Betty Boothroyd on her return to frontline politics to fight Brexit
PUBLISHED: 14:46 10 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:46 10 May 2019
Betty Boothroyd tells ALASTAIR CAMPBELL why she has returned to frontline politics to campaign for a People's Vote.
Betty Boothroyd thought her campaign trail days were over. She is, after all, almost 90, and it is close to two decades since she stepped down as Commons speaker and headed to the Lords. But the voice is as strong as ever. And so is her passion for a People's Vote and an end to the Brexit crisis...
AC: So Betty, you were born in 1929 in Dewsbury. Talk me through the early years.
BB: I was an only child of textile workers, in a small house, two-down and two-up. And with a father who was unemployed a good deal of the time in those early days before the war. My dear mother worked five-and-a-half days a week, as a textile worker. Saturday mornings too, at that time.
AC: You were quite young when your dad died.
BB: I was about 16, 17, something like that. My parents were rather elderly parents really. I don't think they expected me. I came along unexpected.
AC: And what was your childhood like?
BB: It was a very happy childhood with a father who doted on me; who made me all sorts of carts with wheels on to run around the house in and he used to take me out on Sunday mornings for a walk. And yes, they doted on me, you know, I was an only child of ageing parents and my mother would say "you've got to do the washing up", And my dad would say "go on love you go out to play I'll do it for you". It was that sort of childhood.
AC: And what was Dewsbury like then?
BB: Full of mill chimneys, which didn't seem to work quite frankly, and back-to-back housing. A wonderful, wonderful school... I remember the teachers' names - one was Miss Smith, and as far as Miss Smith was concerned, the three Rs went out of the window. She couldn't care less about them. She had travelled the world and she told us about the world and the people that she'd met and she discussed it all with us. She discussed with us what was happening in the war, what was in the newspapers... I remember one occasion, she said "now who's Conservative around here?" So some of my classmates put their hands up. "And anybody Labour?" My hand went up. She said "now you'd better watch it, you and your mother, if the Germans come here, I have told you about concentration camps. I've told you about what the Germans do about gypsies, what they do about socialists like yourself. You and your mother will be scrubbing the town hall steps in your best clothes if they get here". It didn't frighten me.
AC: So you'd be ten at the start of the war?
BB: Yeah, I was about ten years old. So, you know, they were pretty powerful were the Germans then. They were all over the place, right? We were expecting them on the beaches.
AC: So was she telling you not to be Labour?
BB: No, not at all. She just told me what might happen. That was all what was happening to people on the continent. If they were socialists; if they were gypsies; if they were Jews. I don't think I knew what Jews meant quite frankly, but she told us all about it. I know now in retrospect what she meant. She put the steel in my backbone you see. So I got all my classmates and every night after school, there was an area close by, it was a hillside and there were caves on top. And I'd say we were going to hide up there if the Germans come here... I was a leader of people even then... And then of course the sirens came and we went into the air raid shelters underneath the school and we slept there at night.
AC: It's interesting that you remember your teacher in such detail. Do you think she might have been part of the inspiration that made you think "I'm not going to spend all my life in Dewsbury?"
BB: I think so... She was inspirational, the fact that she had travelled and I thought it was wonderful to hear about people in other countries where she'd been and what it was like. She inspired me about other places and internationalism. I didn't pass the eleven plus, I have to confess that. So she wasn't helpful in that, but by Jove she helped me in other ways.
AC: So when you were at primary school, you identified yourself as Labour. Is that because your parents were?
BB: Because my parents were Labour. My mother was rather an active member in the Labour party: in the women's section they had in those days. And on Saturday afternoons, we'd go by coach - the women's section - to Leeds, Wakefield, Bradford, Huddersfield to hear the big speakers. All in a coach. We would take sandwiches - "take jam and hope for spam" is what we said. And you'd have the flask of tea because we didn't have money to go to cafes and things like that. And I heard everybody speaking: Aneurin Bevan; Jennie Lee; Barbara Castle; Clem Attlee. Clem Attlee was my great hero. His wife Violet used to sit on the platform with painted nails, did Vi, and there was little Clem. A modest man with nothing to be modest about as far as I'm concerned. They were great occasions, those. Every weekend we were off somewhere like that.
AC: So at what age did you start to think "I'll probably go into politics?"
BB: Not for a long time. I went into what's called the Labour League of Youth when I was a young teenager and I was very active there. And then I wanted to work for the Labour party. So I left home and went up to London. I got a job in Transport House as a shorthand typist. Like my father told me "you'll earn a living that way girl". And then I worked in the House of Lords and the House of Commons for Members of Parliament. And I have to say I was quite good at it. And I thought "I could do as well as these people can here, so I'm going to have a go". I lost four elections before I was elected. I didn't mind. I was cutting my teeth. I was enjoying it all. I lost Nelson and Colne. Rossendale. Peterborough, and Leicester South East was the first I lost. 20,000 Conservative majority against me and had a 1% swing to Labour. Oh, I was just thrilled with that one. It was great.
AC: How come you ended up in West Bromwich?
BB: Oh, I suppose you might call me a carpetbagger because, you know, if you're an internationalist does it matter where you are? We have a very small country here. I hope the people from West Bromwich... who I adore, who gave me all the opportunities in life... I hope they don't mind if I liken them to the people in Dewsbury: hard-working, industrial people. So we talk the same language in many ways. They were foundry workers and mine were textile workers. They were hard-working people and they took to me like a duck to water and I took to them and they gave me all these advantages and eventually I became speaker.
AC: And when you were growing up through the war years what kind of lessons for life did you learn? Like when you came to speak at the People's Vote rally you talked about the fight against the hard right now and also back then. I presume that's what you meant. You meant fascism?
AC: What was that like and how did that feel, being British at that time?
BB: Well I was very patriotic and I'm a democrat more than anything, a middle-of-the-road democrat, and I hate extremism and fascism. I saw what it had done to Europe. In fact, immediately after the war I went to look at war-torn Europe. I went on my own with not more than five pounds in my pocket to meet up with Social Democratic families who welcomed me into their homes and still they're friends today... So I saw war-torn Europe and what extremism and fascism had done to us and I never wanted that. I wanted always to be part of this great wonderful continent of free Europe... There was no point in having a road map of Berlin because there was nothing there. It was just absolutely blown to smithereens. It just had a great impression on me.
AC: Why did you want to go?
BB: To see what it was like. To meet people who had suffered who probably felt as I did, who wanted a united Europe, so that sort of thing would never happen to us again. You know there's only 20 miles of water between us and them and some of us could swim it. It's a tank trap. That's all there is. I'm a European as much as I am British. I'm a patriot, but I'm also a European. And I want to live in peace with all that, with people who are similar, like-minded people on the continent.
AC: I do feel there are too many parallels in the world at the moment that should remind us of the 1930s; whether it's the economic crash, then these strongmen leaders coming to the fore, the rise of populism, and the hatred of elites and all this stuff. Do you share that fear that we're actually in a pretty dark place at the moment?
BB: Yes, I do fear that we're in a dark place, that there are all sorts of movements taking place that one is hardly aware of and I think we have got to be aware of it and we have got to pull together and live together. I don't know how to put it but I do feel that there are movements that one might be afraid of, extremisms of one sort or another.
AC: When you were an MP, when you became speaker, if I'd have said to you then "before you die we'll be out of European Union…"
BB: I wouldn't believe you. I would find it extremely hard to believe that this country, which has had such benefits from Europe - and there's no doubt about it, we have - would want to relinquish their relationship with Europe. I find it hard to believe now, quite frankly, and this is why I am firm in the belief that people now, after two or three years of knowing what would happen if we were not part of Europe, what would happen to this country and to future generations…
Look here. My concern is about young people. I've no children. I've no grandchildren. My quality of life is not going to be disturbed. I'm all right Jack. It's the Jack and Jills outside. It's the young people today whose quality of life in a few years time is going to be is deteriorating. The opportunities in life are not going to be there and it is for them to make the decisions about the future of this country. It is the most important decision that I think has ever been made and [young people] should be part and parcel of it. And they are interested and we must embrace them because it is their future and I want to see that they get an opportunity of voting in the next referendum.
AC: And why do you think the country did vote to leave?
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BB: I think there were a lot of falsehoods quite frankly, like what was told to them about what's going in the National Health Service. "There are far too many immigrants. They're taking our homes. They're taking our jobs." And it was just an easy thing to believe - sloganism. That's what it was. Now let me say this to you, I happen to be a very good patient of a hospital and I have been for about 10 years - it happens to be my second home. It's like the United Nations. The cardiologists I've seen there, experts that come from all over the world, the nurses from all over Europe. But it's a United Nations that works and now outside our big hospitals, I've seen it for myself they are advertising for nurses because of the shortage. We need these people to come in and work with us and among us... It is a tragedy for this country.
AC: But then if we try and think of the deeper reasons why it happened - that some people want to believe slogans like that - suggests there has to be something in their lives to make them think "I'm not happy with what's going on". So what is it? What is the unhappiness in Britain that you think this is speaking to?
BB: Well, I think the unhappiness is that [people] go to the local surgery and have to wait a long time and they think that there's a lot of people there ahead of them who shouldn't be there. They think that they're on a council housing list and they've been on for many years and they believe that people are jumping the queue, that it's all because of people coming in. They feel left behind.. and they want to make changes about it. They feel they haven't had a fair deal. You know, I don't blame them for that. I think they're wrong in that but this is what they see every day of their life. Jobs, maybe low-paying in some areas. Housing. They don't feel they're getting a fair deal and I think that they needed something to hang on to, and they got it in that referendum.
AC: And what do you think, if we do leave, that Brexit will do for those people?
BB: I think they will be very much worse off quite frankly. I think they don't know what's going to hit them... They may feel that they are vulnerable and disadvantaged at the present time, but they will be even more so. In the Lords, we've been looking lately at food prices. There's no doubt at all that food prices will go up.
AC: You said a moment ago you were, above all, a democrat. How do you respond to the argument put to people like us all the time that it is anti-democratic not to implement the referendum?
BB: I'm glad you put that question to me. It's a very serious one. A democracy is a nation that allows its people to change its mind. If it doesn't it's no longer a democracy. And I for one, and thousands like me, fight like alley cats every four or five years to change the system because we don't like the government and we want it out, or we like it and want to keep it in. That is what democracy is all about - changing your mind when you know what is happening and you don't like it. And this is what this is all about.
AC: But David Cameron, with parliament's backing, gave a referendum and said this was once in a lifetime, and whatever the result we'd accept it.
BB: David Cameron has a lot to answer for as far as I'm concerned, and he is now out of the picture and he should remain out of the picture. He brought this country to the state that it is in at the present time and it is very sad, and I'm very sorry about it.
AC: But we did have the referendum. Why is it democratic to say to the people "the decision you made was the wrong decision"?
BB: I'm not saying that was the wrong decision. I'm saying to them "look at it again". We've had two years now of getting to know what will happen with Brexit. I believe it is [up to people] to change their mind and they should be given the opportunity of doing so. It is [up to them] when they get to that ballot paper what they do. That's not up to me, but let us make it clear to them what the situation is going to be.
AC: So you were speaker. You had John Major as PM and Tony Blair PM. What do you make of the quality of political leadership today?
BB: When I sat in that speaker's chair, wherever it came from and whatever side of the House, they were giants. I'm afraid that isn't the case today and I'm sorry to say it. We need leadership both from the government party, which is in total disarray, and also from the opposition. Oppositions are hugely important in a democracy and I am sorry to say that there hasn't been the leadership that I would have wanted from my old party. And I say "my old party" because I've not been a member since 1992, because I wasn't allowed when I became speaker. I never returned to it. Oppositions are hugely important in terms of leadership and we should have given leadership on this issue in Europe and I don't believe the Labour party has.
AC: Including during the referendum?
BB: I don't know quite how to put this, I feel so strongly about it, in the referendum we never made a murmur. Some people tried to be helpful, but there was little leadership. I'm afraid that Cameron thought he was going to win and therefore the opposition felt "leave it at that". There was no leadership then and there's no leadership now.
AC: What's the leadership you want from both sides? What do you want to see from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn?
BB: Jeremy Corbyn - it's getting a bit late in the day now, let's face it. I wanted leadership during the referendum campaign and since then as to what should be done. And I also want leadership from Theresa May. I think she's trying to do her best, but she's been very stubborn. She has put those red lines down and she won't move from them. And if you're going to negotiate you have to negotiate and not put your red lines down to start with... I feel sorry for her and I wish her all success. I want my country to succeed. Of course I do. And I'm afraid it's not doing that with the leadership that we have in the parties these days.
AC: You were the first ever woman speaker. What does that feel like, when you think about your background and where you came from?
BB: I never thought too much about it actually... I never really thought "oh here I am the first woman". I just felt "I have to do this job to the best of my ability" and I got the votes of my party and the minority parties and a very high percentage of the Conservative party. Well, with that confidence I couldn't let parliament down. I love parliament and I was its servant and not its master. I wanted to do it right and I wanted to do it right for womankind too. I had my ups and downs and I don't think I was always flavour of the month, but I loved that job. It was the best job in the world.
AC: What were the highlights?
BB: The highlights were when I had difficult decisions to make. Not allowing Sinn Féin in unless they took the Oath of Allegiance. Meeting Sinn Féin, telling them straight up: "You take the Oath of Allegiance otherwise you don't come in here. There is no associate membership of this club". It seemed in that period that everybody wanted to come to Westminster. [French president Jacques] Chirac. China, [US president Bill] Clinton. They all came to Westminster. The best, as far as I'm concerned, was Nelson Mandela. Wonderful. I'd been an anti-apartheid activist in my young days and for him to come there and me to talk to Mandela... I went to dinner at Buckingham Palace the night before he came to Westminster and I said "be careful when you come down those steps in Westminster Hall because they're over 1,000 years old". I didn't want either of us to go base over Apex. He said: "I'll watch it Madam Speaker". Anyway came the morning, 10 o'clock, the sun is shining, the crowds are cheering him. And I said: "Now, Mr President, you know what I told you, just be careful down here." He said: "Don't worry Madam Speaker, I came at six o'clock this morning to see for myself." What a man. He took my hand and we walked down together and he made the most wonderful speech, totally without any viciousness, without any poison. Of course, Mrs Thatcher was sitting there in the front. She had called him a terrorist and when it finished there was no bitterness in his speech and he went and he shook hands with her. Great man. We need more people like that.
AC: What's your sense of the quality of parliamentary debate at the moment?
BB: Rather low. Okay. Look I'm prejudiced. Now I sit in the Lords, there are people there who know what they're talking about and I'm fascinated by them. We have wonderful debates. I watch the Commons - I don't see many of the soaps because I'm busy watching the Parliamentary Channel and seeing who I'd throw a raspberry at, and there are a lot of raspberries I can throw quite frankly. So I wouldn't say they are very high quality. There are some exceptions, but I have to say, in all seriousness, the quality of debates in the House of Lords is very good indeed.
AC: When you came to the [People's Vote] rally the other day - and I thought the same when Michael Heseltine came to the big rally in Parliament Square - [I thought] there's something about young people at the moment wanting to hear from people of your generation. You could have heard a pin drop when you were speaking and those kids behind you, let's be honest some of them probably didn't know about you till then...
BB: No, another generation. That's right.
AC: And yet they were absolutely mesmerized by the message because you brought this historical perspective. Do you agree with that?
BB: Yes, I do. I get emails from young people which cheers me, I rejoice in it because of their interest. It's wonderful. We've got to rally them more, we've got to reach these young people. They want to know their future, they want to be part of the future and we're leaving them behind unless we take it along with us.
AC: And that historical perspective that you have, is that what's driving you to talk about this? My generation, let alone my kids' generation, we have no collective real memory of the war.
BB: I have real memory, and it is the emotionalism, it is what I've lived through, it is what I've seen, it's what I know that makes me what I am today.
AC: And when you see the forces of the hard right back in action?
BB: I mean we're a free society, they can rally round, they can organise their parties, but we should not be afraid of them. We should stand up to them. We stood up to them before... in the war years. I fought the National Front in West Bromwich. I know what they're like. We could all do it. We're not cowards. This is not a country of cowards.
AC: Why do you feel the only way this is now going to get resolved is by putting it back to the people?
BB: There are great divisions in this country and in parliament, and in a democracy the people must always decide. I do not like referenda - make no mistake about it - but I believe this is the only way out. I think people now will have had an opportunity - those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave. They've seen what will happen if we leave. They have some idea how they will be affected; how their families will be affected; how their younger people will be affected.
A democracy gives them an opportunity to have another go. That is what I believe in, and this is what we must do to clear the air.