At a time when the current Speaker of the House of Commons should not be paid even in washers – and soon, thank heavens, will be pensioned off – let us celebrate one who was worth her weight in gold.
I refer to Dewsbury’s very own Baroness Betty Boothroyd, who was 90 yesterday and presided over our Parliament with distinction for eight years until 2000.
I knew of her – and we may even have met – when she was a name in Yorkshire’s Labour League of Youth. I had no idea she had been an all-singing, all-dancing Tiller girl until she appeared on the scene as MP for West Bromwich in the West Midlands in 1973.
When she retired she asked me, through a mutual friend, Michael Jones, ex-Sunday Times, to serve on her committee bringing to fruition the memorial to the women of the Second World War that now stands in Whitehall and was unveiled by the Queen in 2005.
I think I can safely say that serving on her committee eradicated from me any vestige of male chauvinist piggery that somehow Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher had failed to scold or handbag out of me.
In short, our first woman Speaker, like our first woman PM, was – and remains – a formidable woman. That stems in part from her nature and personality and, no doubt, her Yorkshire upbringing.
But her reputation rests on how quietly but commandingly she did her job of presiding well-coiffured over the Commons, understandably without the traditional wig.
It goes without saying that she did not please everybody all the time. That would be impossible in a reasonably orderly Commons let alone today’s rabble. Mrs Thatcher, for example, was not an unqualified admirer of Speaker Bernard Weatherill, who I thought was beyond censure.
If they do their job without fear or favour, Speakers will mightily inconvenience Prime Ministers and members of the Government from time to time by effectively calling on them in difficulty to answer to Parliament for their actions.
When Mrs Thatcher occasionally moaned about Speaker Weatherill I argued that she could not have it all her own way and, in any case, she did not have much to grumble about with him in the chair. Nor had her successors with Betty Boothroyd.
This brings me to what kind of Speaker we need in the Mother of Parliaments after John Bercow’s damaging nine-year tenure. First and foremost, we need a traditionalist with a determination to recover and maintain the dignity of Parliament and the political process.
This may seem a bit prissy when the adversarial nature of our politics, accentuated by Parliament’s layout, tests tempers, restraint and language. But, with the hard Left controlling the Opposition benches, tradition is for the birds.
Witness the way the House now claps its approval of some hypersensitive Member’s latest outrage. Pre-Bercow clapping was not allowed, though Baroness Boothroyd was clapped into office.
All the more need for the Commons to know what is clearly beyond the pale and to have that code rigorously and impartially enforced.
The second requirement is an iron resolve to remain impartial while ensuring that MPs have reasonable opportunity to hold the Government to account.
The fairer the new incumbent the greater the prospect of a productive, as distinct from abusive, Commons.
Frankly, I cannot understand Bercow’s thought processes in having a car with THAT Brexit poster on display.
He stands condemned on grounds of impartiality and taste. It is a measure of the man that he seems to think it is OK because it is his wife’s car. The third requirement is to go unnoticed, except when it counts.
The last thing we need is another thespian with an egomaniac’s uncontrollable urge to preen, prance or put down an MP. That sort of Speaker – a natural exhibitionist and bully to boot – needs bringing to “order, order.”
It would also help if the new Speaker were a stickler for timekeeping and following Parliament’s timetable. Bercow’s elasticity is another manifestation of his innate bias.
Finally, we need a modest incumbent who will measure his or her contribution to our democracy, not by being the centre of attention, but as the hand behind the emergence, post-Brexit, of a mature democratic forum.
Parliament is not just a legislative chamber. It is where grievances, shortcomings and downright failings are ventilated and urgent action demanded.
We shall only get a responsible chamber doing such a necessary job with a balanced Speaker – just like Betty Boothroyd.