Madame Speaker bowing out

Parliament: A former chorus line dancer who ended up in one of Britain's highest posts announces her retirement.

July 13, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Betty Boothroyd, the first female speaker of Britain's House of Commons - and the first never to wear a wig - is calling it a career.

In a surprise announcement yesterday, the 70-year-old speaker whose stern, throaty "Order! Order!" has become a familiar cry on both sides of the Atlantic, told Parliament she was leaving after the summer recess.

It was something like a favorite schoolmarm telling her boys (and a few girls) that she would not be back for the beginning of school next year. For this woman, who started off as a dancer and ended up in one of Britain's highest posts, was feared, revered yet never jeered.

Boothroyd served eight years as the chief referee of Britain's fractious and frenetic lower house of Parliament. She deems what is, and is not, parliamentary language. Often described as a principal, nanny and pub landlady rolled into one, she commands respect in a mostly male institution, remaining resolutely above the fray.

Of her, the prestigious Economist once wrote: "Madam Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is marvelously bossy. Her booming Yorkshire baritone and no nonsense fairness prevent the theatre from sliding into farce."

Her election to the post in 1992 upended more than 600 years of history, as she became the Commons' first female speaker. Through televised highlights of its proceedings, particularly on C-SPAN in the United States, her fame spread worldwide.

With her flowing robe, booming voice and signature hairstyle, she was a picture of authority.

Boothroyd, who is due to make a "valedictory" statement before the July 26 summer recess, bowed out with warm words met by equally warm applause. "Be happy for me," she told the members.

She said she timed her announcement to give her successor, to be elected in October, "a run-in before the general election," which is likely to take place next year.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was "very disappointed" with the announcement "because Betty is something of a national institution."

"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 to deflect really difficult situations in the House of Commons."

Former Prime Minister John Major said Boothroyd "has been an outstanding speaker who has enhanced the reputation of the House of Commons throughout the world."

"She will be missed for her humor and authority in the chair and will be a hard act to follow," he added.

Boothroyd's rise from high-kicking Tiller Girls chorus line dancer to Madam Speaker is among the more remarkable tales of modern British politics.

"Everyone thinks it was all men drinking champagne out of your shoes," she told the Los Angeles Times of her dancing days. "But, like politics, it was damned hard work and it taught me a lot about teamwork."

The daughter of Yorkshire textile workers, she left school at 16, worked as a professional dancer with Britain's version of the Rockettes from 1946 to 1948, and entered politics in 1950, losing a race for a local council seat. She also spent time in the United States, working for John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign and as a congressional aide.

In 1973, she won her seat in the House of Commons in West Bromwich near Birmingham.

According to Britain's Press Association, she attributed her "lovely deep voice" to "about a packet a day" of cigarettes.

She never married, explaining to the Los Angeles Times in 1993: "No man is going to wait until you've got back from escorting that delegation to the 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."

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