“I was the first woman to be Speaker. I might also be the first to wear my slippers in the chamber of the House of Lords!” Betty Boothroyd could not be more at home, as she pads the plush halls of the Houses of Parliament in her most comfortable footwear.
We meet, fittingly, in the Central Lobby, midway between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two grand chambers in which Baroness Boothroyd – these days serving as a crossbench peer – has spent the majority of her working life.
The lobby is a mass of action. I wait for the 87-year-old former Speaker on a sofa, perched perilously beneath a menacing stone carving of Richard III. Floella Benjamin, LibDem peer and ex-Play School presenter, wanders by, followed by Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, looking more like former PM David Cameron by the day, Tory grandee Oliver Letwin and Labour’s David Blunkett.
‘Environment’ was a posh word back then for the conditions in which we lived – the mean narrow streets, the dark satanic mills
Boothroyd arrives, all smiles, fresh from a debate in the Lords. On the way to her office, she pauses to wish Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, whose constituency neighbours her old West Bromwich West stomping ground, good luck in the election. A group of school children are quizzed about whether they’ve enjoyed their tour (they have), how far they’ve travelled and if any plan on becoming politicians.
If there’s a proprietorial air about Boothroyd as she welcomes visitors to the Houses of Parliament, it’s little wonder. Aside from a brief and unhappy spell in the Tiller Girls dance troupe during the 1940s, politics has been her life.
“I feel like I came out of the womb into the Labour movement,” she says. “I come from a working-class family in a mill town in Yorkshire. I was an only child, my parents were textile workers when they worked, and my father was unemployed a lot of the time.
“The big issues I grew up with were employment, jobs and opportunities, housing and environment. And when I say environment, that was a posh word then for the conditions in which we lived – the mean narrow streets, the dark satanic mills.”
Boothroyd recalls Labour’s League of Youth rallies in Huddersfield, Leeds and Wakefield where she was inspired by speeches from Clement Attlee (“my great hero”), Jennie Lee, Betty Braddock, Nye Bevan and Alice Bacon.
“My family thought I could get a nice job in the Town Hall for a couple of years and then I’d be married off and someone would take care of me,” she says. “But I remain an unclaimed treasure! I have had to fight my own way.”
Boothroyd’s office is snug and homely, with a thick red carpet and pictures of her in the Speaker’s chair and alongside the Duchess of Cornwall. Her desk is piled high with papers on her current big issues: campaigning against plans to decommission heart disease services at Royal Brompton Hospital, where she has been a patient recently; the impact of Brexit on future generations; and House of Lords reform. Even before becoming an MP at the fifth time of asking, she was already a regular here, working for that other great Labour stalwart Barbara Castle from the late 1950s. She took time out to campaign for John F Kennedy at the 1960 Presidential election.
“I went as an immigrant, £200 in my purse and a return airline ticket just in case. I ended up working on Capitol Hill earning more than a British MP did at that time. Can you believe it?”
Boothroyd is as warm, as forthright and as no-nonsense as her working-class Yorkshire roots might suggest. What would the child who grew up such a long way, figuratively and literally, from the Palace of Westminster make of all of this?
“Well, you should have seen my old office,” she laughs. “I’ve come down in the world since I was Speaker. But no, if you were to say to me I would be known nationally and be the first citizen of this country, which is what the Speaker is, I would have laughed in your face. I would never have believed it.
“My career has been a lot of hard work but it was the inevitability of gradualism. It came very late. And I had to work very hard for everything that I got. I took a lot of [knockbacks]. Politics is not a job to me. It is like miner’s coal dust under my finger nails. You can’t scrub it out.”
Being Speaker was a real challenge to someone like me, who wasn’t highly educated. But I think I made the right decisions
The anecdotes flow freely. Being told she looked like “a little Welsh daffodil” and asked for tea by her predecessor, Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill, standing up to Tony Blair when he halved the number of Prime Minister’s Questions sessions by doubling the number of questions the leader of the opposition, John Major, could ask per session, and fighting to win over local party members in West Bromwich West, where she would serve from 1973-2000.
“At my selection, one woman said, ‘The women here won’t vote for you because you don’t know what it is like to be married, to have a tough time, to bring up children, peel potatoes!’. This was anti-woman,” she recalls. “I didn’t answer the question, I just said, ‘Because I have never been married, it has given me more time to look after the likes of you.’”
When Boothroyd speaks, you listen. The authority she brought to the role of Speaker is evident. She marked the 25th anniversary of becoming Speaker this month by taking tea at Buck House with the Queen and Prince Philip – a conversation that would have been worth overhearing.
Being Speaker, she says, was the time of her life. “It is the best job in the world and I loved every minute of it. It was a real challenge to someone like me, who wasn’t highly educated. But I think I made the right decisions.
“I spoke in the House of Representatives in the US, the Russian Duma, the Indian Lok Sabha, and at parliaments all over Europe representing this house. I was so proud. It stimulated me. It was a better education than going to Oxford or Cambridge.”
Present Speaker John Bercow has high praise for Boothroyd: “Betty’s importance as the first woman Speaker, combined with her admirable personal story, is a testament to the high regard in which she was – and continues to be – held. She was attentive to the needs of Members, and their primary shop steward. Betty’s contribution will always be fondly, and respectfully, remembered.” Controlling the rough and tumble in the House was a Boothroyd speciality. As the first Speaker whose tenure was entirely televised, she became a recognisable figure – and is still recognised on the bus from her west London flat to parliament.
She has no truck with complaints that the Commons is too rowdy and puts people off politics.
“I don’t mind an argumentative and noisy chamber,” she says. “I have never wanted a morgue. I have been to many parliaments around the world where someone makes a speech and there is silence – no intervention, no debate. That is not what I want here.
“People have a hard job getting elected. They come here and want to change the flow of the Thames. They have every right to speak and let their passion out. But when they get too obstreperous you put your foot down – like with children.”
Boothroyd recalls a recent political scrap – the Lords overturning George Osborne’s planned tax credits cut in 2015 – with pride. “It was wonderful. We knocked the Conservatives for six on that,” she says. “It was going to hit the poorest people in the country.”
For someone who prided herself on her political neutrality in the House as Speaker, Boothroyd is now keenly outspoken. Particularly on Brexit. “I do not approve of referenda,” she says, firmly. “It may work in other countries but we have a parliamentary system where you give a party the authority to govern for a period and then can throw them out if you want. You can’t do that with a referendum.
“This vote was about Remain or Leave without knowing what either meant. We were sold a lot of falsehoods. We are in a most historic time in our history but it’s a step into the unknown. I don’t think the Prime Minister has much idea what we are going to do.”
She is similarly unimpressed by Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election. “Parliament agreed on five-year fixed terms. I voted against it but it is the law,” she says. “I therefore see no reason why the Prime Minister, who supported it herself, should turn tail and want an election at this stage.”
When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was a firebrand backbencher, Boothroyd was Speaker. Has she any stories to tell? “I know him very well but I have not had many specific dealings with him. I think he always got a fair crack of the whip in terms of being called to speak.” Is he a good leader? “All political parties need a bit of gingering on every now and then, whether it is Jeremy Corbyn or someone else,” she says. “They need a bit of ginger on their tails to wake them up a little bit. Let’s leave it at that.”
David Cameron was the main culprit. He created so many peers. They should come from different regions and different professions
Boothroyd retains a special stick for David Cameron because of his inflation of peerage numbers. “I am very cross with what they have been doing,” she says, pulling out stats on peer creation since 1958. “The main culprit was Cameron. He created so many peers. I want fewer privileges for PMs to make appointments. A statutory appointments commission should do it, and peers should come from different regions and different professions.”
One recent appointment gets a good report card. “Lord Bird had a very good question today, asking why they are closing libraries and what is happening about improving standards of literacy in the workforce. That is what we want, a mix of experience and expertise, not just the lot from Oxford and Cambridge.”
Boothroyd’s radical plan to achieve this goal could even see her finally stepping back from the political frontline. “People in the Lords over the age of 80 should retire, which includes me!” she says. “But I will only go when I have got legislation through parliament. I am not going alone – I will take a lot more with me. And I am going to stick it out here until I do.”
Main photograph: Louise Haywood-Schiefer for The Big Issue