The most common phrase in Betty Boothroyd’s resonant lexicon these days is “Order! Order!” as she successfully tames the noisy, often rowdy legislators that compose Britain’s House of Commons.
Since debates in the “Mother of Parliaments” are now televised, her frequent pleas as she presides in long black and white robes as the Commons’ first woman Speaker in over 600 years have made her face--and voice--famous around the country.
It is a demanding job, with a 14-hour day the norm, but as she celebrated her first year in office, she said: “I enjoy every minute of it.”
Known to one and all as “Madam Speaker"--as Deputy Speaker she once told a questioner wondering about a proper title: “Call me Madam"--the 63-year-old Boothroyd is given high marks for efficiency and impartiality. For unlike the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House of Commons is expected to be above partisan politics. She votes only in the event of a tie.
Indeed, the Speaker must give up socializing in the various bars and restaurants in the Parliament complex known as the Palace of Westminster, which has 1,100 rooms and two miles of corridors. If she feels like a drink or a chat, she must instead invite members of Parliament to her own apartment in the Palace, called the Speaker’s House.
And in addition to presiding over the House of Commons, the Speaker chairs the Commons Commission, which is the employer of 2,000 or so members of the House’s permanent staff. As such, she must head the domestic committees of the House that regulate security, library services, catering and the reporting of debates in the House official record, Hansard.
“I think the extent of these other duties came as something of a surprise to Madam Speaker,” commented an aide.
But it is as Madam Speaker, sitting in the raised green-leather chair at the head of the wood-paneled House chamber, that Boothroyd commands national attention.
She has full control over who is chosen to speak and in what order, and she is in charge of ensuring that debate is conducted in an orderly way. She must achieve a balance among government speakers, opposition lawmakers and governing party backbenchers with a special interest in the debate. With a total of 651 legislators, whose faces and names she is expected to recognize instantly, that can be quite a task.
Boothroyd says: “You’ve got to ensure that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their points of view.”
But Madam Speaker can be tough when the occasion calls for it: She had no hesitation in ordering from the House the irascible Labor Party lawmaker Dennis Skinner, known as the “Beast of Bolsover” because of his constituency and his abrasive tactics.
Skinner had refused to withdraw his reference to Agriculture Minister John Gummer as “a little squirt.”
“It’s a question of the Speaker having to exert authority from time to time,” Boothroyd explained.
And to members of Parliament who take their time getting around to making their points, she is likely to admonish: “We must have a question!”
“You’re daft if you mix it with her,” says Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labor legislator who was one of her proposers. “You’re asking for trouble. All the women in the House are friends. We’re all very proud of her.”
Labor lawmaker Ann Clwyd adds: “Betty has brought a new zest to the office of Speaker. She is effective, witty and commands respect throughout the House.”
In many ways, Boothroyd was made for the job. The only child of Yorkshire trade unionists, she was virtually born into the Labor Party, joining the Labor Youth League at the age of 16.
She had a brief flirt with the stage, becoming a dancer in her late teens with the Tiller Girl troupe before returning to full-time politics.
“Everyone thinks it was all men drinking champagne out of your shoes,” she recalls of her dancing days. “But, like politics, it was damned hard work and it taught me a lot about teamwork.”
Boothroyd contested her first election at 21, vying unsuccessfully for a seat on the local city council, and later traveled to the United States to labor as a congressional aide, working on the 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign. She unsuccessfully contested several House of Commons elections before winning West Bromwich near Birmingham in 1973--a seat she still holds.
She spent five years as Deputy Speaker before deciding to go for the top job when the previous Speaker retired. “I felt that win, lose or draw, it was time to go for gold,” she commented.
Though a member of the Labor minority, she defeated the Tory candidate in April, 1992, by 372 votes to 238, becoming the 155th Speaker and the first to be chosen from the opposition this century.
The Speakership dates back to 1377 when Sir Thomas Hungerford was appointed. Until the 17th Century, the Speaker was often an agent of the monarch, but after the Restoration, Speakers were usually associated with the government and often held ministerial office. By the mid-19th Century, however, the concept had evolved of the Speaker being above party considerations.
Boothroyd is paid a salary roughly on a par with Cabinet ministers--about $100,000 annually. On normal sitting days, she wears a black cloth court suit with white linen bands, over which is worn a black silk robe with train, and buckled shoes. She has declined to wear the full wig used by her predecessors.
Her day begins at 7 a.m. with a digest of the papers and a listen to Radio 4, the politically oriented news broadcast of the British Broadcasting Corp. Then she holds a meeting with her assistants and the Commons clerks to sketch out the day’s business and attend to requests for time at the daily afternoon session of the House, which can go on for 10 hours or more.
On weekends, she often visits her constituency.
Looking over the Commons, she muses: “Of course I would like to see more women in the House--I feel the suffragettes are looking down on us and saying: ‘Well, girls, you haven’t done badly but you’ve still a long way to go.’ ”
Boothroyd never married. Though outgoing and ebullient, she says of male admirers: “No man is going to wait until you’ve got back from escorting that delegation to the (former) Soviet Union or Vietnam. Or until you have fought that by-election. They are going to take a big yawn and see who else is on the horizon.
“I think it would have been nice to have a family; it would be nice to have grandchildren,” she adds.
As a gregarious lawmaker who enjoyed the camaraderie of colleagues, she admits that her current professional isolation sometimes makes her feel lonely.
“It’s quite right, really,” she says of the tradition that Speakers don’t mix. “People don’t want the Speaker breathing down their neck all the time. They must have some space to gossip about me, to say, ‘She’s getting too bossy,’ or ‘She’s not the fun she used to be.’ ”
But she adds: “I say to myself: ‘Come on, Betty, you can’t have everything in life. You’ve been very lucky.’ ”
Boothroyd was named Parliamentarian of the Year for 1992 by the Spectator magazine, and she is the most popular Speaker in recent times.
In its citation, the Spectator said she was the first Speaker in modern times “to show immediately that she is the right man for the job. Never for a moment has her authority over this obstreperous chamber wavered. This is a Speaker who, despite appearances, really does wear the trousers.”
* Name: Betty Boothroyd
* Title: Speaker of the House of Commons
* Age: 63
* Personal: Born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, to textile workers. Studied shorthand and book-keeping at Dewsbury Technical College. Worked on John F. Kennedy campaign, 1960. Longtime Labor Party worker. Won Parliamentary seat in West Bromwich, 1973 Unmarried.
* Quote: “People don’t want the Speaker breathing down their neck all the time.”