There are Dames, wannabe Dames…and then there are those who exceed Damery and move straight to Baroness. Betty Boothroyd is a case in point.
The indomitable former Speaker of the House of Commons, and the only woman to occupy this role to date, appears never to have quite done things by the book. In a fascinating interview with Jo Coburn for the BBC , she wonders whether “perhaps I came out of the womb into the Labour movement”. And perhaps she did.
She was born into a working-class family in Dewsbury in 1929, one that had little money but made up for it in love and warmth. In Betty Boothroyd, The Autobiography, she explains what she has always stood for: fair play, an unshakeable sense of honour and a passionate belief in the sovereignty of Parliament.
Baroness Boothroyd trod a very circuitous route to that particular House, though. A love of dance from an early age led to her becoming a talented dancer, and at the age of 17 she pursued a brief career with the celebrated Tiller Girls. But it wasn’t to last, and eight years later her dreams of taking the West End by storm were over.
It doesn’t seem the most logical next step, but despite her father’s hopes of seeing her settled into a nice safe job, she won a national speaking award, put herself up for election to the local council and became a full-time worker for the Labour Party. She has been involved with politics ever since. It wasn’t always an easy ride, though. Despite working at the House for Barbara Castle and Geoffrey de Freitas she went on to lose two by-elections, leaving the UK to campaign for JFK in the US.
On her return, and with a plum job working for Labour Minister Lord Harry Walston, she was admitted to the inner circle of the socialist elite and finally gained the parliamentary seat she craved in 1973. Nineteen years on she was appointed to the role she made famous, Speaker of the House.
She has always been a role model of mine. I watched, fascinated, at the way she kept order in the House seemingly effortlessly. She was firm but charming with it, and her black robes never seemed to overwhelm her glamour but instead enhanced it. And now she is in the House of Lords, she continues to speak her mind. Earlier this year she lambasted ‘insulting’ MPs after they completed their work in just three hours one Monday, five hours earlier than scheduled, claiming the hours were “an insult to the Parliamentary system”, which was being “diminished in the eyes of the electorate”.
Right on, Betty. You tell ‘em. Her fervour and her energy appear undimmed by age or health problems. After a heart valve replacement surgery in 2009 – on the NHS, of course – she suffered acute renal failure and didn’t come round until four days after surgery. To this day she remembers nothing about being in intensive care.
The operation took its toll, but by the end of that year she was given a clean bill of health, left for a holiday in Cyprus, and was even able to wear a two-piece swimming costume. The episode also made her give up smoking and now, firmly ensconced in the House of Lords, she appears trimmer and fitter than ever.
I admire her for taking up paragliding in her 60s (who knows, I may yet follow in her footsteps), an activity she describes as “lovely and peaceful” and “exhilarating”. The list of organisations with which she’s still involved in her public life, meanwhile, ranging from Education Respite Care for Children (SMILE) to The Middle Temple, is seemingly endless, encompassing her time as Chancellor of the Open University.
If only I knew what vitamin pills she was on, I’d order a truck load. But the sad fact is, it’s probably genetic. Baroness Boothroyd, we salute you. Long may you flourish.