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Between 1992 and 2000, Parliament had its one and only female Speaker to date, the redoubtable Labour MP Betty Boothroyd:

Labour MP Harriet Harman, an unpopular candidate for the successor to John Bercow, told the Evening Standard that it was high time that Parliament had another woman as Speaker: herself. Yet, Harman ignored the fact that there are two Deputy Speakers who are female.

All three Deputy Speakers ran for election on November 4, but, as we know, neither Dame Eleanor Laing (Conservative) or Dame Rosie Winterton (Labour) won. Instead, it was Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

Betty Boothroyd turned 90 on October 8, 2019:

Dame Betty Boothroyd began her career as a member of the famous Tiller Girls, a dance troupe that performed highly choreographed precision dancing, as America’s Rockettes do. Their tours took them all over Britain, including popular variety shows on television.

She turned to politics in the mid-1950s, after a foot infection ended her time with the Tiller Girls in 1952. Until she became a Parliamentarian, representing West Bromwich in 1973, she worked for Labour MPs, with a brief stint in Washington DC working for an American congressman, Silvio Conte, between 1960 and 1962. She stood down as Speaker — and MP for West Bromwich — in 2000:

She is still as feisty as ever, speaking out against Brexit:

On her birthday, The Yorkshire Post published a tribute to Dame Betty — Baroness Boothroyd.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine, but, first, a word about her predecessor.

Betty Boothroyd became Deputy Speaker just when Parliament was first being televised.

The Speaker at that time was Bernard Weatherill, the last Speaker to wear the full traditional garb and wig.

The image at left, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a photo of his official portrait, painted in 1986 by Norman Blamey.

The Conservative MP for Croydon North East, he served under Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

After his speakership ended, he was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Weatherill. He sat in the Lords as a crossbencher — i.e. no party affiliation — the norm for former Speakers.

Although quite conventional in his upbringing and career, which included serving in the Army during the Second World War and working for the family tailoring firm, the erstwhile Bernard Weatherill Ltd, he was an avowed vegetarian.

Baron Weatherill died of prostate cancer in 2007.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7c/Betty_Boothroyd%27s_Speaker%27s_shoe1992_%2822758817746%29.jpg/255px-Betty_Boothroyd%27s_Speaker%27s_shoe1992_%2822758817746%29.jpgThe election of Betty Boothroyd caused quite a stir, especially as she had been a Tiller Girl. She renounced the wig and an elaborate gown, although she still wore buckled shoes. (Image at right courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Madam Speaker ran everything to time. Furthermore, when she had to take an unusual procedural decision, she explained why:

On one memorable occasion after a tied vote, she had to use her casting vote which, by convention, was in the sitting government’s favour. Foreseeing such a possibility, she had a prepared statement tucked away in a pocket so she could explain the constitutional position to MPs – and watching world. It is why there was rarely any malice towards the textile worker’s daughter who ended sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions – they never over-ran – with her stock phrase “Time’s up”.

She earned the respect of the two Prime Ministers during her tenure — John Major (Conservative) and Tony Blair (Labour):

Sir John Major salutes the Dewsbury-born Parliamentarian’s entry into “the Pantheon of National Treasures”, while his successor Tony Blair admits that he was in awe of the Yorkshirewoman

In his contribution, Sir John, writes: “I served in Parliament with Betty Boothroyd for many years and, although we represented different political parties, I always admired her respect for the Commons, and her concern for the wellbeing of our country.

Betty was Speaker of the House of Commons for five of my seven years in Downing Street, a role which she executed in a wholly dispassionate and exemplary manner, and in which she was widely liked and admired.

Since her retirement from the Commons and elevation to the House of Lords, she has continued to speak up for the interests of our country, often in the most robust terms.

One of Betty’s greatest gifts has always been her capacity to express a contrary view, without causing political offence. If only such a gift had been bestowed on all MPs…”

Tony Blair, considerably younger than John Major, was in fear of her:

Ever since Betty told me off in no uncertain terms, as a young MP, for coming into Parliament’s terrace dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, I have been somewhat in awe of Betty and a little scared of her,” he recalls.

She had the same awesome authority as Speaker. We listened to her then with respect and admiration and continue to do so when she makes interventions on the issues facing the country today. Hers is a voice of common sense, insight and experience and long may we continue to hear it.

“I feel incredibly privileged to have been in Parliament during her tenure, to have known her kindness and warmth, and I hope that as Betty celebrates her 90th birthday, she will still be dancing.”

Boothroyd’s successor was Michael Martin, a Labour MP from Glasgow. He was the first Catholic Speaker since the Reformation.

People were a less keen on him and missed Madam Speaker, not for religious reasons but for the way he conducted himself.

Martin was anti-Conservative:

On 1 November 2006, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Martin caused uproar in the House of Commons by ruling out of order a question from Leader of the Opposition David Cameron in which he challenged Tony Blair over the future leadership of the Labour Party. Martin stated that the purpose of Prime Minister’s Questions was for the House to question the Prime Minister on the actions of the government. This caused such dissent amongst MPs that Martin threatened to suspend the session. Cameron then re-worded the question so he asked about Tony Blair‘s future as Prime Minister rather than leader of the Labour Party, which Martin accepted. Conservative MPs threatened to walk out if a similar event occurred in the future.[27]

Two years later, it emerged that Martin was deeply mired in the expenses scandal of 2008-2009 and announced his decision in May 2009 to stand down as Speaker in June that year:

On 12 May 2009, the BBC reported that Michael Martin was under pressure to resign.[37] On 17 May, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that Michael Martin should stand down, saying he had become an obstacle to much-needed reform of Parliament.[38] On 19 May, Douglas Carswell tabled a motion of no confidence, which was signed by 22 MPs.[39] Later that day, Martin resigned as Speaker effective as of 21 June 2009.[3] If the motion had been successful in a vote, Martin would have been the first Speaker to be forced out of office by a motion of no confidence since John Trevor in 1695.[40]

Few outside the left-wing political sphere lamented his departure. However, Martin went to the House of Lords as Baron Martin of Springburn and sat as a crossbench peer.

John Bercow succeeded Martin as Speaker.

Baron Martin died in 2018. Bercow attended his funeral and paid him tribute, along with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

What a memorable foursome of Speakers. Of these, the only ones I liked were Bernard Weatherill and Betty Boothroyd. Politics did not matter with them. They were there to act impartially for the smooth running of Parliament, not for self-aggrandisement.

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