As she visits Exeter to speak to the university’s Catholic Society, Exeposé Features’ Francesca Gillett talks to former MP Ann Widdecombe about the SSB, students and Catholicism in our society.
Since standing down as an MP in May 2010 after an astounding 23 years in politics, Ann Widdecombe has been enjoying herself. Perhaps surprising for an ex-politician notorious for her controversial and uncompromising views, since her retirement 65-year-old Widdecombe has transformed herself into a public entertainer. She’s appeared in pantomime, French-language opera, quiz shows and of course that 10-week stint on Strictly Come Dancing, during which she “galumphed like an elephant”, as she puts it.
It is this self-mockery and good humour which may initially seem at odds with Widdecombe’s strong traditionalist views and sometimes forceful tone. As well as enjoying regular walks across Dartmoor, writing best-selling novels and most recently hosting Sky Atlantic quiz show Cleverdicks, the former Shadow Home Secretary often tours the country as a speaker. Her theatrical persona and unashamed courage in holding controversial views – most notably her stances against gay marriage and abortion – is what makes her such a celebrated and sought-after guest. Fiery at the podium, she once said how former Conservative Party Chairman Michael Ancram “nearly laid an egg” when she decided to speak without notes at the Party Conference. It is as a seasoned speaker, arriving in Exeter for a talk entitled ‘Morality in Public Life’ organised by the University’s Catholic Society, where we meet her today.
It is timely that she is visiting Exeter after her recent condemnation of the Guild’s now-cancelled Safer Sex Ball, which she previously called “the height of irresponsibility to have a lot of people running about in their underwear.” Interesting then, that she agreed to appear on a primetime television show involving scantily-clad women performing racy dance moves, but Widdecombe ensured that her Strictly Come Dancing contract was ‘sex-proofed’ with no immodest or suggestive clothing. When questioned about the SSB, the veteran Tory MP remains disapproving. “It’s sending out the message that women are about one thing only, which of course they’re not. So of course it isn’t very surprising that women aren’t respected in the way they used to be, and largely because they don’t respect themselves anymore.” What would she say to Exeter’s female students who would ever consider attending such a ball? “I would say, don’t… if you respect yourself then you’re worth waiting for.”
Regarding society’s attitude to sex in general, the former MP is equally critical of the dominance of sex in the public sphere. “It’s ridiculous. When I was growing up it wasn’t talked about at all. And we’ve gone from that almost to making it compulsory; that if there isn’t sex in a play or sex in a book, or in an act or a dance then somehow it’s not worth having. The pendulum’s gone absolutely crazy. And it’s very bad.”
As a student at Birmingham University in the sixties, and then later going on to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, she is well acquainted with student life. Despite the obvious changes in funding, she says that she doubts that student life has altered much from her day. “Students divide into two and they always did. There are the students who come here to work. And there are students who also regard university as a much rounder experience.” But she speaks contemptuously of the prevalence of binge-drinking in student culture, a phenomenon which she recently explored in a radio programme following a group of young female professionals on their night out. “You’ve got young women wearing virtually nothing staggering along on huge heels, falling off pavements because they are too plastered to know where they’re going. And of course they’re in danger.”
One of Britain’s most high-profile Catholics, former Anglican Widdecombe is clearly keen to talk about her faith. Unlike the traditional responses of contraception in Africa and the abuse scandal, Widdecombe cites attitudes towards Christianity in the Middle East as one of the most pressing issues that the next Pope will have to deal with. When asked about the position of Christians in Britain, she says that “we’ve regarded it as safe to ignore”. She says that she’d like to see a “very big gathering of Christians in central London where David Cameron can’t miss us, and if we can put 100,000 Christians on the streets of London I think we might actually be heard just a little bit more.” In spite of her retirement, it is clear that the former MP has lost none of her appetite for political action.
After a career in politics spanning more than the age of most Exeter undergraduates, it is perhaps surprising that Widdecombe’s contribution to public life has not yet been formally recognised in the form of a peerage. Just last month talk of a seat in the House of Lords was reignited when she was granted a Papal Honour by the Catholic Church making her Dame Ann of the Order of St. Gregory. Interestingly, in a letter sent to be read out at the ceremony, David Cameron wrote that the honour was “richly deserved.” Does she still see it as a snub that she hasn’t received a peerage? “It’s part and parcel of political life. It’s an occupational hazard. Cameron doesn’t like me, so there we go. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Perhaps her lack of peerage is due to her strong socially conservative views; after all, Widdecombe arguably does not quite fit the desired image of the modern day Conservative Party. Asked if she misses frontline politics, she is adamant that she does not. “If I’d gone any earlier I would have missed it, and if I’d gone later I think I would have been very jaded by now.” And what is her opinion on one of today’s most popular Conservative politicians, Boris Johnson? “Although he regularly acts like a buffoon, he’s got a brain like a laser.”
Speaking with Widdecombe, one is left with a sense of the passion that she has nurtured for politics, her Catholicism and now for her various projects in her retirement. What would she say to Exeter students keen to begin a career in the public eye? “Don’t do it immediately. Particularly politics. Go away, have a career, get yourself financially secure, have a family, then see if you still want to do it. And if you do, do it then.” It is this forthright appraisal of situations that has served her well throughout her time in politics and will surely continue to do so well into her retirement.