Silence is not golden

  • 2000-10-12
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - "Order! Order!" has been Betty Boothroyd's constant refrain as speaker of the British House of Commons, but last week she stressed the importance of vigorous debate in a speech to the Latvian parliament.

Boothroyd stands down as speaker on Oct. 23.

The former high-kicking music hall chorus girl was apparently unsteadied by the cobbles during a tour of Riga's Old Town streets, but nevertheless declared the city "utterly charming," after a change of shoes and, probably, a quick cigarette in her hotel room.

Boothroyd's address to the Latvian parliament was the highlight of a visit which also included a visit to the James Armistead Children's Hospital, named after a British businessman who bequeathed the money for its construction in his will in 1879. Armistead's nephew later became mayor of Riga.

"Silence is neither golden, realistic or democratic," Boothroyd told MPs assembled in the Parliament chamber. Though dressed unusually smartly, they were later reprimanded for drowning out her speech with mobile phone chatter.

"MPs should use their privileges with discretion," Boothroyd asserted. Whether the sizable business interests of some Latvian MPs came up for discussion when Boothroyd met Prime Minister Andris Berzins is not known.

"We had a very good exchange of ideas," was all she would reveal.

Britain has helped Latvia establish parliamentary procedures since it achieved independence from the Soviet Union, said Janis Straume, Boothroyd's Latvian counterpart.

"There have been several visits, both by parliamentary committees and technical staff," said Straume.

But the advice does not all travel in one direction, said Boothroyd. The example of a newly-established parliament recently prompted the creation of a new House of Commons committee known as Westminster Hall, which gives MPs not in the cabinet a greater say in policy, said Boothroyd.

"An old parliament always has something to learn from new institutions," she said.

On Latvian ambitions to join the European Union Boothroyd was also encouraging.

"The UK stands ready and wishes to encourage Latvia's accession," she said. The idea of Britain as a "champion of enlargement" was the theme of a speech to Polish politicians and business leaders by Prime Minister Tony Blair in Warsaw the following day. Blair is the first EU leader to specify a date by which he wants the first new members to join - 2004.

In Britain, Boothroyd has been criticized for being unsympathetic to the needs of women in parliament, where hours are not "family friendly" - evening sessions often run into the early morning. But Aija Poca, Latvia's Way MP and head of the Budget and Finance Committee, seemed inspired by Boothroyd's performance.

"She looks fascinating. Her speech can't be separated from her as a person," said Poca. "Her explanations about democracy were really good."

Earlier this year Boothroyd banned breast feeding in working areas of the House of Commons, not an issue a Latvian speaker will face, according to Kristiana Libane, 29-year-old leader of Latvia's Way, even though this week has been declared national breast feeding week in Latvia. But Boothroyd's devotion to parliament, partly due, she says, to her having no husband or family, would not suit many Latvian women, says Libane.

"The number of women in parliament has increased, but Latvian women are very concerned with family life and beauty, the way they appear to their husbands and children," said Libane.

"Being a politician is full of stress, it's bad for your physical health. It's very draining to appear on the political stage."

Describing the last time she will be asked to address a parliament in her role as speaker as a "very special occasion for myself," Boothroyd wished the Latvian parliament "great success and all good fortune."

She is looking forward, hopefully, to a seat in the House of Lords she says, but above all she wants to determine her own agenda, "rather than having bureaucrats do it for me."

Her itinerary also included visits to Kiev and Tallinn.