Waiting to meet Ann Widdecombe is reminiscent of a visit to the dentist or the head teacher. Those stern authority figures usually have an imposing waiting area followed by a daunting office or surgery. In this case though, the mood is immediately lightened when the Conservative Member of Parliament for Maidstone and the Weald appears at the window of her first floor south London flat brandishing a set of keys. "You'll have to let yourselves in," she calls while tossing them down.
Home isn’t much to write home about. While a significant proportion of her colleagues live in trendy Notting Hill or refined Belgravia, there's no such luxury here. Her spartan property is clearly a place where business gets done, and little else. We're meeting here rather than in her Westminster office because she's on crutches and suffering some discomfort from a double fracture of her left ankle and a sprain to the right one, sustained in a fall coming out of a recent charity event. While many politicians would have taken the opportunity to avoid questions, it takes more than a couple of fractured bones to throw the veteran Tory's schedule off track.
Ann Widdecombe is the most high profile woman in British politics. With the possible exception of Mo Mowlam, she's the best-known female MP since Margaret Thatcher. A Christian with deeply held convictions - so strongly did she feel about the ordination of women that she left the Church of England in the early 1990s and converted to Catholicism. Taking part in TV programmes like Celebrity Fit Club and a re-vamp in her image in the last few years have seen her public profile rise even further.
As soon as we're sitting down, any remaining apprehension in the dentist/headmaster vein is quickly dismissed. She's direct and forceful in her opinions to be sure. But she's genuinely engaging company. Funny and self effacing, she's keen to debate the issues, rather than present a persona for the media. When we finish the official part of the interview and pose for pictures, she continues to talk with great passion about politics and the Church.
Widdecombe isn't without her critics. Her support for the handcuffing of pregnant women prisoners drew severe criticism; while despite her public popularity and media profile, she failed to gain enough support among Tory MPs to stand for the leadership of the party when she wanted to in 2001.
Now in her final months as a Member of Parliament, she has sold her constituency home and is set to move full time to Devon after the next election, when she'll retire. Yet while she may be winding down her career, she's not short of opinions on issues affecting her party, her country and the Church…
David Cameron has said Britain is broken, would you agree?
It's quite clearly broken. The TV documentaries I’ve done on hoodies, girl gangs, benefit abuse, truancy are all part of that picture. For years now they’ve been called an underclass but I think it’s slightly more serious than that. I think it’s an alienated class, which is different.
Is there a purely political reason for that?
No. The single biggest reason is social breakdown. You’ve got the breakdown of the family, moving away from the traditional unit of Mum, Dad and two. People are growing up increasingly in isolation with poor patterns of parenting. They’re being brought up in areas where the same patterns are repeated - truanting from school, being excluded. The other reason is the complete collapse of authority. People no longer respect police, teachers, passing adults who may try and intervene if there’s something going on. There’s much more to it than just politics.
Looking at this from a Christian point of view couldn’t we say we’re all broken, or fallen?
If you’re saying there’s always been wrongdoing, that’s true, if your saying there’s always been poverty, that’s true – Christ said the poor you will have with you always. What is new is the alienation of those parts of society from the rest. The poor did not generate knife crime a century ago, even a few decades ago. It’s now something that has come out of more than poverty – it’s alienation as well.
So the human condition – original sin – is always there but when we put that together with the breakdown of authority – that’s what we’re seeing?
The way that would be presented by the popular press is ‘Widdecombe says its all down to original sin’, and that’s never helpful. You never want to generate that sort of mischievous and malicious headline. It’s down to social breakdown – part of social breakdown is the fact that the Church doesn’t have any authority any more. There would have been a time when the Church was preaching individual responsibility to both the rich and the poor alike. They would have said to the poor, “This is not an excuse for wrongdoing”. They would have said to the rich, “Do you actually look round you and see what’s happening? It’s your responsibility to do something about it.” The Church doesn’t do that anymore. And if it does, nobody’s there to listen. Why aren’t the people in the pews? Where are people? They’re in Roman Catholic churches, they’re in evangelical churches, they’re in churches where a message is being preached which is worth hearing. Where there is not much message, why would anybody bother to sit in a pew?
Talking about faith and politics, [Labour MP and Transport Secretary] Ruth Kelly resigned recently citing her desire to spend more time with her family, but there was suspicion she wasn’t respected in the cabinet because of her strong Catholic faith.
If you think what Tony Blair said when asked why he hadn’t become a Catholic while he was still serving as Prime Minister, his exact words were, “People would have thought I was a nutter”. People don’t understand religious conviction anymore – they do think there’s something odd about you if you’ve got it. Yet they also want people with the courage of their convictions. So people vote for me who don’t have any allegiance to the Conservative Party because they recognise conviction when they see it even if they don’t actually share the conviction. I think it is important that people should actually stand up for what they believe. St Paul said, “We believe and therefore speak”. Christ said, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel”. And whatever my enemies may have said about me they’ve never yet accused me of hiding my light under a bushel.
During the US election I was thinking of John McCain and his constant mantra: ‘I’m a Republican but...’ Is that your line – I’m a Conservative but I’m not towing the Conservative line on everything?
Hang on! Give me one occasion when there has been a Conservative whip on something that I couldn’t have voted for. What people don’t appreciate – this doesn’t always happen in the Labour Party but it does in our party. If it’s an issue of conscience – abortion reform, hanging, homosexual reform, divorce reform, hunting even – there’ll be a free vote and everyone from David Cameron down has got a free vote.
Looking at hunting then – if you take a classic ‘Conservative’ position – you were on the opposite side, but you didn’t feel constrained to vote with the majority of Conservatives.
No. For the simple reason that out there in the country there are millions of Conservative voters who think the same as I do on hunting – they deserve some representation in Parliament as well. I give it to them.
So I suppose we’re getting to the heart of why you’re a Conservative. You feel that on issues of Christian conviction it’s the Party that is most closely aligned to you.
Yes, but it is also true that I believe in the individual not the state. And Labour has always believed in a bigger state and a smaller individual and the Conservative Party has always believed in a bigger individual and a smaller state. I’ve been a Conservative all my life – as an Anglican, agnostic, and Catholic – because I do not believe in vast powers being held by the state. They’re necessary in emergencies, but when it comes to having your wheelie bins chipped – not even George Orwell managed to think that one up!
Do you think if you’d ‘played the game’ a bit more you could have risen higher in the party, and maybe even the country?
I don’t know. There was a time in 2001 when William [Hague] was stepping down and I was Shadow Home Secretary, when I did want to stand for the leadership but I didn’t have the support at Westminster. I had a lot in the country. If I’d towed the line would I have had more support? A bit perhaps, but I think on the whole they [Conservative MPs] thought I was pretty odd. Had we remained in power [after the 97 election] I’ve no doubt at all I’d have been in the cabinet – beyond that I can’t say.
We often hear about an anti-Christian bias in society. Is that the case?
Oh, I’ve no doubt that’s around. If you actually look at the legislation being passed, I’ve no doubt at all that just about everybody’s protected except Christians.
Is image too important in modern politics?
Yes it is but it’s a fact of life. It’s largely a product of television, and I think politicians have made it important by going in for spin and presentation. If you look at Boris [Johnson], Mo Molam, people like me, people who’ve been popular, made an impact, we’re not at all image conscious, so I don’t think the nation shares the obsession the politicians have got. But so long as the politicians and advisors think it’s important, it’s going to stay important.
Why have you embraced reality TV and shows like Have I got News for You?
When I did my programme on benefits abuse, I got four million viewers. If I’d made a speech in the House of Commons on benefits abuse I’d have been lucky if I’d got 40 people outside the House of Commons knowing about it. Why is it that four million people bothered to watch? For years I’d been doing a whole lot of television…some serious, some like Have I got News for You, Countdown, [Celebrity] Fit Club and therefore they were interested and thought they knew me and I had a sort of character established. If you want to communicate with large numbers of people I’m afraid that’s the way you’ve got to do it – you’ve got to build a character they know and then use mass communication.
So whereas most reality TV participants go on to raise their own profile, you were doing it more to raise issues and agendas?
I had to raise my own profile in order to raise issues and agendas – the two go hand in hand. I wouldn’t be invited to do half the Christian programmes I do without that profile. It’s a question of using the profile wisely – so for example I’d never do Big Brother and I’ve come under pressure occasionally to do so, I’d never do I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, and I’d certainly never do Strictly Come Dancing.
Do the public caricatures bother you? Are any of them close to the real you?
They don’t bother me because they’ve been there since time began. My house in Devon is full of cartoons of me. I think it’s sad to be pigeonholed by the press and media – they call you right or left or libertarian or authoritarian. Then when you do something that is contrary – they can’t cope with it. I think it’s a silly way of proceeding.
Do you use your faith as a guide to your politics?
It’s always a guide. If you ask me for the biblical justification of why I’m a Conservative – it’s the Good Samaritan. He didn’t ring up anyone else – he didn’t say, “I’ve paid my taxes so the social services can deal with this”. He dealt with it. How was he able to deal with it? This man was obviously quite successful – he was travelling with a beast, if you remember – he had the equivalent of a very decent car. This beast was mighty well equipped. There was wine, oil, bandages; this was a successful guy – he was probably a small businessman. Because he had a beast he was able to put the man on it to take him to the inn. When we get to the inn, he pays the innkeeper. My big question is, “Who pays the innkeeper?” And the answer is the individual wealth makers and that is why I’ve always been a capitalist. I’ve always been a Conservative. You create the wealth to help. The modern innkeeper is the Health Service, universal education. To do those things you need to make the money.
A more left wing critique of that might say you’ve got a utopian view. Given freedom, people revert to nature, grab what they can for themselves and don’t worry about the guy on the other side of the road.
That obviously isn’t true. Nearly all the big initiatives have come from private charities. The hospice movement wasn’t government initiated; the battered wives movement wasn’t government initiated, look back to Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale. If you don’t have money as a nation – you can’t afford your health services, your pension.
Do you sense a growing movement to make abortion a big issue in this country?
Oh yes. David Cameron’s given a pretty clear indication that he would be prepared to lower the limit to 20 weeks. My view is if we have a good Conservative majority after the next election, the chances are high there will be a government-inspired reduction in the abortion limit.
Is there a point we can reach where there is a more happy consensus between the two sides?
No. There’s no consensus. I don’t consider a child being aborted at 20 weeks to be moral. It just happens that if you reduce the number of weeks of pregnancy at which abortion is allowed from 24 to 20 weeks, you save all the children who would have been aborted in that time. We are trying to maximise the saving of life. The analogy I always use is a shipwreck – if there are 100 people on board and you know you can get 92 off you don’t stand back and let the whole ship go down – you pull off the 92 and lose eight. We’ve been in the position where we’ve been struggling for the eight rather than the 92, but the idea is you save whatever life you can at every stage. We would be saving 4,000 children a year.
Are you surprised at the vicious nature of the split in the Anglican Church over homosexuality?
No, I’m not. Biblical teaching is very clear on the subject. We’ve had 2,000 years of a consistent stand. If there are those who now wish either to change it or defy it, then there is going to be a split. I think Rowan [Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury] is doing his level best but sooner or later we’ve got to accept you’ve got to come down on one side or other. You won’t hold a church together operating on two completely different views.
The Catholic Church seems to be much more of one mind on social issues.
The great thing about the Catholic Church is its absolute authority. The Pope pronounces and that’s it. The Pope is not infallible on every single thing he pronounces – that’s a misunderstanding of the Catholic teaching on infallibility. He nevertheless has absolute authority. There isn’t the business of voting on everything in Synod – Christ didn’t put the Sermon on the Mount to the vote, Moses didn’t come down from Sinai with 10 suggestions. The whole nature of authority which is there in the Bible is what holds the Church together.
How has becoming a Catholic changed you?
I’ve never been so spiritually content. I’m in a Church that knows what it thinks, doesn’t care whether it’s popular or not. I feel an absolute link with the early Church handed down from the apostles. It is the single best decision I ever made in 61 years on this earth.
The establishment of the Church of England is a vexed issue at the moment.
I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.
Do you consider we are a Christian country?
Well, we claim to be. If you didn’t have an established church, you’d have no good reason to insist on religious education in schools, so kids who don’t get it at home wouldn’t get it at all. You’d completely de-Christianise vast sections [of society].
As you come towards the end of your career in Parliament, what’s your biggest achievement?
One of the best things I ever did was get a constituent of mine out of jail in Morocco. It didn’t affect the nation or the constituency but it had a tidal wave effect on an individual family, because he was going to face 9 years in a Moroccan jail for a crime not even the Moroccans believed he committed. That always goes down for me as a big achievement, but it’s not going down in history. All manner of things I’m pleased I did, but if you ask me what stands out, it’s the guy I got out of prison in Morocco.
None. I think. Maybe things like presentation. But no is the answer.
What do you plan to do with your retirement?
I’m going down to Devon where I’ve bought a house. I’m going to walk dogs on the moor. I shall write more books, and that will be it. I’m not making a massive career change, I’m just gradually preparing for retirement.
What about the House of Lords?
That’s up to David Cameron.
But you’d consider it?
I wouldn’t put pressure on him by saying I’m waiting to be offered it. But if it were ever to be offered, yes.
And you feel your work is done in the constituency, the party and the country? It’s time to move on?
It’s never done in the constituency and it never will be. You just hand the baton on to somebody else, and similarly in the country. But I feel that my own personal course in House of Commons politics has run and is finished. And I think like St Paul I have kept the faith and fought the good fight and now I’ve finished my course.
Ann Widdecombe was born in Bath in 1947. Her father was a civil servant and she has followed him into public life. After studying Latin at Birmingham University, she attended Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University. At Oxford, she became involved in the Conservative Association and was elected a local councillor in Runnymede in 1976. After a spell working at Unilever, she took a position in administration at the University of London. While there she twice ran unsuccessfully for Parliament, in 1979 in Burnley and in 1983 in Plymouth. She was eventually elected to serve Maidstone in 1987 and has remained ever since. When the Conservatives were in power she held various positions including posts at the Foreign Office and Department of Employment. After the 1997 election she became Shadow Health Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. In 2001 she wanted to stand for the leadership of the Party, but didn’t have the support of enough MPs. She’ll retire from Parliament at the next election. Brought up as an Anglican, Widdecombe converted to Catholicism after the Church of England began ordaining women. Her uncle, brother and nephew are all clergymen. Outside of politics, she’s written five novels and enjoys the outdoors. Never married, she looked after her mother Rita, until her death last year. In retirement, she’ll move full-time to Devon and spend time walking her dogs.