Betty Boothroyd, Baroness Boothroyd, Order of Merit (OM), Privy Council of the United Kingdom (PC) (born October 8, 1929 in Dewsbury, Yorkshire), is a British politician and was elected as the first female Speaker of the British House of Commons in its seven hundred year history in 1992. She was the 155th Speaker to be elected. She had served as Deputy Speaker from 1987. She was re-elected in 1997 and served as Speaker for eight years before her retirement. Unusually, she was a Labour member of Parliament elected as Speaker during a Conservative administration and defeated a Conservative opponent by 174 votes. She was the first "Speaker to be chosen from the opposition benches since 1835". Boothroyd was elected to Parliament in 1973 representing West Bromwich. She was created Baroness Boothroyd in 2001 and elevated to the House of Lords. Boothroyd has also served as Chancellor of the Open University.
As the first woman to preside over the House of Commons in its 700 year history, Boothroyd's place in history is guaranteed. She is widely recognized as a strong defender of the role of Parliament in scrutinizing the government of the day, and of checking its use of power. She has also championed citizenship education in British schools. She has been criticized by some for failing to use her position to bring about "family-friendly" reform of the House, making it a more congenial place for women MPs. However, she chose to adopt a cautious approach to such reform, proving that a woman could perform her duties as well as any man. Boothroyd is unmarried, having chosen to dedicate her life to public service.
Boothroyd was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, in 1929, to Archibald and Mary Boothroyd, textile workers. Her parents were both active in the trade union movement, and wanted "change and a better future for people who were forced to live such narrow lives." She was educated at council schools and went on to study at Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art. In the 1940s, she enjoyed a career as a dancer, as a member of the Tiller Girls dancing troupe in her younger years. She decided to enter politics while she was in her teens. To gain experience, she worked at the House of Commons as a secretary and political assistant for Barbara Castle, who later held several Cabinet posts and also for Geoffrey de Freitas.
Boothroyd contested parliamentary seats at Leicester South East (1957 by-election) and Peterborough (1959). She was unsuccessful, so decided to visit the United States to witness the John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign]]. In 1959, started to work in Washington, DC as a legislative assistant for an American Congressman, Silvio Conte. She returned to England in 1962 and resumed her work as secretary and political assistant to Cabinet member, Lord Harry Walston. In 1965 she was elected to a seat on Hammersmith Borough Council, in Gibbs Green ward, where she remained until 1968.
In 1973, she stood for the vacant seat of West Bromwich West in a by-election and won. Boothroyd's career then flourished. In 1974 she was appointed an assistant Government Whip and she was a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from 1975-1977. In 1979 she became a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, until 1981, and of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen, until 1987. She was also a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) from 1981-1987 and the House of Commons Commission from 1983-1987. As a member of the NEC, she opposed the influence of the far-left which proposed a radical program of nationalizing industry. She was known throughout her parliamentary career for her pro-Europe, pro-choice and anti-capital punishment positions. She has been passionate about equality, about creating opportunities for people from all backgrounds to access the best education and employment opportunities. Boothroyd was returned to Parliament by her constituency in every election until her retirement.
She became a Deputy Speaker in 1987. When asked how she wished to be addressed, she said "call me Madam."In 1992, following Bernard Weatherill's retirement, she was elected Speaker, being the first woman ever to hold the position. She was not the first woman to sit in the Speaker's Chair, however; that honor fell to Betty Harvie Anderson, a Deputy Speaker from 1970 to 1973. She was elected by 372 to 238 votes defeating Peter Brook, her Conservative opponent and was the first Speaker since 1835 to be elected from the Opposition benches. There was some debate as to whether or not Boothroyd should wear the traditional Speaker's wig after her election. In the end she did not, and the tradition was abolished as a result. In 1993, the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty was defeated on her casting vote. Her 1997 re-election was unopposed. That year, she was guest of honor at India's 50th anniversary of independence.
The first speaker of the House of Commons was Sir Thomas Hungerford, who served from 1376 until Sir Thomas Hungerford, who took office in 1376. The Speaker presides over debates, chooses who may speak and casts a deciding vote in the case of a tie. The Speaker is regarded as the First Commoner of the Land. Speakers are elected after a General Election, or after a retirement, death or resignation. The Sovereign's approval is theoretically required before they assume their duties. The Speaker also represents the House of Commons to the Sovereign and to the upper House. The Speaker is the guardian of the rights and privileges of Members of Parliament. In the official order of precedence, the Speaker is sixth after members of the royal family. Traditionally, they were created Viscounts after retirement. Upon election, Boothroyd was made a Privy Councillor (which carries the prefix, "Right Honourable," which also following custom. The Speaker's official residence is part of the Palace of Westminster and contains the Palace's State Apartments were visiting dignitaries are entertained.
Boothroyd was a strong supporter of citizenship education, which was introduced in the British school curriculum in 2002. She wrote the foreword to the 1998 Crick Report Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, in which she described lack of coverage on the curriculum as "a blot on the landscape of public life for too long, with unfortunate consequences for the democratic process." She had co-chaired the group that produced the report, which led to the introduction of citizenship education in British schools. She promotes democracy and citizenship at her website, Citizenship and Democracy.
Boothroyd stepped down in 2000, and resigned as an MP, being succeeded by Michael Martin as Speaker. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair described her as "something of a national institution." Boothroyd had become a familiar figure to the British public because the broadcasting of Parliament was a recent innovation when she was first elected. Blair stated, "She is a really outstanding Speaker, not just because she is sharp and to the point, but because she has a marvelous way of using humor and fun to try and deflate really difficult situations in the House of Commons."
Boothroyd was Chancellor of the Open University from 1994 until October 2006 and has donated some of her personal papers to the University's archives. She is an Honorary Fellow of Saint Hugh's College, University of Oxford.
In 2001 she was created a Life Peer, taking as her title Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell in the West Midlands, and her autobiography was published in the same year.
Betty Boothroyd is also the Patron of the Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham, Essex, England and of the Three Faiths Forum.
Boothroyd has received honorary doctorates South Bank University, London (1992- Honorary Doctor of Law); Birmingham University (1992 - Honorary Doctor of Law); Leicester University (1993 - Honorary Doctor of Law); Bradford University (1993 - Honorary Doctor of Literature); North London University, London (1993 - Honorary Doctor of University); Leeds Metropolitan University (1993 - Honorary Doctor of University); Cambridge University (1994 - Honorary Doctor of Law); Oxford University (1995 - Honorary Doctor of Civil Law). In 2005 she was awarded the Order of Merit (by Queen Elizabeth II.)
She is unmarried and has no children. She says that she had had offers of marriage but chose to focus on her work instead. She has remained physically active, taking up paragliding while on holiday in Cyprus in her sixties. Boothroyd acknowledges the influence of Christian Socialism and of a Victorian sense of duty behind her political career. Her father was Roman Catholic, her mother Protestant. In her autobiography, she states that while she has never regularly attended Church she is happy to pray with anyone, whether they are a "Cardinal, rabbi, Muslim elder or Salvation Army captain."
On her retirement as speaker, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat Leader, stated, "As the first woman Speaker, her place in the history books is assured. She will be really missed, deeply missed on all sides of the House." He added that Boothroyd was "a magnificent ambassador for Parliamentary democracy in this country." According to the BBC, she is "admired for her firmness, good-humor, fairness and ability to deal with a rowdy and mostly male House of Commons" while "her straightforward, no-nonsense approach made her something of a celebrity." She has been described as "one of the best loved British political figures of the last decade." Her personal motto as Speaker was "I speak to serve" and she was insistent on that it is the task of Parliament to control the government of the day. She has been critical of any trend towards a more Presidential style, stating in her farewell speech on July 26, 2000, that Parliament, "is the chief forum of the nation - today, tomorrow and, I hope, for ever." Prime Ministers, too, "can easily be toppled."
As the first woman to preside over the House of Commons in 700 years, Boothroyd's place in history is, as Kennedy said, guaranteed. That she was also a capable Speaker adds to her achievements as a role model for women. Boothroyd has attracted some criticism for not pursuing "family-friendly: reform or the House, such as a limit on all-night sittings and offering child-care provision arguing that ""effective scrutiny and the democratic process must take priority over the convenience of members" which "angered some female MPs." "This is a calling," she said, speaking about the role of an MP, "It is not a nine-to-five job. And if a government to which you are committed needs you to be here, then that has to take priority."Her championing of citizenship education stresses individual responsibility and the role of civil society in making government accountable. Her concept of citizenship is "inclusive, harmonious and multi-racial" with "cultural differences … placed in their global and European context."
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