'Produce your voice, Mr Hughes!'

The great Betty Boothroyd has died aged 93, the first woman to be Speaker of the House of Commons, and famous for her wit and intellect. Here are three of her finest moments.

Baroness Betty Boothroyd was born in 1929 in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the only child of two textile workers. In early adulthood, she became a dancer, and appeared at the London Palladium as a member of the Tiller Girls dance troupe. In 1952, a foot infection ended her dancing career and she moved into politics. In 1973 she was elected to the House of Commons where she stayed until 2000. In 1992, she was elected Speaker and was the first woman to hold that position. She was witty and fierce, with an amazing command of both the chamber and the English language. In her sixties, she took up paragliding as a hobby. She was that sort of a woman. RIP Betty Boothroyd.

Here are some snippets of her in full flight:

Produce your voice, Mr Hughes! (video above)

Simon Hughes was standing in the House, refusing to speak until he had order.

Order, order, this is so time consuming, come on, Mr Hughes spit it out! Order! order! There is no point waiting for silence, the honourable gentleman is not going to get silence. Produce your voice Mr Hughes!

Brexit speech calling Corbyn ‘dithering’ and Johnson ‘a charlatan’ — House of Lords, 2019

Perhaps the best speech on Speakola by a ninety year old? Baroness Boothroyd gave voice to the Remain argument, the frustrations of the May-Johnson era, her personal connection to Europe, her love of being European:

My Lords, I cherish my European citizenship and regret its loss when or if—dare I say it?—Brexit becomes law. I identified myself as a British patriot and a European when I went to Berlin and other war-torn cities on the continent with little more than £5 in my pocket at the age of 17. I stayed with social democrat families who welcomed me into their homes. Europe is part of my DNA; it transcends treaties and bureaucracy.

For a time, I sat in the European Parliament, but preferred Westminster. This is not the first time that the Tory party has torn itself apart on this issue. As Speaker of the Commons, I watched the Tory party tear itself apart during the Maastricht debates. I feared the worst when David Cameron allied his party with the far right in Strasbourg and even more so when he caved in to his right-wingers and media pressure by calling the 2016 referendum. He thought he would win but has said since that he did not mind losing. I did mind.

She moves from the personal, to what she regards as the national betrayal. This next bit is the section that is most quoted from that speech:

I was a government Whip when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. He said that anyone who claimed that membership of the European Community was a black and white issue was either a charlatan or a simpleton. I leave your Lordships to adjudicate on that one. Which brings me to Mr Boris Johnson: his campaign bus did not proclaim, ‘Say yes to no deal’. We were promised an easy ride with a cash bonus thrown in. The question on the ballot paper did not ask us to choose between a hard or soft Brexit, a Canadian or a Norway-plus deal, or a deal that would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Nobody dreamed that we would be frantically preparing for worst-case scenarios. We are now paying the price for a referendum that was dominated by falsehoods. Brexiteers promised the world but ignored the social and political realities festering in our own country. Now, Parliament is convulsed, Whitehall is pulverised and Downing Street has become a drop-in for chilled wine and persuasive chats, while industry and business are alarmed and our friends and allies are bewildered. Who can possibly blame them?

She identifies that the wrong generation had the loudest voice when it came to Brexit. It’s worth noting how lively the language is here, the Jack in one excellent phrase is picked up by the Jacks and Jills in the next:

When the Minister winds up, will he say what the Government are afraid of in refusing a people’s vote? In answering that question, will he please explain to young people who have reached adulthood why they do not have the right to be heard on an issue that our generation has manifestly bodged? Brexit will shape these youngsters’ futures for the next 50 years—not ours. I have no children or grandchildren; my quality of life will not be affected. I am all right, Jack. But what about the Jacks and Jills out there? Are they to be stripped of their rights on the whim of those who peddled rubbish in the referendum and are afraid to be challenged in another?

She wants a People’s vote, and finishes with her call to action:

Many years ago, a debate took place in the Commons that changed the course of the war. Back-Benchers played a pivotal role then and I hope will do so tomorrow. My message is: Back-Benchers arise and forget your party allegiance. The national interest demands it.

It’s a brilliant bit of argumentative speechwriting, and delivery.

Suspending Ian Paisley from the House

This video gives a sense of her presence and authority.

Speech accepting the position of Speaker

This one has the trademark humour, and a lovely structure, unpicking some ancient advice on the four things a Speaker should possess.

I’ll be talking with Sammy J about Betty Boothroyd in tomorrow’s radio segment, 6.15am, ABC Local Radio Melbourne and Victoria.

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Also, I originally said that Betty was born in Liverpool, before the kindest of reprimands from the tribe of the White Rose. Thank you Woody and others.


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