Betty Boothroyd: The no-nonsense Speaker of the House with a classic rags to riches story
But there was much more to ‘Yorkshire Betty’ – who has died aged 93 – than met the eye. It took her 18 years to become an MP, after taking on and losing no fewer than four tough Parliamentary seats where the odds were stacked against her, a habit which earned her the affectionate nickname ‘Battling Betty’.
She was not dissuaded by the election losses and in 1960, travelled extensively in America on the campaign trail with John F Kennedy to observe how the Americans ran their elections, she even worked in Washington DC for two years before returning to the UK, she met heads of state and worked as a Parliamentary secretary to Barbara Castle and other Government ministers.
Her’s was the classic rags to riches story, a fact which endeared her to many a hardened MP, many of whom held her in constant awe. She was born on October 8, 1929 in Marriott Street, Dewsbury to parents Archibald and Mary.
Her father had been employed in the textile industry but as the Great Depression bit into the lives of ordinary people, he found it increasingly difficult to find work. Betty’s first memory was of her father, of whom she once recalled: “My first memory is of Dad standing by the fireplace when I was small and of feeling totally loved. He was my earliest playmate and I was never lonely or bored. He put wheels on a box and pushed me round the house as if I were a lady in a chauffeur driven car.”
Her mother, who worked as a weaver six days a week, often joked she was not in work solely for her sex appeal, she was cheaper to employ than her father.
The family lived in a back-to-back, food was kept cold on stone slabs, the kitchen floor covered in linoleum, with a single, cold tap in one corner; her father would light the boiler on Mondays and Fridays so they had hot water to wash their clothes and Betty would bathe in a zinc bath in front of the fire. They considered themselves better off than most, because they could afford the local paper - the Dewsbury Reporter - each week and would pass it on to their neighbours.
At school, Betty failed her 11-plus but her parents had high hopes for her, especially Archibald, who wanted her to become a secretary. She won a scholarship to Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art aged 13 at a time when many young teenagers entered the workplace earning a pittance. She learned shorthand, typing, French, maths and English and developed a love for dancing and theatrics - her mother encouraged it, setting aside Co-op vouchers (known as ‘the divi’, short for dividend) to pay for clothes and lessons. She became part of a local dance band, Swing Step and appeared in several shows at Dewsbury Empire.
When she left college at 17, she got a job at Bickers, which sold impossibly expensive clothes, perfumes and cosmetics. She started work for £1 a week. But she was soon to break her father’s heart, by running off to join the famous Tiller Girls, a formidable dance troupe founded by John Tiller in 1886 and renowned for its precision routines.
Betty auditioned in Bradford and despite not being tall enough was let in on her dancing skills and good looks - the sex appeal no doubt inherited from her mother. Her parents relented and she went to London to follow her dreams but it was not what she expected.
The routine was gruelling, the pay barely enough to live on, the conditions cramped - girls had to share cubicles, sometimes even beds.
She said of the time: “I thought I was on my way to stardom but I was wrong. I was 17 and it was the bitterly cold winter of 1946-7 and I had never been away from home on my own before - London was an alien world. I worked hard but I did not fit in... I foolishly thought showbusiness was going to be terribly exciting and glamorous but it was just like politics - damn hard work.
“I was sent for a try out at the London Palladium. The show was Val Parnell’s High Time! with a dance band called The Sky Rockets. I danced at the Palladium for £6 a week, doing three routines each performance. I accepted the stage discipline but being behind the footlights was a constant struggle. I longed for the comforts of home.”
When she returned, she turned to politics - both Archibald and Mary were stalwarts of the textile worker’s union and they encouraged their daughter to attend meetings.
In February 1952, aged 21, she became the youngest ever candidate to contest a Dewsbury municipal election. She found in politics the glamour and excitement she had failed to find in dance. In 1957, she fought a by-election in South East Leicester and in the election of 1959, she was Socialist candidate for Peterborough, losing on both occasions. She was undeterred.
By this time she had a job as Parliamentary secretary and was already familiar with the corridors of power in Westminster. She worked for Barbara Castle.
In September 1960, she travelled to America and followed JFK on his campaign trail. She said of him: “In an article for the YEP, she described Kennedy as “different from the man who talks from platforms. He seems shy, almost alarmed by the closeness of so many people.”
At the time she lived in London and was personal assistant to Geoffrey de Freitas, Scottish MP for Lincoln.
It was not her first trip abroad - in June 1957, she and a contingent of MPs visited Vietnam, China and Russia and had a two-hour meeting with Chou En-lai, the first Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, which she found exhilarating, although she thought Russia “rather drab.”
Perhaps one of the most sensational periods in her life was when she became linked with flamboyant Russian and rising KGB agent Anatoli Strelnikov, who took her for dinner and later asked her to spy on Labour colleagues. She informed MI5 but was equally surprised when they asked her to spy on Labour for them.
She refused but the rebuke drew swift retribution.
At the time, she was working as personal secretary to Lord Walston, Junior Foreign Office minister but MI5 had her declared a security risk and banned from the Foreign Office and even started a whisper campaign against her, so that rumours of her romantic liaisons with Strelnikov even reached Edward Heath’s ears.
On May 25, 1973, the woman who had tried on four occasions to become an MP, finally made it into the House of Commons after winning West Bromwich for Labour. She polled 15,907 votes, beating Tory David Bell (7,582) and National Front’s Martin Webster (4,789) into second and third place.
On April 28, 1992, she won the role which was to define her career and made history by becoming the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, easily overcoming a Tory ‘Stop Betty’ campaign “with the determination of a resilient tortoise.”
Like everything in life, she did it her way, refusing to take the traditional Speaker’s wig. She brought a new sense of theatre to the House of Commons, which was by then being televised around the world. Her inimitable style earned her fans around the world, her put-downs were famous.
When she collected an honorary civil law degree from Oxford on June 22, 1995, Prof Jasper Griffin said of her: “She knows how to temper firmness with tact... such is her almost maternal ascendancy that male prejudice was set aside and to universal delight she was promoted to the Speakership.”
Others portrayed her in the role of a minor diva with the caring of a kindergarten headmistress and the lip of a barmaid. She combined a quick mind, experienced judgement and an artful femininity.
She silenced many an MP with a voice which could have brought a weaving shed to a standstill and famously halted Michael Mates MP with a deftly timed: “You will resume your seat”, cutting the former minister off in mid-flow with all the impact of a high kick to the throat. She managed this high theatre and stole the limelight from the crest-fallen MP without even ruffling her demi-wave.
She was once described as “pretty, buxom, friendly with a touch of Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner.”
Examples of her forthright nature are plentiful. When traffic lights failed outside Parliament once, in June 1997, seeing a policeman stood doing nothing, she promptly marched into the road and began directing traffic herself.
In December 1997, she banned Sin Fein members Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from the Commons after they refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. She would even warn ministers “eyeball to eyeball” over their conduct and censured them over ‘leaks’ and ‘spin’.
Her fame meant she was recognised the world over. In April 1995, she escaped death when she was trapped in storms and a landslide in Morocco and was forced to crawl from a Land Rover stranded in a mudslide.
Such was her determination not to miss Prime Minister’s Questions, she went to great lengths to get back to civilisation, crossing swollen rivers and trekking through forests - when she finally made it to Marrakech, the police there recognised her instantly from satellite TV appearances.
When she returned, she was in feisty mood and when several MPs failed to turn up to ask pre-submitted questions, she said: “I hope that whips on both sides will note those MPs are are absent and that ministers concerned and I will receive an apology by the end of the day.”
A lover of Scrabble and said to enjoy large gins, she even enjoyed paragliding in Cyprus, a hobby she took up in the 1990s.
She never married or had children, something about which she spoke in December 1996, when she admitted her success in politics had been to the neglect of her private life, adding: “In many ways, I regret not having married and not having a family, I envy those people who have. As one gets more mature, I notice more and more I haven’t my own family around me. I think it would have been difficult for me to become speaker having had a family. It’s not easy for a woman to do both.”
But she loved her job and said: “It’s like being the chairman of some large national company with all the board of manager reporting directly to me.”
She returned to her home town of Dewsbury on numerous occasions, once in July 1996 to open a new centre which was named in her honour.
She never lost her sense of acerbic humour.
When she retired from the Speakership in 2000, she said: “In all honesty for me the Commons has never just been a career, it is my life... I have enjoyed the job, I was about to say I enjoyed every minute of it... I enjoyed almost every minute. I haven’t had a boring day in my working life and for that I am grateful to all of you.”
Betty Boothroyd was a heavyweight of the political arena, she brought a new sense of gravity, of theatre, of fairness to the House of Commons. She had high morals and a northern no-nonsense approach which endeared her to many.
Recalling an old saying from her mother, she once quipped: “Whatever you have to do, however well or badly you think you can do it, whether you feel up to it or not, you’ll do it better with your lipstick on.”