This is an extract from my book “More To Life Than Shoes: How to Kick-start Your Career and Change Your Life”, (written under the name Emily Nash, co-writer Nadia Finer), published by Hay House in April 2011.
‘They said … ‘‘What would happen if your tights fell down during the procession?’’ … They didn’t mean my tights, they meant my knickers.’ – Baroness Betty Boothroyd
The person we were most terrified of interviewing was Betty Boothroyd, the no-nonsense and much-loved former Speaker of the House of Commons. To be honest, it was a bit of a shock when we got her beautifully handwritten letter agreeing to an interview. Now we actually had to muster the confidence to go and ask her questions.
Betty became the first female Speaker in the House of Commons in 1992, remaining resolutely and refreshingly herself in one of the most intimidating environments in the country. A former chorus girl and dancer, Betty was famous for stifling mock yawns during overly long and boring speeches, and also for rounding off the first time she presided over Prime Minister’s Questions with – rather than the traditional ‘Order, order’ to bring proceedings to a close – yelling ‘Right, time’s up’ instead.
With her big silver hair and specs, Betty has been compared to a school dinner lady, a headmistress and a pub landlady. Nodding her head vigorously to emphasize her points, bringing noisy MPs to heel with tellings-off like ‘I’m sick and tired of hearing you shout out’ or ‘Spit it out, come on’ when they weren’t getting their point across fast enough, she doesn’t mince her words.
So, meeting this formidable lady was making us nervous. But we were desperate to ask Betty about her indomitable brand of confidence, and about remaining herself in the slippery and image-conscious world of politics.
We’d arranged to meet Betty at her office at the House of Lords, where we arrived an hour ahead of time because we were terrified of being late. Looking up at one of the most imposing buildings in the country for an hour, and then having to go through a security search to meet your interviewee, wasn’t very reassuring, either, so it was rather a relief when Betty turned out to be waiting for us in person on the other side of the barrier.
Betty’s office, when we got to it, was surprisingly tiny. She sat down and helped herself to a cigarette from a marvellously elegant silver case, and offered us one, which we declined. (This was before the UK smoking ban … we’ve been collecting interviews for a few years now…) Betty is a life-long smoker, which probably accounts for her rather gravelly and impossible-to-ignore voice.
Betty has never been afraid of doing things her own way. One of her most famous moments came during her first debate as Deputy Speaker. A male MP asked what they should call her. Her reply: ‘Call me Madam,’ has gone down in Westminster history. That, and getting Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary business, to stop recording her as ‘Mr’.
‘Hansard referred to me as Mr Deputy Speaker for some weeks. I couldn’t understand this. They told me the Speaker was always referred to as ‘‘Mr’’, it was tradition. So I said, ‘‘Not with me it isn’t, I am Madam Deputy Speaker.’’’ Getting your sex right in the paperwork – not much to ask, surely?
But although speaking her mind doesn’t seem a problem for Betty, when she’s talking about her own abilities she seems less sure of herself.
‘I never thought of being the Speaker. I never had that ambition. I’m from a working-class background and I never had a higher education, so I didn’t think I’d have the kind of mind that was trained and disciplined enough for the role. I wanted to be an MP so I could help change things for normal working people, people like my mother and father, who worked so hard with no security at the end of it all. But getting elected was the toughest thing I’ve had to do. It took me 16 years and five elections to qualify to get into this place.’
Betty was eventually elected as an MP in 1973, and became Deputy Speaker in 1987. ‘I knew I carried out the role of Deputy Speaker well, because people had told me so, and one or two colleagues encouraged me to stand for Speaker, so I just thought, OK, I’ll go for gold. It wasn’t an ambition, but after that point it was a determination.
‘It never occurred to me that as a woman I was any different. I felt I could do the job just as well as a man could. But there were a couple of Conservative members who came to see me and said they’d been sent on behalf of a number of others who wanted to vote for me but had some worries. They said, ‘‘We don’t know how to put this but we wondered what would happen if your tights fell down during the Speaker’s procession?’’ Although, quite frankly, they didn’t mean my tights, they meant my knickers. Not that they’d have ever worried about a man’s flies being open.’
We asked Betty what she told the worried male MPs, apparently unaware of the invention of elastic. ‘I said I would just pick them up and walk on. And they voted for me in the end.’
Betty was elected as Speaker in a landslide victory. ‘I was a bit worried about only getting a handful of votes. I needed the confidence of a good majority otherwise I would have been unhappy in myself. But as it was, I got a comfortable majority, so I was sitting pretty.’
If you’ve ever watched footage of the House of Commons at its most rowdy on TV, you’ll have an idea of the rumpus that Betty now had to control. Getting MPs to shut up and sit down when you want them to is no mean feat. ‘The first few days were very daunting. There was an awful lot to learn. The Speaker is supposed to know parliamentary procedure inside-out. I feel that I haven’t got a trained mind for learning, so it takes me a long time to do things. But I applied myself. I went back to my little flat in London on the day I was elected and I packed up two big suitcases of clothes and I came to Speaker’s House. I never went back to my flat after that because I didn’t have time. It really was living out of a suitcase for a long time. Work was much more important to me than anything else that I did.’
Confidence in the House seems never to have been an issue for Betty. (Type her into YouTube for a few brilliant examples of her unique style of keeping MPs in line. Makes us smile every time we watch them.)
‘The House of Commons is a very male environment, and they weren’t too sure about me at first, but I loved it. I’m a bit bossy, I suppose, but you have to be if you’re going to get on. I like to see things done properly, and if you have to interrupt and tell people to do things properly, so be it. I felt strongly that the job needed someone with a smiling face and a sense of humour, someone who could lower the tension when it got too high. That’s why I refused to wear the traditional wig the Speaker usually wears. The job was hard enough without having to concentrate on whether your wig’s going stay on. I pictured myself turning to speak and my wig staying where it was. So I refused to wear it. I never even tried it on.’
After our interview, Betty led us through the labyrinth of corridors and rooms behind the scenes of the Houses of Parliament, stopping briefly to show us the two chambers, the Commons, where she was Speaker for eight years, and the Lords, where she now sits as a life peer. She clearly knows the place inside-out, and seems completely at home here. ‘The Commons wasn’t just my job, it was my life,’ she tells us as we follow her back to the outside world.
Extract from “More To Life Than Shoes: How to Kick-start Your Career and Change Your Life”, Hay House, 2011