Greg Daly meets Papal Dame Ann Widdecombe
Five years after leaving the House of Commons, Ann Widdecombe is adamant she left at the right time.
“If I’d gone earlier I would have missed it. If I’d gone later, I’d have become jaded. But as it happens, I got it right,” she says, explaining how in 2007 she realised that after 20 years as an MP, she wasn’t up for another eight years in Westminster. “There were little straws in the wind, such as I’d come to prefer Countdown to Question Time,” she adds, “which I think was an indicator that I was gradually winding it down.”
Now a light entertainment regular, the one-time Shadow Health and Shadow Home Secretary has hopes for Britain’s new Conservative government, but has concerns about the narrowness of Prime Minister David Cameron’s majority.
“We’re very split on Europe,” she explains. “It’s 1992 all over again, and a great deal will depend on how much the party realises that, and realises how it contributed to its own misfortunes in 1997. We all knew we were going to lose, but we did not need to lose on the scale that we lost, and it was because the rebels in the party took advantage of the small majority. It’s crucial that we just don’t fall into that same trap this time. Otherwise, we will have problems.”
The trick, she says, will be to maintain party unity until 2017’s promised referendum on EU membership, getting behind the Prime Minister in the meantime and supporting his efforts to renegotiate Britain’s membership terms.
Right to worship
Not, of course, that Ms Widdecombe is an uncritical supporter of Mr Cameron: she is scathing of how in May, when reeling off a list of what he described as ‘British values’ that needed to be promoted, the Prime Minister pointedly cited ‘freedom of worship’ rather than ‘freedom of religion’.
Insisting that “they’re completely different”, she says, “we have the right to worship. We have always had the right to worship. What’s he talking about? Nobody’s seriously proposing that you can’t worship. The druids worship at Stonehenge. The pagans worship where I live on Dartmoor. Nobody wants to interfere with that. So he’s making a big deal about nothing.
“The crucial thing is being able to exercise religious conscience,” she says, citing the case of Nadia Eweida, who came into conflict with her British Airways employers when a uniform change exposed the cross she had hitherto worn under her clothes, and describing how Mr Cameron claimed he believed people should be allowed to wear religious symbols at work while his ministers argued the exact opposite before the European Court of Human Rights.
“Cameron absolutely resisted having any sort of conscience clause in any of the equality or hatred legislation,” she continues. “He’s always opposed any specific freedom of conscience, and that worries me.”
A 2012 parliamentary report found that while British Christians were being driven from the public square by religious illiteracy, a succession of court decisions, and unwillingness to make reasonable accommodations, they were not being persecuted, but Ms Widdecombe feels such a distinction misses how persecution comes in shades of grey.
“We are being persecuted!” she exclaims. “One of the problems is because you’ve got massive persecution in places like Syria, everybody says you mustn’t use the term ‘persecution’ in Britain. Well, that is like saying that a man with a shrapnel wound can’t describe himself as wounded because somebody else has actually lost limbs, and that somebody with a cold can’t say they’re ill because somebody else has got pneumonia. That is just a nonsense: we are persecuted.”
As examples, she cites how Belfast’s Ashers Bakery was found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake bearing a message with which the company owners sincerely disagreed, and relates how a Manchester housing employee suffered a demotion and a 40% pay cut after a colleague complained about a comment on his private Facebook page in 2011 that same-sex marriage would be “an equality too far”.
“He took them to court and won, but he was never reinstated,” she says, adding, “Now if that’s not persecution, how does the group in parliament want to describe what persecution is? It’s not on a par with being driven from your home, but it’s still persecution.”
Asked what she would say to a young Christian thinking of entering politics, she doesn’t hesitate: “Go into it. Go into it and don’t compromise your beliefs. Go in.”
She agrees that it has become more difficult than previously to be ‘out’ as a Christian in politics, but says that is just a challenge for Christians as individuals. “I’m not going to whinge about the fact that it’s difficult to stand out,” she stresses, adding, “What I do complain about is that if the law makes it impossible to stand out, because the law is the agency of the State. If the State is saying ‘you can’t do this… you can’t say that… you can’t give expression to that belief’, then that, to my mind, is what is dangerous.”
In Ireland to speak to politicians about Britain’s experiences with abortion law, she is dismissive of those who lazily assume she only opposes abortion because of her religious views. Pointing out that she has been pro-life as an agnostic, as an Anglican and now as a Catholic, she says, “I mean, arguably, I’m a Catholic because I’m pro-life, because that was what brought me back into contact with Catholicism.”
A papal dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great since 2013, she says her key message in Leinster House would be “to watch out for the fact that once you let something stretch, it becomes more stretchy. I mean you’ve got already talk of exemptions for severe handicaps – you watch, that’ll soon stretch to any old handicap. We had provisions for severe disability in our laws, and we were routinely aborting for club foot and cleft palate.
“I’m always saying however reasonable something looks, beware. It’s like the assisted suicide, you know, it looks like a reasonable thing – beware of where it can go.”
Recognising that it is easy to imagine situations where assisted suicide seems merciful, she cites problems in the Netherlands, which she describes as “a terrible mess”, and the US state of Oregon, supposedly a model for assisted suicide law, and says, “the problem is you can never ever confine it to that situation, any more than you managed to confine abortion law, divorce law – they’ve all developed a runaway bus, so my belief very firmly is you just don’t go down that road.”
Part of the difficulty, she says, is that “people never look at detail”, and that without thinking through possible legal implications and social consequences, “they always take a proposition and say ‘that’s right’ and they don’t look at the detail. They say that’s down to the politicians. And of course it doesn’t work like that.”