“I wouldn’t be part of this coalition” said Ann Widdecombe when I asked her about her thoughts on the state of British politics today. In fact, “I’m delighted I’m not part of it,” said the Conservative politician.
Widdecombe is as theatrical on the phone as you’d expect her to be in real life. Retiring after twenty-three years in parliament, it suddenly dawns on me that this woman has been serving the people of the Maidstone constituency for as long as I’ve been alive. And she’s very able at dealing with journalists.
“I’m sure you’ll want to take a good rest?” I suggest to her. A pregnant pause ensues and I start kicking myself for making the assumption that she’s given up the fight. She replies in her typically abrupt fashion: “Yes. I suppose that’s the idea of retirement.”
Ann was born on 4th October 1947 in Bath, Somerset; the daughter of James Murray Widdecombe OBE and Mrs. Rita Widdecome. Her father was Head of Naval Supplies and Transport in the Ministry of Defence. Reminiscing, she says: “Dad was very ambitious and I think I got that from him.”
Ann began her university education in Birmingham where she read Latin. Like so many of her political counterparts, she was tempted by the allure of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford. Following that, she came to Oxford where she had a successful undergraduate career. Holding the positions of Secretary and Treasurer of the Oxford Union, she was also involved in the Christian Union and, of course, the Oxford University Conservative Association.
So why did she want to go into politics? “Largely it was to fight socialism,” she muses. “If you said that to an eighteen year old today they’d look at you as if you were completely mad. But in those days, the world was extremely divided between communism and capitalism; and people got involved on one side or the other.”
She spent her first few years in parliament with Margaret Thatcher who she describes as “a very outstanding Prime Minister indeed. I mean, she wasn’t as friendly as John Major was,” she admits. “But yes, I got on well with her.” “Is it easier to get on with male politicians?” I asked her. “Well, they don’t make the emotional demands that a lot of women make.”
Ms Widdecombe has held the position of Shadow Secretary of State for Health from 1998 to 1999 and the position of Shadow Home Secretary from 1999 to 2001. When I mentioned the dreaded words: political shortlists for women, I elicited an explosive response: “Demeaning, insulting and patronising!” she argues vehemently. “If you start to select people not on the basis of their ability, but of their gender, then inevitably it results in a diminution of standing.”
Her advice to aspiring young female politicians: “don’t make an issue of the fact that you’re a woman. I’m just an MP that happens to be a woman.” And she’s anything but boring. At times it feels rather like talking to a bulldog on the end of a leash. If you’re friendly and polite to her, she’ll wag her tail at you. But get on the wrong side of her and what she believes, and you may come away badly bruised.
It’s her abrupt charm, I suppose. Once you get beyond the hard shell, you realise that Ann Widdecombe is actually a softie – even if a principled and honest one!
What of her values? “I think if you’re true to your values you can manage most things,” she says. “It’s only when you equivocate and prevaricate, that you really get the problems. As long as you know what you believe in and that’s what you’re working towards, then it’s fine.”
“Why did you become a Roman Catholic?” I asked her. “When I looked at the churches from afar, the Anglican Church always seemed to be compromising on everything – just blowing about with every fad and fashion.” “Catholicism” on the other hand “seemed to be insisting on two thousand years of continuous truth and therefore I was much more attracted to it.”
But I wondered what a principled politician such as Ann Widdecome had to say about honesty in politics? “I think pure honesty is very difficult for any politician for the very simple and straightforward reason that you have to accept collective responsibility. Especially if you’re either a minster or a front bench spokesman: you speak for the party. People understand that.”
I interjected, and pointed out that some people are suspicious of collective responsibility in the wake of the expenses scandal. “Well then you shouldn’t be concerned,” she says. “People have this notion that collective responsibility is saying what you don’t think. In fact, it’s simply explaining a government’s position.” Other people think “that politics is about these huge clashes between your beliefs and your party. And yes those clashes do occur, but they’re not the norm.”
Following that, I brought up the subject of recent equality legislation. Widdecombe claims that “there has been a massive erosion of individual conscience and you’re now obliged to facilitate the things that you believe should not happen.” Take B&B owners for instance. “If they refuse to supply double rooms to married couples, and providing they apply that to heterosexual couples, that to me is not discrimination. But the law says it is!”
In a passionate response she says she thinks “it’s an erosion of the understanding of the Christian conscience.” “Once you say that there is nothing unique about the institution of marriage, then that is a blow against the family and frankly it’s not unique to civil partnerships but it’s another nail in the coffin of the family. Saying that, there were nails there before.”
So, what’s next for this formidable woman? “I’m retiring to the West Country and I’m going to write more” she says. When I asked her why she thought an Act of Fear was her favourite book, she was perfectly candid: as always. “Because I think it’s the best written…. and really because it got the most fan mail.”