievement but the manner in which she conducted her role. She always knew the right point to intervene with a witty remark, a sense of humour, a gentle put down or a strong rebuke, and from Betty the rebukes could be very strong.
When I came to this House in 1997, there was a new Conservative Member who had been very successful in business. Indeed, he had been fêted as a very successful businessman. On the day on which I and a number of my colleagues were called to make our maiden speeches, he rose time and again but was not called. In fact, it was some weeks later that he made his maiden speech. I always thought that was just Betty saying, “It doesn’t matter how important you have been elsewhere, it is what you are in here that matters.” It was about her love of this House of Commons and her belief in Parliament.
For so many years of her life, Betty devoted her time to politics, to social justice and to where her heart was in politics—the Labour party—but she really loved this place and she believed in democracy. She supported this place when she was Speaker, she upheld its traditions and its standards, and she enhanced the role of Speaker of this House of Commons.
But she was not just a strong Speaker, she was a woman of warmth, fun and entertainment. I remember the soirees in Speaker’s House that brought together friends and MPs. The singing around the piano has already been mentioned, and it created a great sense of camaraderie among those who would otherwise have been exchanging sharp remarks across the Chamber. She brought people together. Her warmth was important, and she reminded us of the importance in this place of humanity, which she showed so well through everything she did.
I consider it a privilege to have known Betty Boothroyd, and I consider it an honour to have served in this Chamber under her Speakership. May she rest in peace. We will always remember a remarkable, amazing, impressive woman.
I call the Mother of the House.
That was an excellent tribute from Mrs May. Perfectly put.
This is, indeed, a sad but very proud moment as the House pays tribute to Betty Boothroyd. A proud moment for all of us women in the House, as she was the first and only woman Speaker, and she was brilliant in the Chair. A proud moment for Labour, as she was a woman from a working-class, Yorkshire background who blazed a trail for Labour in politics. And a proud moment for the House, as she was an icon for Parliament. She was admired and respected not only in this country but abroad. I went to the United States when she was Speaker, and all anybody wanted to ask me was whether I had ever met Betty Boothroyd and what she was like.
Members have mentioned the odds she defied to get into this House. Four times she stood for election and four times she failed, but she stood again and got in the fifth time. She was utterly resilient, and nothing smoothed her path. Let us remember that it was not an asset for getting into Parliament to have been a secretary, it was not an asset for getting into Parliament to be a woman and it was certainly not an asset for getting into Parliament to have been a dancer, but she overcame all those odds.
This was at a time when Parliament was overwhelmingly male-dominated. She joined the Commons when only 3% of MPs were women and 97% were men. She not only got into Parliament, but she got her voice heard. She did this through a combination of charisma, commitment, having more energy than anybody else and bottomless resilience. She was smart, she was tough and, my goodness, she had to be. In an overwhelmingly male House dominated by a Tory majority, she was elected Speaker as a Labour woman. Again, it was her determination and rigour: she was always the best briefed, best prepared person in the room.
In the Speaker’s Chair, yes, she had a fantastic sense of humour and a great personal warmth, but—let us not mince our words—she ruled this place with a rod of iron. She did that by always being ahead of the House. She missed nothing, and she expected from all of us the high standards to which she held herself. She expected the House to be boisterous, but she had no time for oafish, loutish behaviour. When a Tory MP, Tony Marlow, shouted across the House that I was a “stupid cow,” he made a big mistake. It is not that everybody else was not saying it, but Betty heard him. He was at the far end of the Chamber and she was in the Chair, but she heard him. She forced him to withdraw those words, ruling that “stupid cow” is unparliamentary language.
She wanted Parliament to be admired and respected. She was always at her best, and she expected us to be at our best, too. I was in awe of her but, frankly, I was also in fear of her. We had to be on time, in the right place and know what we were doing and saying. She would probably be saying to me now, “Why on earth, after 40 years in Parliament, are you still reading your notes?”
She was immaculate and glamorous, which has left its mark on me, as it has on the shadow Leader of the House. I always think about what Betty would think I should be wearing, I hope she would approve of my attempt to be respectful while being a bit stylish. She was always immaculate and glamorous, never a hair out of place. That is why she did not want to wear the wig. It was not modernisation. She wanted to look absolutely immaculate.
She would probably be telling me to shut up now. She wanted people not to go on too long. My sympathies go to her family and her many friends on the loss of this remarkable woman. There will be another woman Speaker, but there will never be another Betty Boothroyd.
I came into Parliament in 1984, when Jack Weatherill was Speaker of the House of Commons. I had the great pleasure of voting in the election after he ceased to be Speaker, and I came to the conclusion that Betty Boothroyd was the right person for the job. I am not sure that many other Conservative Members voted for her, but she never forgot. We always maintained an extremely good relationship. She was a great Speaker: every one of the tributes we have heard has not only added to her reputation and the lustre of her career but has been extremely accurate.
Occasionally, very occasionally, I go into the Library. I always go into the same room and sit in the same green chair. As I look up, I see the list of Speakers. Of course I see your name, Mr Speaker, and I see your predecessor’s name, and so on. The name I always notice is Miss Boothroyd. As the first lady Speaker of the House of Commons, very much in line with what others have said, she not only made her mark but she was a wonderful person.
It would not do for me not to mention the Maastricht treaty, on which I had to deal with her as Speaker. I cannot remember precisely whether it was under the Chairman or the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means but, at a very important moment, we moved a motion of censure. As I recall it, the decision went in our direction, as a result of which she then had to come in and take over to make the decision that was needed. It was a tie, and she of course made the appropriate decision and that was that. She did exactly what I have heard in these tributes so far: she took the initiative, intervened at the right moment and did the right thing. She was really a remarkable person.
I caught up with her on a number of occasions, because she would come down towards the House of Commons and one would get into a conversation with her. I noticed that she was getting a little older. We might sit down and have a quiet word, and I just said to her, “I do hope you have given up that smoking.” She did smoke quite a lot and it was a matter of concern to me as I saw her getting older and I thought that perhaps this was not a good thing for her to be continuing to do. I want to end on this note: she was a great Speaker, a great lady and a great ornament to this House of Commons.
Over the past 24 hours, a number of people have asked me when I first met Betty Boothroyd. To be perfectly frank, I cannot remember, but I know it was at least 48 years ago, because that was when I came into this place, to which she had not all that long been elected. Reference has been made to various parts of her record. I think it was a journalist who said, “Why should Betty wear the wig, she’s got perfectly good iron grey curls of her own?” As has been mentioned, that was very much her attitude.
I well remember Betty going into the Whips Office and hearing nervous traditionalists from the Tory Benches murmur that they were not sure that their party would ever allow a woman into that nest of information and power that the Whips Office always represented. Of course, that has turned out not to be the case, but although Betty was not the first woman Whip, it was thought of as quite a revolution when she went into the Whips Office.
I also had the pleasure of serving with Betty on the national executive committee, although, like your father, Mr Speaker, she and I were not always of the same point of view. But there was a great degree of mutual respect and, as time went on, very real friendship. Certainly when I was Leader of the House of Commons, I met her constantly as the Speaker. She was hugely helpful, sympathetic and understanding, but, as has been mentioned, there was always this very strong determination to see respect for the House of Commons. She was one of the Speakers who insisted that Ministers come to this House to give statements. We are talking about a Labour Government, by the way, and I am sorry to say that not everybody was always as respectful of the demands of this House. I am afraid that that crosses parties and it is true of Conservative and Labour Governments, but Betty was always very clear that the House comes first, statements must be made first to the House and the House must be treated with respect.
Betty was also a staunch and loyal friend. It was not known for a long time that when Mo Mowlam was very ill indeed and having to rest frequently during the day, Betty gave her sanctuary in Speaker’s House, looked after her and generally showed her great affection, as well as friendship.
I remember when Betty was elected Speaker. What has not been mentioned is that one of the reasons her campaign was successful was that on the Conservative Benches it was led by John Biffen, a much respected former Leader of the House who, like others, was held in great affection here. The fact that he, among others, was such a staunch advocate for Betty’s Speakership was one reason she was successful. I felt slightly sorry for Peter Brooke, who perhaps had expected to be crowned Speaker, as the Government’s own candidate. However, it was clear not only that Betty was going to win, but that everybody was going to be very happy about it, except perhaps Peter Brooke, poor man.
Betty was a revelation in the Chair. She had a rich and robust voice that went with a rich and robust character. As people have said several times, she was a performer, and she performed as Speaker—and she performed extremely well. One thing that has not been mentioned so far is that one of the roles of Speaker is, as you will know, Mr Speaker, to represent this House overseas on occasion. I always thought how fortunate we were to have Betty as the emblem and the representative of this House, and how much it added to our prestige as a country to see her in that role.
Betty was dedicated to this House. She was something of a traditionalist. I do not object to that, but I know that some colleagues perhaps were sorry when she did not support all the modernisation changes that were proposed—
No, I do not think that is fair; I think she supported some of them.
Betty was certainly—the word was used a moment ago—an ornament to this House, but she was much more than that. She was a very, very formidable figure. I do not think there is any doubt that, to young women in the outside world, she was a representation of the fact that, yes, women can get anywhere and they can do the job, not only well, but much better than many of the men who have had that post. So I share the view that she will be remembered for a very long time. She will be remembered with affection, as well as respect, and that, I think, she would always have welcomed.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I will share with the House just two personal anecdotes of my experience with the late, great Betty Boothroyd. The first occurred in May 1997, on the day of my swearing in—at least, I hoped it would be the day of my swearing in, because I had inquired, checked and double-checked that on that day the new intake MPs were to be sworn in. As it was my first time, my father, Sam, had come from Swansea in south Wales. He had caught the train on time, it had arrived on time and I had picked him up on time, so I knew that something was bound to go wrong. No sooner had I got him settled in the Gallery than the then Deputy Chief Whip told me that there had been a change of plan and the previous MPs were to be sworn in on that day; the new MPs would be sworn in on subsequent days. However, he said that I could go and have a word with the Speaker’s Secretary—the gentleman at the time who was standing by the Chair. I did that, and he understood and said, “You can go on the end of the queue and be sworn in when all the pre-existing MPs have done so.”
For the benefit of anyone watching these tributes who does not know the procedure, I should say that one lines up, takes the Oath at the Dispatch Box, signs the register and shakes hands with the Speaker, with whom one has a gentle exchange of words. In my gentle exchange of words, I said that I was so pleased that it had been possible to be sworn in on that day as my father was 84 and he had come 200 miles to see it. Betty paused, looked up at the Gallery, spotted this gentleman with silver hair who was beaming and looking very proud of being part of this wonderful occasion, and said, “Is that him up there?” When I said that it was, she said, “Well, strictly speaking, we are not allowed to make reference to anyone outside the boundaries of the Chamber itself. But as it is a special occasion, let’s give him a wave.” So Betty the Speaker and I gave my dad a big wave.
The second anecdote I would like to share is from June 2000. As a result of a debate on the armed forces, I was in the proud position of welcoming four second world war veterans of the Fleet Air Arm, all of whom had been decorated with distinguished service orders, conspicuous gallantry medals or, in one case, the distinguished service medal for their participation in near suicidal attacks on the German battlefleet going up the channel in 1942 or on Japanese-supplying oil refineries in Sumatra in 1945. I thought that it would be nice to get some extra tickets so that they and their wives could attend Prime Minister’s questions. I went along to the Speaker’s Office and, when I explained the situation, the member of staff graciously said, “Yes, of course you can have these extra tickets, but why not bring them round, because I am sure Madam Speaker will want to see them.”
Not only did she want to see them, not only did she give them a personal tour of the Speaker’s apartments, but at the end of it all she made a little oration to them that was perfectly judged. We must remember that, in their day, these elderly gents had been heroes of the second world war, but many, many years had gone by and most people of that generation did not even know about the channel dash raid or the Palembang oil refineries raid. She said, “I want to thank you, because, without what you and your comrades did, we would not have a free Parliament today.” Impishly, she added, “And with my views, I would probably have ended up in a concentration camp.” Quick as a flash, Pat Kingsmill DSO said, “Yes, but we would have been in there right alongside you all the way.” I could see the backbones of these four elderly gentlemen straightening because of the way that they had been inspired by the empathy, the kindness and the dignity of this wonderful woman.
I close by reminding the House that I was one of hundreds of MPs. Those are my two anecdotes, and if some of those hundreds were here, they could tell many more.
Let us go to somebody who is a serving neighbour.
I was sitting in this spot, behind Betty Boothroyd, when she was elected as Speaker. A picture of that day has gone round, which unfortunately reminds me that a lot of colour has gone out of both my hair and beard in the meantime. Imagine having to share a borough and the local media with an international star!
It is sad to lose a long-standing good friend, but really we should be celebrating an extraordinary groundbreaking life. She brought the Speaker’s role into the modern world. She respected tradition, as has been said, but did so with style. It was a role made for the televising of this House. One could almost have described it as traditional values in a modern setting.
Betty controlled this place with firmness and humour, but without either patronising or belittling colleagues—a tradition, I am pleased to see, Mr Speaker, that you have restored. With that mixture of charm and toughness, she was a mailed fist inside a stylish velvet glove. That served her well inside the Labour party, where she was a formidable figure in restoring the Labour party to common sense, battling away, hour after hour, in national executive and committee meetings. She provided the venue for the moderate group’s pre-meeting before the NEC meeting. Food and drink may have been involved as well. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett or your father, Mr Speaker, were on the invitation list for those gatherings. That was all good training for her time in the Whips Office, during the years recently recreated in the play “This House”.
We also have to consider how she even got to this place. The battle for a seat—a number of seats—was enormously difficult for a working-class woman without some of the resources that were available to trade union candidates, for example, in those days. She fought in Leicester South East, Peterborough, Nelson and Colne and Rossendale before becoming the Member for West Bromwich.
Betty showed that perseverance and grit can win through. She broke barriers so that others who followed would not have the same struggles. She was one of a kind and a real pioneer. West Bromwich, Sandwell, the Labour party, the wider west midlands, Parliament and the public will miss her, but will remember how she changed this Parliament and this country for the better. May she rest in peace.
I wish to pay tribute to a wonderful human being and perhaps touch on some of the things that happened outside this Chamber, before I became a Member of Parliament, when I was sometimes sitting upstairs here. I vividly remember hearing her say, “Time’s up”—that is not a poke at you, Mr Speaker—and “Reading”. She hated people reading questions. Perhaps that is something that we should learn, as we would get through more questions. To be fair, she could understand people better when they spoke from the heart, rather than from something that was pre-written for them.
She was brilliant with the staff. We have heard so much, quite rightly, about what happened in this Chamber and in Parliament itself, but she was also enormously proud of the staff in this great House. She had time for everybody. I was working for Sir Teddy Taylor when I was on crutches, recovering from an injury. She had no idea who I was, but she stopped me and said, “What have you done, young man?” I was 40-odd at the time and was thrilled to be called a young man. I explained to her what had happened. She said, “You keep in touch with me as to what goes on.” When I was elected in 2005, she stopped me again, even though she was not in this House then, and said, “You’ve made it, young man, congratulations.”
Betty came regularly to the Tea Room and sat at her table. If anyone wanted to talk to her, that was fine, otherwise she would not interrupt at all. She was there to give advice. She liked the atmosphere—the ambience—of the place. The key for her was people—people from any background who had this opportunity in life, as she had, along with the likes of myself and many colleagues in the House today.
There was another part of Betty that has been touched on just fractionally today, which was Cyprus. Like my family, Betty loved Cyprus. She would go to Cyprus at any time that she could when it was warm—she did not like it in the winter. As my hon. Friend Sir William Cash said earlier on, she also liked her ciggies, but if anyone mentioned that she was still smoking, she would say, “I have cut back. I am not smoking anywhere near as many as I used to.” That was rubbish. Sneakily, the ciggie was always there, even in her latter years, and even if she was down by the pool or on the beach—we have heard about the paragliding and things like that. Covid restricted her, and that really hurt her, because she could not get away to see her friends in her beloved Cyprus. Betty was immaculate. There was not, as we have heard, a bit of lippy out of place. To say that a lady of her years looked so immaculate by the side of the pool is not to belittle her or her age. She was just as proud as punch to be there in the sunshine with her friends.
From me, as probably the last speaker from the Conservative Benches, I say thank you to her for being a wonderful human being and for giving people the courage all those years ago to step forward. As the Mother of the House has said, it was so difficult for women then not just to fight a seat, but to get selected to fight a seat. For her to come through all that and to still have time for everybody else is something that her family and her loved ones should be very proud of, and we will miss her dearly.
I speak as a current serving Member of Labour’s NEC who has some insight—more from history than personal experience—of the kinds of times that Betty went through when she was a servant of the Labour party NEC. I also speak as someone whose first vote in this House was actually in that Speaker’s election, so I started off pretty well in the 1992 to 1997 Parliament with a win, but I do not think that we won a single vote after that for the length of the Parliament.
Betty was, as we have heard, born to a working-class family of textile workers in Dewsbury, the daughter of a millhand and a weaver. She later said:
“I came out of the womb into the Labour movement.”
Her mum and dad, Mary and Archie, were both members of the Labour party and the textile workers union when she was born. Despite being a fun-loving teenager, she was—perhaps inevitably, given that background—always serious about her politics. She said that her parents were politically minded because they were mill workers in Dewsbury during the depression years.
Betty was famously a keen dancer, as we have heard, and a chorus girl who, rumour had it, even performed at the pantomime. But in the end, she chose Parliament, and she persisted so that, finally, Parliament also chose her. She did not become an MP easily, as we have heard—no woman did back then. It took her five attempts over 16 years before she was finally successful as the 95th woman ever elected to this House of Commons. During that struggle, she even began referring to herself as
“the girl most unlikely to succeed”,
The Parliament that Betty entered in 1973 was almost entirely bereft of women. When she first came to this place, only 4%, or 19, of the 635 MPs were women. That figure was to fall even lower in the February 1974 election—of which today is the anniversary, by the way—which returned 23 women, of whom 13 were Labour and, of course, Betty was one. Three other women were elected in that election and I think we ought to remember them. Maureen Colquhoun was of the same generation as Betty, and although she had a very different parliamentary career, hers was equally as important. Jo Richardson was also returned, as was Audrey Wise. They were all formidable Labour women. It just shows what you had to be in that time to get anywhere near this place.
When I was elected to Parliament in 1992, my first ever vote was in that historic Speaker’s election, which was only the third in a century. As we have heard, Betty was the first—and, so far, the only—woman to be elected Speaker in 700 years of parliamentary history. It is a tribute to her personal qualities and the regard in which she was held that she broke that glass ceiling when women made up less than 10% of that House of Commons. It is perhaps why she appealed in this place, when we were all listening, for people to vote for what she was and what she represented rather than for how she was born. That was, I think, a pitch to the 90% of people in this place, during that election, who were not women.
Betty was not John Major’s choice or the Conservative choice in that election—as we have heard, Peter Brooke was—but 72 Members of the governing party voted for her, which just shows her reach. When John Major realised that his pitch for Peter Brooke had failed, and that, as my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett said in her tribute, people were very happy about it, he was extremely graceful in his tribute to her. He observed that she had “made history”, and said to her:
“The House trusts you. It believes that you enjoy in abundance the qualities necessary to protect and sustain the House, and to safeguard its rights.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 207, c. 20.]
She repaid that trust in spades in the eight years during which she presided.
Betty was, as has been referred to in some tributes, the owner of a famously loud voice, which, of course, you need if you are in the Chair, Mr Speaker. She stamped her personality on the role and became a national treasure. She got rid of the wig, rightly assuming that her abundant shock of impeccably sculptured grey hair was a suitable alternative. She presided with, I think, great authority, wit and charm over some very difficult periods—not least the trench warfare over the Maastricht treaty. She was probably the nearest thing to regal that any non-royal could be, which befits the highest commoner in the land, which of course our Speaker is. She was always impeccably fashionable, as perhaps befits the daughter of textile workers. She was clear in interviews that her dress sense had come directly from the expectations of her father for her to be presentable as she was growing up.
Betty was, in private, an astute observer of the political scene, personally kind and thoughtful, and good at putting new Members at their ease while keeping them on the straight and narrow as far as procedure went. She was a stickler for tradition and a staunch protector of the rights of the House, as we have heard. There was a moan of great shock when she announced her resignation in 2000. Nobody had expected it. I was in the Chamber when she announced it, and there was dismay around the place, which forced her in the end to stop speaking from her prepared notes and just say, “Be happy for me!” She had decided to go at a time of her choosing after feeling that she had served the House to the best of her ability for as long she wished to do so.
Betty regarded herself as a democrat. She was pro-EU, as I think Sir William Cash said in his remarks. She was a child of the Labour party. She was a Labour icon. She was, as I mentioned, one of that group of formidable women who came into the House in the 1970s. She was, above all else, a servant of Parliament. We will not see her like again, but those who knew her know what a privilege that was and what a magnificent and unique parliamentarian we were lucky enough to know and work alongside.
We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Betty. I was lucky enough to be here during part of her speakership, but unfortunately, as I had lost my seat in 1992, I was not able to participate in her election or her first term as Speaker.
I think it worth reinforcing a point that has already been made. In 1992, the Conservative Government, who had been re-elected, sought in a sense to change the system. Instead of having a Speaker elected from the Labour party, which would have been the norm, the powers that be decided that they wanted a former Cabinet Minister, Peter Brooke, as the Speaker. It is worth paying tribute to all those on the Conservative Benches who decided that that was not to be—that it would not be fair; it would not be right; and, indeed, that they ought to elect somebody who had spent most of her time on the Back Benches rather than in Government.
It is a pity that there are not more people here today, but if there comes a time when there is a vacancy in the future, colleagues should remember that they should follow their own instincts and judgment rather than be driven by the pressure from the Whips or the establishment. Betty Boothroyd really rewarded the trust that people put in her. She was an independent Speaker—nobody would ever criticise her for being partisan.
It is a pity that her successor did not necessarily live up to the example that she set so well. I remember that when she retired, she was a shoulder upon which many of us could shed a tear when we were in despair at what was happening in this place, and I thank her for those words of consolation during that period. I say to constituents who come here that the best Speakers are the ones who hardly ever speak, and she epitomised that. She used the expressions on her face to keep control in this place, and it is a pity that her immediate successor did not follow that same edict.
I agree with my right hon. Friend John Spellar that today should be about celebrating a long life well lived, which is how I remember Betty. She is probably, of her generation, one of the most loved and will be longest remembered for her contribution to politics, particularly here in Westminster. I have strong memories of her keeping us in the most definite order and ensuring that the traditions of the House were well respected. The fact that she was the woman who broke a piece of the glass ceiling by becoming our first female Speaker earns her that well-deserved place in history, but it was not simply that she secured the position; it was how she used it.
She brought her theatrical talent from her time as a Tiller girl to the task of being Speaker of the House. Some of us will remember that those were the early days of televising the House. Her strong, charismatic and theatrical manner and her occasionally very funny approach to the role made her a national treasure and helped Parliament, because it helped to grow interest in what was happening in Parliament, so that people started watching us on television.
It was tough to be a woman in the House when she was first elected as one of 23 women MPs. She was, I think, one of the generation who felt they had to outperform the men to make any progress. I would not describe her as a sister, but I do remember that she was responsible for the most revolutionary thing in those days: she introduced vending machines to sell tights. Those of us who were the revolutionary feminists and always caught our tights on the wood right across the Palace were really grateful for that. She also made sure that there were more women’s lavatories close to the Chamber.
Her success in securing the position was radical, but she was a very firm traditionalist. What we wore, how we dressed and how we behaved in the House were all really important to her. As my hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle said, she looked regal in the Speaker’s robes. I remember that the very first time I spoke in the House, I was sitting around where I am now. I made my maiden speech and sat down, knowing that after we have listened to a couple of Members, we can go out and have a cup of tea with our adoring family who have come to watch us. I did that and then came back into the Chamber and sat in a different place. I did not realise that there was a tradition that we have to sit in the same place from which we have spoken, and I got right well told off by her, which was very deflating but typical of Betty. I do not know whether others remember the time that Simon Hughes was very long in asking a question—
Always. Betty said to him:
“This is so time-consuming. Come on, Mr. Hughes: spit it out.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 292, c. 719.]
He then sat down, completely deflated.
I also remember that she loved having good fun. I am lucky enough to play the piano, and we had a sing-song in her rooms where we sang “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. That was another side of Betty that we all felt warm about.
My predecessor was Jo Richardson, who was a close friend of Betty Boothroyd. She used to chat to me a lot about Jo when I was trying to get to know my predecessor better. We named a school after her, the Jo Richardson Community School in Barking. Betty graciously came and opened the school and enthralled all the children with her theatricality.
The final thing I want to say is that she was always kind. She was kind to all of us personally. I remember that when I was having a particularly difficult time in the House in relation to fighting the antisemitism in the Labour party, she was one of the most supportive women to me; she gave me the courage to be resilient in that situation. Betty earned her place in our history books. She was a vibrant, passionate and strong woman. She loved her life in Parliament, and we loved her.
Representing a Yorkshire constituency, I know that we are not short of warm, brilliant women with sharp wit and a hearty laugh, but Baroness Boothroyd led the way as an iconic parliamentarian and a role model to many of us, with a life well lived.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to chat with Betty on the closing night of the musical bearing her name at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I spotted her across the theatre. At that stage she was in a wheelchair, but she was immaculately dressed, and most strikingly, she had a large portcullis brooch proudly displayed on her jacket. It was a real pleasure to see her beaming with joy as her story was told in full musical technicolour, particularly as I know that Betty loved the theatre and a good song and dance. At one stage in the play, her character descended from the gods in a huge Speaker’s Chair, and I could see she loved that—she was beaming.
Although she included “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as one of her songs on “Desert Island Discs”, we all know that it is in politics that she had an immeasurable amount to contribute, and we thank her for that today. On behalf of my constituents in Hull North, I would like to express our thanks for all that she did and send our condolences to her friends and family.
Baroness Boothroyd was a true trailblazer, as we have heard from everyone who has spoken today. I had the enormous privilege of eating lunch with her quite a few times in the Members’ Dining Room. From the very first time as a new MP to the last time—I cannot recall when that was; if I had known it was going to be the last time, I would have made sure I kept that memory forever—I was awestruck at how sharp and engaged she was, as well as how immaculate and glamorous she always was, even into her 90s. She certainly kept us all on our toes, and she was never, ever off duty.
She had always been a woman on top of her game, and with her fierce personality, she took everything in her stride. Coming from a trade unionist and staunch Labour family, she made her mark immediately in Parliament, standing up for ordinary working people in her maiden speech. She represented the best of us here in the Labour party, and she then went on to represent the best of this House, as the first and still the only Madam Speaker.
As the ambassador of Parliament internationally, while overseeing the administration of this House and bringing coherence and order to proceedings on a daily basis, she was an anchor for our proud democratic traditions, always acutely aware of the fine balance to maintain when representing the UK’s legislature and democracy as a whole. The speakership was coming under increased scrutiny when she stepped into the role, given its wider public recognition as a result of proceedings being televised, as my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge said, but Betty took it all in her stride, standing up for power, authority and integrity and also immaculate style in the office of Speaker. She made quite the impact and served as an inspiration to all of us in this House who have gone before and who are still here. We will never see her like again.
I rise to speak in tribute to a person who, more than anyone else, has had a profound impact on my life. I absolutely idolised Betty Boothroyd as a young child. Pre-1997, I remember that there were more Members called John or Jonathan than there were female MPs. As a young girl of four or five years old, it was absolutely transfixing watching Betty Boothroyd on television, not only because she was the first, and to date only, female Speaker of the House, but because of the way that she commanded this Chamber of often braying, oafish men and because of the respect that they held her in. I found her charisma magnetic and I loved her wit.
I used to come home from school and want to watch Betty Boothroyd on television. Although I had little concept at that time about politics or what her job actually was, she was a character I was obsessed with. At my nursery, children were allowed to go in fancy dress on their birthday and I had demanded that my parents allow me to dress as Betty Boothroyd. So there is a picture of me on my fourth birthday dressed as Betty Boothroyd to go to nursery. As I said, she was an idol.
Watching Betty Boothroyd when I was growing up, and wanting to understand more about the job that she did, was what got me interested in politics in the first place. She had an impact on not just me but, I am sure, young girls up and down the country, who will have seen her as a role model. She smashed through the glass ceiling and did it with wit, style and charisma, which was absolutely magical. I also saw the play that my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson referred to at the Royal Exchange Theatre, although sadly not on the same night as Betty. It really captured that camp and that performance that made her beloved up and down the country.
I never actually met Betty Boothroyd. On one occasion, when I was a newly elected MP, she came into the Tearoom and I saw her and welled up. I was so starstruck by seeing this woman in the flesh who had had such a profound impact on my life that I could not get anything out—I could not even introduce myself to say hello. Yesterday, when I heard the news, I knew that I would now never get that opportunity.
What I have taken away from the tributes that I have heard today from people who had a personal relationship with her is that she would probably have loved it if I had told her that story. It is important for all of us, when we get the opportunity to meet our heroes, to say hello and tell them how much they mean to us, because we never know when we are next going to get that opportunity or if, as in my case, we will ever get it. I hope that her friends and family, and all the people listening to these tributes, know how much she meant to me and to everyone in this House and around the country.
It is with great sadness that we gather today to pay tribute to Betty Boothroyd. On behalf the Democratic Unionist party, and particularly our leader, my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, I express our sincere condolences to her family on the loss of this giant of a lady—she was truly a political giant.
I never had the privilege of sitting under Betty Boothroyd in this Chamber, but after listening to right hon. and hon. Members, I suspect that I would have been chastised and brought into line regularly by her, as I am by you, Mr Speaker, on many occasions. I love tradition and history and I am impressed that she loved history as well. I never met her, but I often saw her in the House of Lords—everyone knew her. She certainly had presence, poise and stature; to be honest, I was probably in awe of her, because I knew her reputation. She was a big character and a personality.
What a legacy Betty Boothroyd has—we celebrate her many achievements. She was the first woman Speaker and the only one so far. She was the original groundbreaker who smashed any and every glass ceiling with her wit, authority and presence in this Chamber. She was always respected, yet one of the major moments of her time in the role that has stayed with me was her refusal of Gerry Adams’ request to come to the House to make a statement. She told him in no uncertain terms, “If you don’t take your oath, you won’t take your place here.” She was absolutely right. That is the stuff of legend to those who watch Governments roll over in deference.
Betty Boothroyd was a wonderful lady and a lovely woman who will go down in history in the annals of this place. She was a parliamentarian in every sense of the word, and a woman of worth and lasting value to this place, to her party and to her family, who will miss her. We honour her memory in this House today and in the days and years to come.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I will break tradition in a way that Betty would not have liked by saying that the Speaker’s secretary at that time, Sir Nicolas Bevan, has been watching all the proceedings—he knows all the stories and I could see him nodding when many of them were being told. There is a clear message to Maxine Peake to get “Betty! A Sort of Musical” on the road again.
Betty was absolutely rigid in keeping and upholding the values of this House. She would take on a Member of Parliament and she would take on Governments and the Opposition—it did not matter who it was. She even took on the press: poor Nigel Nelson had to sit in the Red Lion pub, because he was not allowed in the House. She put those papers into the filing cabinet and I came across them when we were having a clear out. They were quite amazing, including her letters to the editor—the poor editor, who had to write back. I said to Nigel, “I think you need to come and read this,” which he did. It was an amazing moment, and what amazing tributes we have had.