To the minds of many, there are two Ann Widdecombes: one is the Strictly Come Dancing queen whose salsa stomps won the nation’s hearts in 2010; the other is the fierce Conservative politician whose 23 year career has never fallen short of controversy. Her views on abortion, the death penalty and LGBT rights have all received plenty of provocative airtime over the decades and indeed are such that clearly still hold prominence in our interview today.
Upon tentatively suggesting that gay marriage was one of the reasons for Conservative success in the last election, I’m immediately met by a verbal barrage: “You are joking aren’t you?” She protests vehemently. “That absolutely was not the reason! You only have to look at Ed Miliband to work out what the reason was! I certainly don’t think that gay marriage was a positive force. All the polls suggested the opposite, they suggested it didn’t make any difference to the gay community but that it made a difference in a negative way to a lot of [David Cameron’s] own supporters… So no, I don’t think that had any impact at all on the election result; if anything I think it distracted the Party horribly in the run up to it.”
“You only have to look at Ed Miliband to work out what the reason was!”
Indeed, the conservatism which Widdecombe represents is such that is firmly rooted within the Thatcherite days where she initially made her mark. First elected to the House of Commons in 1987 as the MP for Maidstone, she went on to become the Minister of State for Prisons in 1995, the Shadow Health Secretary in 1998 and the Shadow Home Secretary in 1999. Indeed, the more Centralist approach more recent Conservatives have adopted is one which she recognises as being “bland.” “Oddly enough until the arrival of [Jeremy] Corbyn, one of our great difficulties over the last 20 years in British politics has been that both parties are occupying pretty much the same ground, and therefore it’s very hard for the public to distinguish between the two,” she acknowledges. “Argument over the central ground, well, I mean, I’m sure it’s all very worthy but it doesn’t exactly enthuse the electorate. No wonder there’s apathy; all I ever hear on doorsteps is that it doesn’t make any difference. They can’t say that now they’ve got Corbyn.”
However, Widdecombe’s motive for visiting the University of Exeter is not political, but religious. Christianity is a concept which has certainly defined many of her career values and, indeed, her conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism following the ordination of women ruffled numerous feathers in 1993. Within her talk about the benefits of Catholicism, she stresses that this opposition is purely “theological” rather than sexist. Indeed, she cites Mother Teresa, (one of her inspirations,) as a woman who made a significant religious contribution without the need of a ministerial title.
Certainly, the issue of sexism within this country is one which she holds little sympathy for. Although she concedes that some “fine tuning” is necessary, “people are now scraping the barrel for any old grievance that they can come up with”. “I’m sick to the back teeth about hearing about sexism in Parliament!” She laughs. “Take it from me, there isn’t any! I was there for 23 years. When I came in there were very few women in Parliament but the quality was enormous: Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle… These people were giants and they hadn’t got there through positive discrimination, they’d got there because they competed with the men and they won… Just look at other parts of the world and dear heavens, you see what it really means to have equality. In poorer parts of the world, women would think they were in Paradise if they had the rights of women over here.”
“These people were giants and they hadn’t got there through positive discrimination”
However, the position of Christians within Britain is one that she finds especially concerning. Although she jokes that she’s “always disagreeing with Cameron over one thing or another”, she states that the treatment of Christians is “very, very poor indeed”. More than this, however, is what she brands the “thought police” which has grown under the recent government: “This week, we’ve had a child who was reported to the police because he accessed a UKIP website. The child was 15 years old. I mean, UKIP? Are they Islamic State?” She scoffs. “Then we had a mature student at Sheffield University who was sent down and robbed of his place because he wrote on his private Facebook site that he disapproved of gay marriage. This is thought policing on a scale that the Soviet Union used to do whereby if you express a view in private, you can actually be penalised at work. That to my mind is the biggest thing that is undermining British society.”
When I ask if she feels the rise of more right-wing politicians has somewhat loosened these restrictions, she argues that these figures have “neither undermined nor contributed to freedoms.” “I think [freedoms] are consistently being undermined by government and nobody is shouting loudly enough.” She cites Nigel Farage as a figure who came to prominence, not because of his views, but “on the basis that he wanted a referendum.” “Well he’s got his referendum so you could say he’s achieved his objective. But, like most politicians, once you’ve done the thing you’ve set out to do, you don’t quite want to let go of the power and the position.”
The referendum is, of course, at the forefront of British politics for the foreseeable future. With Boris Johnson’s recent decision to support Brexit, Widdecombe admits that she is beginning to reach a similar conclusion: “I haven’t wholly decided but I am moving towards a point where I will probably vote for Brexit,” she confides. “Largely because I think it’s going to be our one and only chance to actually see if we can do something better. We’re not going to get this chance again and I feel that if we pass up this opportunity, we will never know… I’m actually for taking the risk.”
“I am moving towards a point where I will probably vote for Brexit”
It seems somewhat ironic, however, that a woman who so passionately advocates the “forgiveness” and “acceptance” of the Catholic Church still holds such intolerant ideals. Within the last few weeks, she published an article for The Guardian opposing Pope Francis’ defiance of the death penalty, promoting its efficiency as a “deterrent”. It is an interpretation which, I mention, is not necessarily correct in America where capital punishment has had little effect in many states. “No, it’s not a deterrent in the States,” she agrees. “I still think the major reason it’s not a deterrent there is because people spend 11 years on Death Row. In this country, if you were found guilty and you lost your appeal, there would then be a further appeal to the Home Secretary and that was it. Within months (sometimes weeks) that was it; it was done, delivered. So there was always a straightforward connection between the crime and the penalty paid. People spend – I mean it’s a barbarous system – people spend 11, 12 years on Death Row! Well by the time you’ve actually come to execute them, all the sympathy’s with them because of the time they’ve spent there and the connection with what they actually did has more or less disappeared… Well, that’s no deterrent either to you or to anyone else.”
Rehabilitation, however, is what she deems “a necessary tool of public protection.” “It’s not some soft, wet, liberal option as some people seem to think; it’s actually crucial,” she asserts. “I’ve said for a long time now that every single convicted prisoner, (you can’t do it with remands,) should have to spend every single week day doing a full day as you and I understand that to mean, either in the prison education department, or in the prison workshops, or in a combination of the two. The work that comes into prison should be real work; the prison workshops should be allowed to make profits, let the profits expand and then you would have a much more focused nature of imprisonment. At the moment all we do is warehouse the person.”
It is somewhat surprising that in spite of such contentious views, in recent years she has become such a national icon. Undoubtedly, this success can be traced back to Strictly, an experience that she describes as “marvellous!” “I expected to last three weeks, I really didn’t expect it to do the things in my life that it did. But instead of that, I lasted 10 weeks; I did the tour; I then did panto with Craig; then I was on at the Royal Opera House… So it goes on!”
“the prison workshops should be allowed to make profits”
“So it goes on” is perhaps the best, if not the only way, to sum up Widdecombe’s career trajectory. From politics to writing to dancing to charity work… They’re all sectors which she dominates, if not with grace, then certainly with strength. Indeed, I can’t say I agree with many of her ideas, but there is still something admirable about what she represents. When girls are consistently encouraged to look towards photo-shopped, sexualised starlets, it’s all too refreshing to come across a figure who has not only overcome such obstacles as age, marital status and gender but to have actively dismantled them. She may not be the most liberal but one can’t deny her intellect. Indeed, with society’s obsessive desire for political correctness, that slight shred of controversy is sometimes necessary if only to remind us of our individuality.
Ann Widdecombe has given speeches to the University’s Catholic and Politics societies.