PROCEEDINGS in the British House of Commons are an unusual blend of control and chaos, of decorum and bedlam. Presiding over its business and charged with maintaining the chamber's venerable balance between dignity and free-for-all is - for the first time in Parliament's 700-year history - a woman, Betty Boothroyd. Ms. Boothroyd was elected Speaker of the Commons April 27, at the opening of the new Parliament after the recent British general election.
With sessions of Parliament televised around the world, Boothroyd soon will be - like her retiring predecessor, the redoubtable Bernard Weatherill - one of the most recognizable figures in British public life, besides Prime Minister John Major and members of the royal family.
The lopsided victory of a Labour Party backbencher in a Conservative Parliament attests to the respect Boothroyd has earned in 19 years in the House of Commons, including the last five years as a deputy speaker. Obviously the Tories who voted for her over a Conservative rival had little doubt of her ability, as protocol requires, to forsake partisan politics and to preside fairly and impartially.
Unlike the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the Speaker of the Commons is not a party leader or strategist. But the position isn't merely ceremonial, either. In maintaining order and deciding who will speak, the Speaker influences the tone of debate, safeguards the rules and traditions of the institution, and projects an image of British parliamentary democracy. The job is no sinecure.
Although the realm has had two monarchs named Elizabeth and one named Victoria, and a prime minister named Margaret, in Britain government is still predominantly a male world (just 60 of the 651 members of Parliament are women). But women are assuming a larger role. Two ministers in Mr. Major's new Cabinet are females. And it's healthy for the nation's political life that henceforth MPs will be addressing their comments to "Madam Speaker."