BETTY BOOTHROYD turns 90 today with glowing birthday wishes – and personal tributes – from two former Prime Ministers in honour of Britain’s first female Speaker of the House of Commons.
Sir John Major salutes the Dewsbury-born Parliamentarian’s entry into “the Pantheon of National Treasures”, while his successor Tony Blair admits that he was in awe of the Yorkshirewoman.
Fierce political rivals in the 1990s, their admiration for the then Speaker – and the high esteem in which she is held – is reflected by the sincerity of their wishes to The Yorkshire Post.
Deputy Speaker when TV cameras were first allowed into the House of Commons exactly 30 years ago, Baroness Boothroyd became a national figure when she occupied the Speaker’s historic chair from 1992 to 2000.
Like today’s Brexit battles, this was a period of high-political drama as the Major government endured a series of knife-edge votes over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.
On one memorable occasion after a tied vote, she had to use her casting vote which, by convention, was in the sitting government’s favour. Foreseeing such a possibility, she had a prepared statement tucked away in a pocket so she could explain the constitutional position to MPs – and watching world. It is why there was rarely any malice towards the textile worker’s daughter who ended sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions – they never over-ran – with her stock phrase “Time’s up”.
In his contribution, Sir John, writes: “I served in Parliament with Betty Boothroyd for many years and, although we represented different political parties, I always admired her respect for the Commons, and her concern for the wellbeing of our country.
“Betty was Speaker of the House of Commons for five of my seven years in Downing Street, a role which she executed in a wholly dispassionate and exemplary manner, and in which she was widely liked and admired.
“Since her retirement from the Commons and elevation to the House of Lords, she has continued to speak up for the interests of our country, often in the most robust terms.
“One of Betty’s greatest gifts has always been her capacity to express a contrary view, without causing political offence. If only such a gift had been bestowed on all MPs...”
He adds: “I warmly congratulate Betty on her 90th birthday – together with her entry in to the Pantheon of National Treasures.” The former Tory premier signed the tribute ‘John Major’ in a blue ink pen.
A dancer in her younger days, once performing at the London Palladium, she worked extensively in British and American politics before being elected Labour MP for West Bromwich East in 1973.
The first Speaker not to wear the traditional wig, Baroness Boothroyd was described on the day of her retirement by Sir Michael Parkinson, the legendary Yorkshire journalist, as “tough, plain-speaking, four-square, no nonsense, up and at ’em, in despair at the antics of her flock, yet tolerant and forgiving.”
Equally effusive in today’s tributes is Sir John’s successor is Tony Blair who led Labour to a landslide election victory in 1997.
“Ever since Betty told me off in no uncertain terms, as a young MP, for coming into Parliament’s terrace dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, I have been somewhat in awe of Betty and a little scared of her,” he recalls.
“She had the same awesome authority as Speaker. We listened to her then with respect and admiration and continue to do so when she makes interventions on the issues facing the country today. Hers is a voice of common sense, insight and experience and long may we continue to hear it.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have been in Parliament during her tenure, to have known her kindness and warmth, and I hope that as Betty celebrates her 90th birthday, she will still be dancing.”
Answer the question...
BETTY BOOTHROYD is still an active member of the House of Lords where she has sat as a cross-bench peer since 2001.
Her most recent intervention came in June when peers debated an United Nations report into extreme poverty.
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds, was being stonewalled by Ministers when he asked: “Why are so many schools in my diocese having to feed children, and why does almost every parish contribute to food banks?”
Moments later, Baroness Boothroyd rose and asked waspishly: “The right reverend Prelate asked a direct and interesting question. Will the Minister answer it?”