Open Eye: Sometimes, I'm in tears..

Madam Speaker talks to Revel Barker about the other important job in her life
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The Independent Online
At her desk in Speaker's House - which is in itself a veritable palace within the Palace of Westminster - Betty Boothroyd is about to deal with three letters from people who attended an OU graduation ceremony a few days earlier.

As Chancellor of the Open University, Madam Speaker received 20 from this particular ceremony. Apparently that's an average number. Some come from graduates, others from people in the audience as the guests of graduates. They will all get a reply.

"I haven't responded to these last three yet," she says. "But I will. If they take the time to write to me, I think it's the least I can do."

One, an MA in Education, has written: "I just wanted to thank you for being so gracious and for the wonderful humanity, friendliness, and obvious interest you showed."

The proud single mother - "since before it was fashionable" - of a BSc (Hons), "felt I had to write and thank you for the warmth and humanity you showed all through the occasion. It bore out the impression I had formed of you while watching you on your official duties in the House of Commons. We have had our struggles, but it has all been worthwhile."

When you are allowed to flick through the correspondence file, you find that the word Humanity crops up quite a lot.

A delighted father wrote: "I was so pleased that it was from you that my daughter received her degree..."

"I have had two important jobs in my life," she tells me. "Both things that I am doing now. That's Speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Open University. It is an enormous privilege to be able to do them. I was greatly honoured to have the opportunity to do both.

"When the OU invited me to be Chancellor I was very flattered, of course. I thought about it, then said that if I took it on I would not get involved with planning and procedures. I would not be hands-on in that sense. I would leave running the University to the professionals. But I said that I would do the degree ceremonies, every one that I could possibly manage, and that I have done. And I love them. They are extraordinary, every one.

"So are the people who attend. The whole thing just takes off with them. I use my body language and I move towards them as they approach me. I try to have a word with every one of them, not just a handshake. It is of course a very dignified occasion. We are all aware of that. But it must be a human one, too."

It isn't only with humanity, but with humility that the Chancellor confers these awards.

"A great number of them are of course mature students and they have had a really tough time working for their degrees. There are women who have brought up a family while studying, people who had held a full-time job. They might have taken five or six years, sometimes more, studying, and there will be four or five hundred of them.

" Sometimes they have their grandchildren there, and I will say, `Go on - give them a wave.' They are so proud, often in tears. Many of them actually say to me `This is the proudest day of my life'. I am totally overwhelmed by the warmth and - yes - by the humanity of it. I am often in tears myself.

"And when I ask what they are going to do next, an awful lot of them tell me that they have already started another degree!"

Betty Boothroyd, although she now has eight honorary degrees, did not get a university education. Her parents' aspirations for her did not extend beyond a job at the town hall. Mill workers, in and out of work all the time, they guided her towards the local college of commerce with a view to finding a secure job, ideally in the Rates Office, on the assumption that there would always be rates to pay.

But young Betty had a different idea, and - as the world knows - was off to Soho, as a Tiller Girl. It was not exactly secure: within weeks she had injured her foot and had to find a proper job. Archibald and Mary Boothroyd were staunch supporters of the Labour Party, as was their daughter. She got a job as a secretary in the Research Department at Party HQ, then moved to the Commons as personal assistant to some of the leading politicians of the day.

The late 50s found her in the US where she worked for the Kennedy presidential campaign and in the House of Representatives. Back home, she fought four elections before being returned as MP for West Bromwich in 1973.

"Looking back, it's ironic," she smiles, "that now I have one of the most insecure jobs there is: as a Member of Parliament I could fail to be returned at any general election."

She once compared politics, I venture, to being a dancer.

"Now... you are not going to go on about that - are you? For goodness sake! I was a dancer for only three months and nobody will ever let it drop. If I had been an overworked social worker from Ossett, nobody would ever have brought it up. Well, yes. I did say that it was like politics, in that you work late and it is damned hard work. But I think an overworked social worker would have a considerably tougher time of it."

Whatever, the job involves a 14-hour day, much of it in the public eye. George Thomas brought the role to radio, calling "Order, Order!" almost daily on Radio 4. Speaker Weatherill found fame in the USA when TV cameras were allowed in to the Chamber. Now Speaker Boothroyd, who will be 70 in October, is a personality on a world scale. She is said to have practised calling for "Order!" in front of a mirror when she first got the job. And one gets the impression that not everything she has said has gone unrehearsed. "The honourable gentleman should keep his temper," she censured one MP, "..because nobody else wants it."

Banning electronic pagers from the Chamber, she conceded: "I have no objection to instruments which merely vibrate."

And she has criticised the Hon Members by telling them what the public thinks: "...they are disappointed in our legislators. They are looking for exchanges in policy and the governance of this country, and not personal attacks on the members of this House. They are sick and tired of personal attacks."

She has her critics, apparently, who say she has crafted her style as if for an American TV audience, and describe her as sometimes giving it "a touch of the Molly Sugdens".

But sketch-writer Quentin Letts, a fan, explains: "She needs a public image of herself in order to be politically powerful, and she has had to create one. It is true that she will kick off her shoes and rotate her stockinged toes, and at certain times she will feel the need to cough with that cigarette cough. But she has to have a presence, solely in order to do the job, and to make it felt."

Nigel Nelson of The People says: "She comes across as a formidable figure." And he should know: she banned him from the House for 20 working days for writing about its lapses in security. "She needs that image, in order to command the respect the Speaker needs. In fact, she's a really friendly person - and possibly the best Speaker I have seen."

Banned by tradition from the bars and tea-rooms of Westminster (in case she is perceived as hob-nobbing with her old Party mates), although the job demands that she entertains a lot, almost every night, she leads a mainly solitary life, getting out less than she would like.

"Miss Boothroyd," says the CV she had asked her secretary to give me, "is unmarried."

More accurately, she tells me, she is wedded to the Commons.

"I am not unromantic," she says. "There are times in your life when a man comes your way. But it was never quite the right time for me. I have always been very busy. And no young man is going to wait for you, until you can find time for him. It might have been wonderful, but it just didn't happen. It isn't as if I ever sat down and planned it to be this way. Yet now I don't want to get married - I couldn't share bath towels."

She laughs. "If anybody was interested now he would have to be told that the only thing I keep in the fridge is the bulb that lights up when you open the door."

To the world, she is Madam Speaker. To the OU alone she is Madam Chancellor. The first time that she took the Speaker's chair an MP asked how she should be addressed.

"Call me Madam," she said.