Some of the odes to Betty Boothroyd at her funeral (March 29) were a vivid reminder of her knock-out qualities. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons said she was one of the “greatest women” he had ever known and he would always be “in awe”. “She smashed that glass ceiling to smithereens,” he added, “Didn’t she climb some hills, from Yorkshire to the hills of Westminster, she took every challenge in her stride and didn’t she know how to do it.”
I experienced some of those qualities myself, first-hand, when I went to the residence of the House of Commons’ speaker to interview her for a book on the great and the good of the British isles. The book was meant for dissemination in Europe and Betty Boothroyd was considered a prize catch.
That was in the late 1990s, when the British parliament’s first – and so far only – female speaker was riding high. Glamorous and loud, she was a legend, described by someone as a cross between a diva, a headmistress and a barmaid. Without the slightest inclination to be a feminist firebrand, she unapologetically fought a sustained rearguard action to preserve the Commons of yore, a gentlemen’s club if ever there was one.
When she ruled the roost, there were few concessions to MPs who wanted to breastfeed their new babies and a marked slowness about weighing up family friendly changes such as a shorter, parliamentary working day, a creche and high-chairs in the dining room.
After her death on February 26, one paper noted that having ascended to the speakership in 1992, just three years after TV cameras started to transmit Commons proceedings, she always understood she was a public performer. So she began the job as she meant to go on, grandly declaring “Call me Madam!”, rejecting the traditional long wig for greater comfort and designing her own rather theatrical robes – gold Tudor roses on navy silk.
Indeed, the instinct to perform – she was a professional dancer with the Tiller Girl troupe from 1946 to 1948 – was very evident, close up and personal. I was coming down with a slight cold when I met her, something she discerned within a second or two of my faintly husky “hallo, thanks for taking the time”.
Smiling brilliantly, she quickly waved me to a chair near the door so that I could neither advance nor proffer a hand in greeting.
“Stay away,” she beamed, softening the harsh words, “My job means I can’t afford to get a cold. So I’ll just sit at my desk and you stay there. Can you speak up enough do you think?” I assured her I could and we spent a loud, if pleasant few hours together.
It really was behaviour you might expect from a demanding diva, with the authority of an headmistress and the directness of a barmaid.
(And here are some iconic moments of Boothroyd’s eight-year reign as speaker, courtesy @politico: Suspending the “Beast of Bolsover” Dennis Skinner … Putting future Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in his place … Declaring she was “sick and tired” of a member shouting out … Using her casting vote in a debate about Europe … Telling former Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes to “produce your voice” … Receiving a standing ovation in the US Senate … Shouting “order” in the Lords 17 years after stepping down as speaker … and attending the musical about her life only a month before her death.)