Ann Widdecombe Conversations


Ann Widdecombe

Sean Curran talks to former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe about her life and political career.


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Transcript


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Hello and welcome again to Conversations.

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My guest today is a woman whose journey through life

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has taken her from a convent school education in Bath

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to the benches of the House of Commons,

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from the offices of government to the stage of the Royal Opera House

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and the Strictly Come Dancing studio.

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Somewhere along the way, this once-controversial political figure

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has veered dangerously close to becoming a national treasure.

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She once described herself as the Westminster oddball,

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who was so unaccountably popular in the country.

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She is Ann Widdecombe.

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-Ann Widdecombe, welcome back...

-Thank you.

-..to Westminster.

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When you come back, does it feel like the return of the native?

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-Do you think this is your home?

-No, not at all.

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I got the point of exit right.

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If I'd gone earlier, I would have missed it.

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If I'd gone later, I would have been very jaded.

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I actually got the point of leaving right

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and therefore I've left

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and just as when I had finished with politics,

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I accepted that I'd left and that I could go on and do things

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like Strictly, etc, so now this is a part of my past,

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but it's not a part of my present.

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-We're at the start of a new political term.

-We are.

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Is there not part of you that thinks,

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"Well, I'd like to be in there, in the fray"?

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Even if it was in the House of Lords...

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Well, I'm profoundly grateful

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that I wasn't there during the period of coalition.

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-I don't think I would've done well in coalition at all.

-Why not?

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I don't like not knowing where we're going.

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I think when a government's been elected,

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you want a programme, you want to set that programme out.

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When you're in coalition, very often the tail is wagging the dog,

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but I will add that I thought

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the Liberals suffered quite unfairly from being in coalition.

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My view was it was the responsible thing for everybody to do.

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I mean, I thought Cameron was right

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because the economy was in such a parlous state.

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If you remember, there was no money left,

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according to a departing Labour minister.

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-That's Liam Byrne's famous note.

-Indeed. "No money left," he said.

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And it was not a situation in what you wanted was to have

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a minority government for, say, six months

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and then another general election.

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I don't think the markets would have stood it.

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So I thought he and Clegg were right to say,

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"OK, we'll manage a coalition," but of course,

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that was never going to be popular with the followers of either side

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and I think the Liberals paid for it disproportionately badly.

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-So you've no regrets?

-None.

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You wouldn't like to come back if the call was to say, "Oh, Ann,

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"we need you come to come back to be in the House of Lords?"

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-Would you come back?

-Oh, of course I would have done.

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Yes, of course I would have done

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and I don't think I'm revealing anything too much when I say that

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initially I was hopeful that that was going to happen.

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But it didn't, and, as I say, you know,

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I can always accept when something is over,

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so I settled down to a new life.

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And your new life, is that the life of a celebrity?

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Do you think of yourself as a celebrity?

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No, I don't think of myself as a celebrity.

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It's the most ghastly word.

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Anyway, I'm never quite sure what a celebrity is.

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I mean, when I was growing up, you were celebrated for doing something.

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You were a celebrity if you were Captain Scott,

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not that he was in my time, or Edmund Hillary, you know,

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you were a celebrity if you had done something like that.

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But now it's used quite vacuously,

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sometimes to describe people who have done nothing at all.

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They've just come onto the scene by way of a reality programme.

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Do you think your appearance on Strictly Come Dancing

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gave you that national treasure status?

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Did you feel people reacting to you in a different way?

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I think a lot of people were surprised because, of course,

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when you're a politician,

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it isn't appropriate to do some things.

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I was asked to do Strictly Come Dancing for years

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while I was actually in the House of Commons.

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I said, "No, absolutely not."

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Time-wise, dignity-wise,

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it wouldn't have been remotely appropriate.

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So that is a side of you that you can't show.

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Certainly I wouldn't have gone into pantomime

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while I was in the House of Commons.

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I was offered that as well at one point,

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so you do need to keep the two things separate.

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If you're doing a serious job of work,

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you need to be a serious person,

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you need to present a serious aspect to the electorate,

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but when that's over, then by all means have fun and, you know,

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if you've got something you want to do, go and do it.

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Isn't a strange British phenomenon, though,

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where people who've often had quite a controversial career,

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sometimes people who'd had quite challenging views

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and they've challenged the status quo

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and they've challenged people's thinking,

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end up being absorbed by the Establishment

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and they become national treasures and it's almost then as though

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we don't have to listen to their challenging views any more

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because we've put them in a different category?

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Well, the interesting thing is that I still do quite

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a lot of political interviews and I've still got

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a weekly column in a national newspaper,

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so I do still put forth political and general views

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and I haven't abandoned doing that

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and there are people certainly who leaving the Commons

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wouldn't dream of going into, if you like, the showbiz side of things.

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They just wouldn't do it.

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Now, you were a huge hit on that programme

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and it confirmed the fact that a lot of people

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are really interested in you and they're intrigued by you.

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Do you understand why you're such an interesting figure?

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Not really, not really.

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I mean, I spent 23 years as a politician,

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which I had causes that I fought and offices that I had to discharge

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and I don't really understand why there was suddenly

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that huge swell of warmth as there was when I did Strictly.

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You could feel it in the very first programme.

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I did a very clodhopping waltz,

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I did look a bit happier than Ed Balls managed to look,

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but I did a really pedestrian waltz and people loved it.

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Would the young Ann Widdecombe in school have thought

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-that this was the sort of career she was going to have?

-If you...

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Never mind school -

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if you had told me in the spring of 2010,

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when I was getting ready to leave Parliament,

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if you'd said to me, then, "Well, Ann, this is how it's going to go.

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"You'll be dancing for three months on prime-time television,

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"then you're going to be touring the entire UK

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"in a live dance show with Craig Revel Horwood,

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"then you'll be going into pantomime,

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"and oh, yes, by the way,

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"you're also going to be on at the Royal Opera House,

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I'd have said, "Lie down and have an aspirin."

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I wouldn't have believed it then, never mind when I was at school.

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So what were your aspirations when you were at school?

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To be a politician. I had political aspirations very early on -

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initially, for all the wrong reasons,

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cos I grew up in the post-war generation,

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thus very influenced by Churchill and the immediate past history

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and seriously believed when I was 13 or 14

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that all politicians were like Churchill.

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I mean, now I say I wish,

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but that's what I believed then.

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So I was very inspired by that.

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By the time I was 20,

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I had a much more realistic appreciation of what it was about,

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but the ambition remained because by then,

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I was very driven to fight socialism.

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Of course, if you say that to an 18-year-old today,

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they look you as if you've just started speaking Greek or something.

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You know, it means nothing,

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but in our day socialism wasn't New Labour, it was neo-communism.

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So, did your parents consciously seek to influence

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your political views, do you think?

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No, I don't think so, but people talked politics at home.

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You know, it was never a taboo subject or a strange subject

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or something that they weren't interested in.

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We talked politics at home and largely, as I say,

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it was Conservative politics.

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For example, you know, we were a family that believed very strongly

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in grammar schools, very strongly in grammar schools.

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The comprehensives were being talked about in the early '60s

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and when I was I was listening, if you like, to the conversation,

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and I knew that I believed that people should have the opportunity

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to grow tall,

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so there were different things around and, of course,

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what everybody forgets,

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cos it's nearly 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down,

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we were in the Cold War.

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-Mmm.

-You know, the Russians were regarded as a serious threat.

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We were in the space race.

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We even had our own little Sputniks,

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you know, we were in the space race. It was a different world altogether.

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These all sound like quite serious dinner table conversation topics.

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-Was it a happy childhood?

-It was a very happy childhood.

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It's one... If not the greatest blessing...

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I mean, one is obviously health, but a very close second to that

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comes a happy childhood and I think if you have a happy childhood,

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you're very well equipped indeed to face life and we did.

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It was a nomadic childhood because I was with an Admiralty family.

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We still called it that then.

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It wasn't the MoD (Naval), it was the Admiralty,

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so we moved around every two to three years,

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so I'd been to five different schools, for example,

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by the time I was 11.

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I spent three years in Singapore, so we moved around

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a great deal, but, nevertheless, it felt very stable and very safe.

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-And you were close to your parents...

-Yes.

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..all the way through your life, weren't you?

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Yes, I was and there is that wonderful period when

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they're no longer looking after you and you're not yet looking

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after them when you really get to know each other as human beings,

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as opposed to just the parent-child relationship,

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but, yes, I was and when my father died,

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my mother came to live with me.

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-Did you have to work hard on managing that relationship?

-No.

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Were there difficulties or a generation gap?

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Oh, I'm sure there was a generation gap, because there always is.

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I mean, that's part of family dynamic,

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but I also had a grandmother living with us when I was growing up, so if

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you want to put it in those terms, there was a double generation gap.

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And she told me fascinating stories

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which I now wish I'd paid much more attention to

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and are one of the reasons why I did the series on this Victorians

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or I did the programme on the Victorians,

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was to try and see something of what Gran had seen around her.

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How difficult was it later on when you had to be, as you say,

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looking after your parents?

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You've moved from that stage where they can be friends and companions

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and then you're having to juggle all sorts of demands

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and in effect be a carer as well?

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Yes, it was quite difficult, but neither parent really declined

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until the last two years of his and her life, neither.

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So I didn't have a long period that a lot of people have to go through

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when the parents are either physically weak

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or they're dementing or whatever it might be.

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But obviously responsibilities come along and I'd always said that

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if I had to, I would put them before my own career

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and indeed I was always glad that I left the front bench when I did

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cos it gave me...

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My mother was by then living with me

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and it gave me those extra years, not entirely with her,

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cos I was still in Parliament, but far more with her

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than I could ever have been if I was on the front bench.

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-Now, let's go back in time a bit. So you had your happy childhood...

-Yes.

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-..then you went to Birmingham University...

-Read Latin.

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..and you read Latin and then when you left Birmingham,

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-you started all over again?

-Mmm.

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Now, you went to Oxford and you did an undergraduate degree.

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Why did you start again?

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I'd always imagined that I was going to spend six years at university

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because I had intended to do a PhD

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in classics, in some aspect of Roman history,

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and I was by then getting very, very interested in politics

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and I thought, "Well, look, I was going to do

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"these other three years anyway..."

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my parents were already prepared for the fact that I was going to do

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another three years, "..instead of doing the PhD,

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"why not do something political?" which meant starting again,

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because I didn't have any qualifications in politics

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or economics or anything like that.

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And I thought, "Well, if I can get into Oxford

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"and also have the Oxford Union

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"and the contacts and all rest of it, it'll be well worth doing,"

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or Cambridge, or Cambridge.

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So that's really why I decided to do it.

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So the Oxford Union is the famous debating society

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at Oxford University that's produced...

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-Regarded as a political nursery, yes.

-..produced...

-William Hague.

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I mean, do you think you'd have been a politician if you hadn't

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had that Oxford Union experience?

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Oh, yes, because it works this way round.

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It isn't that people who do well in the Union become politicians,

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it's that people who want to become politicians strive to do well

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in the Union.

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That is the way round that the flow of causation works.

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So it is a political nursery.

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Anybody with an iota of political ambition goes for it big time,

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-though there are exceptions.

-Tony Blair didn't.

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Tony Blair didn't. And Shirley Williams didn't.

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Well, let's have a look at you in the nursery.

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If you have a comprehensive school,

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even if it's cross streamed with abilities ranging from people

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who are very bright indeed to people who, academically speaking,

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are not bright at all, I maintain that it's grossly unfair

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on those children who aren't particularly bright.

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Whereas segregate them,

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give them an education suited to their particular needs

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and they will feel their place in society,

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they will feel what they are being educated for.

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-Do you think you've changed much since then?

-Not much. Not much.

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I don't look quite as good as I looked then,

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but in terms of debating style, I don't think that much.

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As you will have seen there, I wasn't reading from a script.

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So you enjoyed debating.

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Have you ever, either then or since,

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gone into a debate thinking one thing

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and then heard a speech and it's made you change your mind?

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No, no one speech has ever made me change my mind.

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I mean, speeches give you pause for thought.

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There's something terribly wrong if you listen to a argument

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and you've dismissed it even before you start,

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you do need to listen to arguments.

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I mean, over time, things change.

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Ten years ago, I wouldn't necessarily have voted Brexit.

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I certainly did this time and I would have begun with the view that,

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as far as possible, we ought to preserve Sunday as a day apart

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and you shouldn't have Sunday trading, looked at the realities,

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listened to the debate and came up with a compromise option.

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So, yes, I mean, I think arguments influence you,

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but it's very slow, it's very gradual.

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As I say to people, you haven't thought something through

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if your mind's going to be changed on the spot like that.

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You just haven't thought it through,

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but if you've thought something through and you've reasoned yourself

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to a conclusion, it will only be a very slow erosion that takes you

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from that and generally brought about by experience.

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So is your certainty,

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and I think we can say you're a pretty certain person -

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you seem to approach issues... By the time you're willing to speak,

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you're pretty certain and you're not going to be shifted.

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Where does that come from?

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Does that come from your religious education

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and your religious experience

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or does it come from your long education at university?

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Certainly I was always taught, both at home and at school,

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to say what you think, say what you believe.

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Say it with respect, but say it, you know.

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If you prefer a poem and the rest of the class prefers another one,

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doesn't matter. You prefer that one.

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And if we did that, you'd always be praised at school.

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If you were the odd one out, they'd always say, "That's brave."

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So I grew up with the idea that it's OK to be different,

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it's OK as long as I know why I've got this particular view.

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But I've always said, "Look, if you hold a view,

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"what is the point of holding it if you don't stick by it?

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"What's the point in having reasoned yourself to that conclusion,

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"having thought about it, having internally or externally

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"debated it and you arrive at a view,

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"and then you keep quiet about it?"

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What's the point of that? What is the point of that?

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But now we live in an age in which you really do have to keep quiet

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and the only people who don't have to are the parliamentarians.

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We can say what we like, we can be against gay marriage,

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we can be against abortion, we can want to limit immigration,

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we can say what we like.

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The ordinary citizen is much less blessed these days

0:16:440:16:50

and you can be disciplined at work for something as simple as wearing

0:16:500:16:54

a tiny Christian symbol.

0:16:540:16:57

I do this quite openly,

0:16:570:16:59

why shouldn't everybody be able to do it quite openly?

0:16:590:17:01

Political correctness silences a great, you know,

0:17:010:17:05

a great body of thought and you actually get people saying to you...

0:17:050:17:09

I mean, bright, intelligent people who could hold their own

0:17:090:17:12

anywhere saying, "Of course, but you can't say that these days."

0:17:120:17:15

And I think, "Yes, you can."

0:17:150:17:17

If that's what you think and we do live in a free society,

0:17:170:17:20

and I'm now beginning to wonder if we do,

0:17:200:17:22

but if you do live in a free society,

0:17:220:17:24

this isn't the Soviet Union,

0:17:240:17:26

you shouldn't be constrained by state orthodoxy.

0:17:260:17:29

You should be able to say what you individually think

0:17:290:17:32

and if it's unpopular, you should stand your ground and if you can't

0:17:320:17:36

stand your ground, then, yes, by all means, shut up.

0:17:360:17:39

I noticed then that when you're talking about parliamentarians,

0:17:390:17:42

-you said we...

-Yes.

-..so in spite of leaving it all behind...

0:17:420:17:46

-That's true.

-..you're still thinking of yourself there.

0:17:460:17:49

I very often when I'm describing the way they vote,

0:17:490:17:51

I'd very often hear myself saying, "And the way we vote in..."

0:17:510:17:55

Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's 23 years speaking.

0:17:550:17:58

It took you quite a while to get here.

0:17:580:18:00

You fought a couple of election campaigns before you were

0:18:000:18:03

selected for the seat that returned you to Westminster.

0:18:030:18:06

Did you encounter a lot of sexism?

0:18:060:18:08

Were people not willing to have a young female candidate?

0:18:080:18:11

I think I would have encountered it if I'd looked for it.

0:18:110:18:14

I never looked for it.

0:18:140:18:15

Occasionally it came out and there was one which I always quote.

0:18:150:18:18

I went up for interview for one of the Sunderland seats,

0:18:180:18:22

I can't remember now if it was South or North, but it was one of them,

0:18:220:18:27

and one of the women - it always is the women -

0:18:270:18:29

one of the women on the interview panel said to me...

0:18:290:18:33

And in those days it's necessary to say that I was 6 stone 12,

0:18:330:18:37

and I stand just about over five feet high, so she said to me, "Oh,"

0:18:370:18:41

and she actually drew a triangle in the air,

0:18:410:18:44

"you're very small and frail - are you sure you're up to it?"

0:18:440:18:48

When I went out, there in the anteroom

0:18:480:18:50

was a decidedly undersized man

0:18:500:18:52

and I bet she didn't ask him that, but I never looked for it.

0:18:520:18:56

And I went into Parliament expecting to be taken on my own merits.

0:18:560:19:01

It never occurred to me that I was a "woman MP",

0:19:010:19:04

I was an MP who happened to be a woman,

0:19:040:19:07

but I wasn't this peculiar thing called a woman MP,

0:19:070:19:10

you know, some great curiosity,

0:19:100:19:12

therefore I never found a problem,

0:19:120:19:15

but about six months after all the Blair Babes came in,

0:19:150:19:17

101 of them, you might as well have had 101 Dalmatians,

0:19:170:19:21

and they came in and one of them came up to me in a corridor

0:19:210:19:25

and said to me,

0:19:250:19:26

"Oh, Ann, isn't it horrible how the men are so rude to us?"

0:19:260:19:30

And I said, "Yes,

0:19:300:19:32

"and isn't it horrible how they're so rude to each other?"

0:19:320:19:35

And she hadn't thought of that,

0:19:350:19:36

she just been roughed up in the chamber, she assumed it was

0:19:360:19:40

because she was a woman, in fact, it was because she was useless.

0:19:400:19:43

So I never went around looking for problems,

0:19:430:19:45

therefore I never found them.

0:19:450:19:47

The only problem I ever found as a woman MP was

0:19:470:19:49

there were insufficient loos.

0:19:490:19:50

Most of the political parties now have campaigns to encourage

0:19:530:19:57

more women to stand for Parliament,

0:19:570:19:59

-would you have sought the help of one of those groups?

-No.

0:19:590:20:01

I have no problem at all with encouraging women to stand.

0:20:010:20:05

My problem is when encouragement turns into positive

0:20:050:20:09

discrimination because positive discrimination is another way

0:20:090:20:13

of talking about negative discrimination against men.

0:20:130:20:16

And I believe that every woman in Parliament should have the right

0:20:160:20:19

to look every man in Parliament, downwards,

0:20:190:20:23

if the man is Prime Minister, you know...

0:20:230:20:26

from the Prime Minister all the way down to the newest MP and to know

0:20:260:20:30

that she got there on exactly the same basis as he did.

0:20:300:20:33

And if she got there because her path was artificially smoothed,

0:20:330:20:37

she is a second-class citizen.

0:20:370:20:39

-Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

-No.

0:20:390:20:42

I was a '70s feminist rather than a '90s feminist.

0:20:420:20:45

The '70s feminists wanted equality of opportunity.

0:20:450:20:49

I always amaze the next generation down when I talk to them

0:20:490:20:53

and I say, "Look, I can remember when it was perfectly lawful for

0:20:530:20:56

"an employer to advertise a job and underneath would be two rates

0:20:560:20:59

"of pay, one for men and one for women and that was lawful."

0:20:590:21:04

And it was perfectly lawful for an employer to say,

0:21:040:21:07

"No women need apply."

0:21:070:21:09

It was lawful for a landlord to refuse to rent property to a woman.

0:21:090:21:12

It was lawful to turn down a woman for a mortgage.

0:21:120:21:15

These things were lawful when I was graduating.

0:21:150:21:19

So in those days, all I wanted was equality of opportunity.

0:21:190:21:23

Did that make you angry?

0:21:230:21:25

Well, what I wanted... it made me determined.

0:21:250:21:28

I wanted equality of opportunity.

0:21:280:21:31

What I and other '70s feminists wanted was - give us the same

0:21:310:21:35

opportunities and we will show you we are as good as

0:21:350:21:38

or perhaps even better than the men.

0:21:380:21:41

'90s feminism had changed completely.

0:21:410:21:44

It was then a massive whinge.

0:21:440:21:46

And a demand for all sorts of concessions to be made.

0:21:460:21:50

It was more or less saying actually, we failed on equal ground.

0:21:500:21:56

Now we want the playing field tilted towards us.

0:21:560:21:59

We want positive discrimination, we want this, we want that.

0:21:590:22:03

No, it's not what I see as equality.

0:22:030:22:05

And in fact, I think it's pathetic, pathetic.

0:22:050:22:08

So, how were you received

0:22:100:22:12

when you did get into the House of Commons in 1987?

0:22:120:22:15

That was when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister.

0:22:150:22:17

Yes. Yes, I got the last three years of Thatcher.

0:22:170:22:20

-So what was the mood then?

-The mood was extremely upbeat.

0:22:200:22:24

I mean, we were in the middle of the Lawson boom, if you think about it.

0:22:240:22:29

We had just won a third term which, you know,

0:22:290:22:33

in those days was quite something to have done.

0:22:330:22:35

We were very, very buoyant and we became even more buoyant as

0:22:350:22:40

it was clear that the Cold War was coming to an end.

0:22:400:22:44

The future suddenly looked very bright.

0:22:440:22:47

Gorbachev looked human compared to the miseries that we'd had in

0:22:470:22:50

the Kremlin before.

0:22:500:22:52

So there was a huge optimism about, an economic optimism,

0:22:520:22:56

a party political optimism, an international optimism.

0:22:560:23:00

It was a very, very buoyant time.

0:23:000:23:03

It was also the time when everybody believed

0:23:030:23:05

they were going to be a millionaire by the time they were 30,

0:23:050:23:07

you know, there was huge enterprise.

0:23:070:23:10

There was an enormous enterprise culture in the economy at that time.

0:23:110:23:15

So, it's a time I remember with some affection but of course it

0:23:150:23:21

didn't last and what I always say,

0:23:210:23:23

and I say this to my great-nephews and great-nieces,

0:23:230:23:26

"Look, good times and bad times have one thing in common,

0:23:260:23:30

"they never last."

0:23:300:23:31

-Was it exciting?

-Oh, very.

0:23:310:23:34

But I suspect new MPs always find it exciting, always.

0:23:340:23:37

I remember sitting in the House of Commons, the members' dining room

0:23:370:23:42

in the House of Commons and listening to two older MPs.

0:23:420:23:46

There was an MP called Gilroy Bevan

0:23:470:23:50

and John Butterfill, who had gone on into my time quite a lot.

0:23:500:23:56

And sitting at lunch with them and they were discussing when

0:23:560:24:00

they were going to leave.

0:24:000:24:02

And I thought, "How can they be talking about leaving?

0:24:020:24:06

"They don't want to go out.

0:24:060:24:07

"They only ones to go out feet first, surely?

0:24:070:24:10

"Why are they having this discussion?"

0:24:100:24:13

And then in my last term I remember talking to Danny Kawczynski,

0:24:130:24:16

who was a new MP,

0:24:160:24:18

talking about leaving and he was saying, "I can't imagine leaving,"

0:24:180:24:21

so I think it's always exciting for a new MP and it should be.

0:24:210:24:25

Now, you were there for one of the great moments, I suppose,

0:24:250:24:29

of political history of the late 20th century.

0:24:290:24:31

-The downfall of...

-Of Thatcher.

-..of Mrs Thatcher.

0:24:310:24:34

I'm not sure... Has there ever been a time really to compare with that?

0:24:340:24:38

Well, not in my time.

0:24:380:24:40

I mean, there may have been in the past history.

0:24:400:24:42

I'm sure that was.

0:24:420:24:44

We forget now that Churchill was, you know, hanging by a thread

0:24:440:24:46

at one point when the war was going badly.

0:24:460:24:49

We forget that.

0:24:490:24:50

But certainly in my lifetime,

0:24:500:24:52

no, there's never been a moment quite like that one.

0:24:520:24:56

And it stirred up a huge amount of emotion.

0:24:560:24:59

The men were all very upset.

0:24:590:25:02

They weren't just angry, they were terribly upset.

0:25:020:25:04

I've never mopped up so many male tears in Westminster as I did

0:25:040:25:07

during the fall of Thatcher.

0:25:070:25:09

But also there was the sense of well, history is about to change.

0:25:090:25:12

And a sense of disbelief.

0:25:140:25:15

I was quite disbelieving.

0:25:150:25:16

I thought, "Look, we've achieved all of this.

0:25:160:25:19

"And we've done all of this thanks to this one person.

0:25:190:25:22

"And now we're going to get rid of her?"

0:25:220:25:24

But the Tory party had in those days a real in-built sense of survival.

0:25:240:25:30

We were doing very badly in the polls,

0:25:300:25:33

largely because of the poll tax.

0:25:330:25:35

We were doing very badly.

0:25:350:25:37

We sniffed defeat on the horizon.

0:25:370:25:39

We weren't going to do it. We weren't going to do it.

0:25:390:25:42

And indeed, we got another term as a result of not doing it but

0:25:420:25:44

that wasn't how I saw it at the time.

0:25:440:25:46

At the time I was absolutely livid.

0:25:460:25:49

-You were livid?

-Livid.

0:25:490:25:50

Did you feel sympathy for Mrs Thatcher?

0:25:500:25:53

-Did you...

-I felt outrage on her behalf because I felt

0:25:530:25:55

she had done so much and achieved so much, I mean,

0:25:550:25:58

what was this business of suddenly turning on the leader?

0:25:580:26:01

You know, didn't we have a bit more courage than that?

0:26:010:26:03

But as I say, the Tory party in those days was pretty good at

0:26:030:26:07

surviving, pretty good at it.

0:26:070:26:09

We got an unprecedented fourth term.

0:26:090:26:11

Did you shed any tears? You were talking about male tears.

0:26:110:26:13

No, I didn't cry. But I was very cross.

0:26:130:26:16

Now, of course, the Major years were very different in tone and there

0:26:170:26:21

was a deliberate attempt to present it as a change of government.

0:26:210:26:25

-Yes.

-How did that feel as one of the people sitting behind him?

0:26:250:26:28

It's very interesting that you use that phrase

0:26:280:26:30

"change of government"

0:26:300:26:32

because that's exactly what people thought had happened.

0:26:320:26:34

We hadn't changed the government, we had changed the Prime Minister.

0:26:340:26:37

But everybody thought this was something completely new and

0:26:370:26:39

they were prepared to put us in for a fourth term.

0:26:390:26:43

How was he with backbench MPs

0:26:430:26:45

compared to the way Mrs Thatcher treated you?

0:26:450:26:48

Let me describe to you, and this is the way I do always

0:26:480:26:51

illustrate it to audiences, who always ask that question.

0:26:510:26:55

And I can best describe it

0:26:550:26:57

by the way that they used to come through the lobbies.

0:26:570:27:00

Now everybody watching this programme knows that the way

0:27:000:27:02

you vote in the House of Commons,

0:27:020:27:04

you walk along a long corridor called the lobby.

0:27:040:27:06

And at the other end, you give your name in to

0:27:060:27:08

a clerk and you've voted.

0:27:080:27:10

And it takes a quarter of an hour.

0:27:100:27:12

You are given a quarter of an hour, rather, to get through the lobby.

0:27:120:27:15

Well, nobody hurries through it because it's the one time of

0:27:150:27:18

the day when all the party's together.

0:27:180:27:20

So if you want to grab hold of a minister or,

0:27:200:27:22

if you are in opposition, a spokesman,

0:27:220:27:24

or if you want to grab a neighbouring MP because you've

0:27:240:27:26

got an issue of mutual interest or you want somebody from

0:27:260:27:29

a Parliamentary pressure group or,

0:27:290:27:31

for that matter just want somebody to have a drink with,

0:27:310:27:33

and you're standing there looking round,

0:27:330:27:35

looking for people, not hurrying through.

0:27:350:27:37

When Mrs Thatcher came through, her PPS used to go in front of her

0:27:370:27:40

and it would be like the parting of the Red Sea.

0:27:400:27:42

And then Moses would come through and vote.

0:27:420:27:46

When John Major came through, he'd go up to one person and say,

0:27:460:27:49

"That was a great speech you made the other night."

0:27:490:27:51

He'd go to another person and say, "Is your wife out of hospital?

0:27:510:27:54

"Is she better? Is all well?"

0:27:540:27:56

He'd go up to somebody else and make some similar comment.

0:27:560:27:59

And even at the height of the pressure on that beleaguered

0:27:590:28:04

premiership, when you'd think any Prime Minister would be glad

0:28:040:28:07

to get through the lobbies and have done with it,

0:28:070:28:09

he never came through any other way,

0:28:090:28:11

even when we were torn apart by the Maastricht Treaty,

0:28:110:28:14

we were beset by sleaze scandals,

0:28:140:28:17

our majority was down into the very low single figures,

0:28:170:28:20

we didn't know from day to day whether we going to get

0:28:200:28:23

our business through, we were trying to whip effectively without

0:28:230:28:25

a majority, with all that pressure,

0:28:250:28:28

the press were in full cry because we'd been there four terms,

0:28:280:28:32

they just wanted us out, they want a change...

0:28:320:28:35

All of that going on, he never came through any other way.

0:28:350:28:38

He always came through taking an interest in his...

0:28:380:28:42

in his colleagues, backbenchers and frontbenchers alike.

0:28:420:28:45

So how would you rate him as a leader,

0:28:450:28:47

given that you served under

0:28:470:28:49

Mrs Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith,

0:28:490:28:52

Michael Howard, David Cameron -

0:28:520:28:53

that's a lot of Conservative party leaders.

0:28:530:28:55

-Where would you place John Major?

-Very high.

0:28:550:28:58

And I believe that future historians will rate him very

0:28:580:29:02

differently from contemporary ones.

0:29:020:29:04

I think a lot of the problem was that people expected him to do

0:29:040:29:08

what Thatcher did with a fraction of her majority.

0:29:080:29:13

Thatcher had a rebellion a week and it didn't actually matter.

0:29:130:29:15

I know I used to rebel from time to time.

0:29:150:29:18

Not very often, but I did.

0:29:180:29:20

It didn't matter because she could always ride it down

0:29:200:29:23

with her majority.

0:29:230:29:24

But with John, if there was a rebellion, it could actually

0:29:240:29:27

result in a government defeat in the House of Commons.

0:29:270:29:30

It was a very... So you had to wheel and deal and bargain in

0:29:300:29:33

a way that she never had to.

0:29:330:29:35

And one does need to recognise that.

0:29:350:29:38

I was a minister throughout the entire Major administration

0:29:380:29:42

from the moment he came in to the moment he left.

0:29:420:29:45

I was never a minister under Thatcher.

0:29:450:29:47

But I know which one I'm glad I was a minister under.

0:29:470:29:50

Now, of course,

0:29:500:29:52

-the most senior position you held was at the Home Office...

-Yes.

0:29:520:29:55

..where you were the Prisons Minister.

0:29:550:29:57

Most senior office in government.

0:29:570:29:59

-Yes.

-I was shadow Home Secretary.

0:29:590:30:01

Yes, you'd been a junior Pensions Minister and

0:30:010:30:03

-a junior Employment Minister.

-Then a Minister of State in Employment.

0:30:030:30:06

No, I didn't.

0:30:060:30:08

In those days it was a waste of time and indeed the department was

0:30:080:30:11

eventually abolished.

0:30:110:30:13

We didn't have employment issues.

0:30:130:30:14

It was... unemployment was actually falling.

0:30:140:30:16

You were mainly looking for things to do, whereas in pensions,

0:30:160:30:20

there had been plenty to do.

0:30:200:30:23

You didn't have to go looking and in prisons, there was plenty to do.

0:30:230:30:26

And immigration,

0:30:260:30:27

which I was also in charge of at the Home Office.

0:30:270:30:29

And there was plenty to do with those and they were genuine

0:30:290:30:33

challenging jobs.

0:30:330:30:34

Employment was more or less - you made it up as you went along.

0:30:340:30:37

Now, we can't talk about the Home Office without talking

0:30:370:30:40

about how it all ended.

0:30:400:30:41

-"Something of the night."

-"Something of the night."

0:30:410:30:44

How difficult was it for you to stand up and make that

0:30:440:30:47

criticism of Michael Howard, who'd been the Home Secretary,

0:30:470:30:51

and you were criticising him over his handling of the prison

0:30:510:30:54

system and the way he treated Derek Lewis,

0:30:540:30:56

who was the head of the Prisons Agency,

0:30:560:30:59

a very long story which we probably don't have to go into details...

0:30:590:31:02

We don't have time to go into it.

0:31:020:31:04

I'm interested in you breaking ranks and making

0:31:040:31:08

that comment, basically to stop him from becoming Conservative leader.

0:31:080:31:13

Yes, I waited until after the election.

0:31:130:31:15

I did not disturb the party before the election.

0:31:150:31:18

I wouldn't have done.

0:31:180:31:19

And I particularly wouldn't have done that to John Major.

0:31:190:31:22

So I did not resign and I kept my mouth shut

0:31:220:31:27

until we had actually lost the election,

0:31:270:31:30

but I had always said to a few friends

0:31:300:31:33

whom I trusted completely, you know,

0:31:330:31:37

"When I am free to speak, I am going to tell all I know about this."

0:31:370:31:42

And that is what I decided to do. Now, that may sound just like,

0:31:420:31:45

well, that was a decision I took.

0:31:450:31:47

It was horrendous.

0:31:470:31:49

It was absolutely horrendous.

0:31:490:31:51

You don't attack your own side -

0:31:510:31:52

you think of Howe attacking Thatcher, you know.

0:31:520:31:55

It's the exception that proves the rule.

0:31:550:31:57

You don't attack your own side.

0:31:570:31:59

And when you do it's got to be for a very serious reason

0:31:590:32:02

and I was about to launch into a massive attack on a colleague.

0:32:020:32:05

When the Speaker, it was Betty Boothroyd, when the Speaker

0:32:070:32:09

called my name, I didn't want to stand up.

0:32:090:32:12

One of those moments in Parliament, the only moment I can recall,

0:32:120:32:16

when I really didn't want to stand up

0:32:160:32:18

and do what I had set myself to do.

0:32:180:32:20

Did you have any doubts, did you have a moment of doubt?

0:32:200:32:24

No. I knew what I had to do. I knew I was going to do it.

0:32:240:32:28

I did talk to a priest at the time because I wanted to be fairly

0:32:280:32:31

certain that I wasn't doing it just for the sake of vindictiveness,

0:32:310:32:36

just to get back at Michael for what I considered he'd done to

0:32:360:32:39

somebody else. But apart from that, I knew what I had to do.

0:32:390:32:44

I mean, I had, after all, had 18 months to think about it.

0:32:440:32:48

How do you get on with him now?

0:32:490:32:51

Well, the interesting thing is that a year after that incident,

0:32:510:32:58

a year after that, we were working together in the same Shadow Cabinet.

0:32:580:33:03

And he was then Shadow Home Secretary and I was

0:33:030:33:07

Shadow Health Secretary, and we worked together.

0:33:070:33:10

You don't have to be lovey-dovey to work together.

0:33:100:33:13

But I can't believe he regards me with any warmth, and vice versa.

0:33:130:33:17

So, you were Shadow Health Secretary under William Hague,

0:33:170:33:20

and, as we're about to see,

0:33:200:33:22

you became the darling of the Conservative Party Conference.

0:33:220:33:25

The famous conference speech.

0:33:250:33:26

So we're committed to the National Health Service.

0:33:260:33:30

We're committed to the doctors and the nurses who work in it,

0:33:300:33:33

we're committed to the patients who use it, which is all of us.

0:33:330:33:37

We are committed to making sure that it is adequately funded,

0:33:370:33:41

that it is properly run, that it is efficiently managed.

0:33:410:33:44

But we're also committed to finding ways of increasing the total

0:33:440:33:48

expenditure on health in this country because we prefer

0:33:480:33:51

that to ever increasing rationing.

0:33:510:33:53

By having the guts to address those questions,

0:33:530:33:56

instead of pretending there's some slick,

0:33:560:33:58

easy answer that can always be solved through some new

0:33:580:34:01

political process, by having the guts to do that,

0:34:010:34:04

we are guaranteeing to you the NHS for the next 50 years and beyond.

0:34:040:34:09

Thank you.

0:34:090:34:10

So, there we go. So, that was the 1988 Conservative Party Conference.

0:34:170:34:20

It was, indeed.

0:34:200:34:21

The Conservatives had really just started the business of

0:34:210:34:24

opposition and there you were, walking around, without any notes.

0:34:240:34:28

-That's right.

-Is that where David Cameron got the idea from?

0:34:280:34:30

He says so. He says so.

0:34:300:34:32

In one of his more generous moments,

0:34:320:34:34

as he came out after his speech that he did to try and become

0:34:340:34:37

leader at conference, he said to me, "I took a leaf out of your book."

0:34:370:34:41

And now it's become the big test for a politician, hasn't it,

0:34:410:34:43

if they can't walk and talk without standing up behind the lectern?

0:34:430:34:47

The interesting thing was that right up until that moment in 1998 -

0:34:470:34:50

I was absolutely the first to do it - right up until that moment,

0:34:500:34:53

even the big orators like Heseltine, had stood behind

0:34:530:34:57

the lectern and read from notes or latterly from an autocue.

0:34:570:35:01

But, you see, I'd grown up, although I'm a Catholic,

0:35:010:35:04

I'd grown-up in an evangelical household.

0:35:040:35:07

And I was used to evangelists like Billy Graham, who paced up

0:35:070:35:10

and down the platform, and they hold your attention the whole time.

0:35:100:35:13

You don't sort of nod off like this because you're following them.

0:35:130:35:16

And I always said to myself, "If ever I do

0:35:160:35:19

"a platform speech at conference, that is how I'm going to do it."

0:35:190:35:24

Now, nobody wanted me to do it that way.

0:35:240:35:26

Michael Ancram, who was party chairman, nearly laid an egg.

0:35:260:35:29

He nearly laid an egg at the thought that I was going to do this.

0:35:290:35:32

And I said, "I really want to do it this way."

0:35:320:35:35

And I insisted, and I did,

0:35:350:35:37

because we were only a year in to our opposition and I think we

0:35:370:35:41

hadn't yet formed a sort of disciplinary structure that

0:35:410:35:44

would have said, "No, Ann, you really can't do that."

0:35:440:35:46

So I did, and I grossly ran over time.

0:35:460:35:49

But, to me, the interesting thing about that was that I actually told

0:35:490:35:52

the truth - you didn't get it in that extract -

0:35:520:35:54

but I actually told the truth and I said, "Look, the NHS, you know,

0:35:540:35:57

"was a wonderful institution for its first few decades.

0:35:570:36:00

"It's not going to last.

0:36:000:36:02

"It's not going to last because it was never designed by Bevan

0:36:020:36:04

"and the founding fathers of the NHS,

0:36:040:36:06

"it was never designed to cope with today's situation,

0:36:060:36:10

"today's longevity, today's medical and surgical science."

0:36:100:36:14

He seriously believed that it would cause demand to decline, and,

0:36:140:36:18

as we all know, demand's gone towards infinity.

0:36:180:36:20

Now, when circumstances change,

0:36:200:36:23

you have to change the means of meeting them.

0:36:230:36:26

And yet nobody will do that, nobody else has said it since,

0:36:260:36:31

because there is an emotional engagement between the public and

0:36:310:36:35

the health service, and that sort of speech that I made would be

0:36:350:36:38

regarded as electoral suicide.

0:36:380:36:40

I could get away with it a year after we'd lost an election.

0:36:400:36:44

If were a year out from one that everybody thought we were

0:36:440:36:46

going to win, I would never have been allowed to make that speech.

0:36:460:36:50

The net result is that the health service

0:36:500:36:52

lurches from crisis to crisis.

0:36:520:36:54

We have not dealt with the underlying cause, which is

0:36:540:36:58

that it's wrong for today, therefore we haven't had the debate

0:36:580:37:02

about what the options might be,

0:37:020:37:04

therefore of course we've never selected any of those options, and

0:37:040:37:07

we've never debated the next stage, which is how to get there from here.

0:37:070:37:11

That's a pretty long process. I wish we'd started it in 1998.

0:37:110:37:14

You were Pensions Minister, you were the Prisons Minister,

0:37:160:37:19

you were the Shadow Health Secretary.

0:37:190:37:21

Is it frustrating for you that we're still having these debates

0:37:210:37:26

and we still haven't sorted out any of these big policy areas?

0:37:260:37:29

Yes.

0:37:290:37:30

I made a big thing when I was Shadow Home Secretary,

0:37:300:37:34

based on my experience in the Home Office, my direct experience,

0:37:340:37:38

I had two big planks.

0:37:380:37:40

One was the importance of rehabilitation in prisons,

0:37:400:37:44

the other was control of the abuse of the asylum system by

0:37:440:37:49

practising automatic detention.

0:37:490:37:51

That's what I said then.

0:37:520:37:53

Automatic detention was carried on by Oliver Letwin in 2005,

0:37:540:37:58

Cameron dropped it.

0:37:580:37:59

Rehabilitation in prison?

0:38:010:38:02

Every Prisons Minster since, whichever party, speaks about it.

0:38:020:38:06

What's happening about it, what's being done about it?

0:38:060:38:10

Of course it's frustrating.

0:38:100:38:13

Every so often I can't resist saying in my Express column when

0:38:130:38:15

something is done that I called for donkey's years ago, well,

0:38:150:38:18

you know, I'm glad they've caught up with it at last. But the big issues?

0:38:180:38:21

No, they haven't been caught up with.

0:38:210:38:23

Given you feel so strongly about those issues,

0:38:230:38:26

-why didn't you try to become Conservative leader?

-I did.

0:38:260:38:29

-In 2001...

-But you dropped out.

-I had to.

0:38:290:38:31

In 2001, when William stood down,

0:38:310:38:34

I was Shadow Home Secretary, I wanted to stand.

0:38:340:38:37

And I am utterly convinced,

0:38:380:38:41

as a result of all the letters and the telephone calls that we had,

0:38:410:38:45

we weren't so much into e-mails in those days,

0:38:450:38:47

but as a result of all that correspondence and people

0:38:470:38:50

stopping me in the street,

0:38:500:38:51

I was convinced that Conservatives in the country wanted me to stand.

0:38:510:38:55

I didn't have enough support at Westminster and of course the way

0:38:550:38:59

that the leadership works is that the MPs produce the list of two,

0:38:590:39:03

those two go out to the country for decision.

0:39:030:39:06

If it had been the other way round, and the country reduced

0:39:060:39:09

the list, nothing would have stopped me standing.

0:39:090:39:12

But I found very early on, I just didn't have the support at

0:39:120:39:14

Westminster, I was never going to make the last two. So, why do it?

0:39:140:39:18

If the system had been different, and the party members had elected

0:39:180:39:21

you, do you think you could have won the MPs at Westminster round?

0:39:210:39:25

Oh, yes, I think once the party's anointed you, on the whole,

0:39:250:39:28

the attitude in Parliament then is, "Well,

0:39:280:39:30

"let's try and make this work, let's get on with this."

0:39:300:39:33

Sometimes, of course, that breaks down,

0:39:330:39:36

as it did with Iain Duncan Smith,

0:39:360:39:37

but there was nevertheless a real attempt to try, and, yes,

0:39:370:39:43

I think I could because I'd have tackled the things that needed

0:39:430:39:46

tackling, and that might have scared a lot of people.

0:39:460:39:48

Yes, it might well have done.

0:39:480:39:49

The health service scares people terribly.

0:39:490:39:52

But somebody's got to do something about it. When, oh, when?

0:39:520:39:56

You seem to be somebody who quite likes big challenges.

0:39:570:40:00

Is there part of you that would like to be sitting around the

0:40:000:40:02

-Cabinet table now with Theresa May, challenging...

-Yes.

-Yes?

-Oh, yes.

0:40:020:40:07

Yes, I mean, I think undeniably I'd love to be doing Brexit.

0:40:070:40:10

I'd like to be doing the health service - you can't do them all,

0:40:100:40:13

of course, like to be doing the health service,

0:40:130:40:16

like to be tackling immigration, I'd like to be doing all those things.

0:40:160:40:19

Love to be doing education,

0:40:190:40:21

where my big bugbear at the moment is prescriptive marking,

0:40:210:40:25

where you just tick points that have to be made,

0:40:250:40:27

never look at the overall structure of the answer.

0:40:270:40:30

That's not education, that's a travesty of education and explains

0:40:300:40:34

why we've got grade inflation, of course.

0:40:340:40:36

So, would you focus on that rather than grammar schools?

0:40:360:40:38

Um, I'd get both going.

0:40:380:40:41

I mean, I'm happy with grammar schools but I do desperately

0:40:410:40:44

want to see the end of what I describe as prescriptive marking.

0:40:440:40:46

I actually had a letter from a Labour,

0:40:460:40:49

but it could just as easily have been a Tory,

0:40:490:40:51

Education Minister, saying to me,

0:40:510:40:53

"No, you don't need a degree in Latin

0:40:530:40:55

"to mark a Latin A Level paper."

0:40:550:40:56

Well, that's rot because there are umpteen different ways of

0:40:560:40:59

expressing something.

0:40:590:41:00

And I was only talking to a teacher the other day who said that

0:41:000:41:04

her school didn't make a practice of appealing right,

0:41:040:41:06

left and centre,

0:41:060:41:08

but every time they had appealed a low mark it had always come

0:41:080:41:11

about because the student had thought outside the box.

0:41:110:41:15

And actually it was a very good paper indeed,

0:41:150:41:18

but whoever was marking it didn't have the ability to appreciate that.

0:41:180:41:22

I have visions of a national assessment centre where

0:41:220:41:24

everybody's sitting there ticking boxes,

0:41:240:41:26

instead of assessing what's in front of them.

0:41:260:41:29

And you should always be able to assess what's in front of you.

0:41:290:41:32

And, indeed, teachers, markers used to have discretion.

0:41:320:41:35

You might get the actual answer wrong,

0:41:350:41:37

but if your method was good and it was obviously

0:41:370:41:39

a little slip somewhere at the end, you wouldn't do a cross,

0:41:390:41:43

you'd do a half or whatever it might be.

0:41:430:41:46

You'd read an essay and maybe the pupil had come out with

0:41:460:41:50

something that wasn't orthodox but that was well argued.

0:41:500:41:53

I can remember once my English teacher saying to me,

0:41:530:41:55

when I said that Fanny and Edmund,

0:41:550:41:57

from Mansfield Park, were as dull as ditchwater,

0:41:570:42:00

and they really were the most boring characters that Jane Austen

0:42:000:42:03

had ever invented, saying to me that she utterly disagreed with me,

0:42:030:42:06

she thought that any examiner would disagree with me, but that

0:42:060:42:09

the argument was very impressive and she'd given it a high mark.

0:42:090:42:13

Now, you know...

0:42:130:42:15

Not so these days.

0:42:150:42:16

So, after a lifetime of arguing, and writing books, presenting

0:42:160:42:20

television programmes, when you look back now, do you have any regrets?

0:42:200:42:26

No, I mean, if I have regrets it's about things like...

0:42:270:42:29

Well, I voted to stay in the European Community in 1975.

0:42:290:42:34

Certainly changed my mind on that one.

0:42:340:42:36

When people say to me I never change my mind, oh, yes,

0:42:360:42:38

I do, on one of the biggest issues of the century I changed my mind.

0:42:380:42:42

I regret things like that.

0:42:420:42:43

I might regret presentation rather than substance.

0:42:430:42:47

The drugs speech at party conference in 2000 would be one of those.

0:42:470:42:51

I don't remotely regret the policy,

0:42:510:42:52

I do regret the way it was presented.

0:42:520:42:55

So I have things like that.

0:42:550:42:57

Maybe tactical decisions which I took in any particular campaign,

0:42:570:43:02

but no major regrets. I've spent my life in a way that I do not regret.

0:43:020:43:07

I have embraced causes which I certainly would embrace

0:43:070:43:11

again tomorrow and do still embrace.

0:43:110:43:13

I had priorities which I believed to be right and I've tried -

0:43:140:43:20

nobody's ever 100% successful -

0:43:200:43:21

but I've tried to be utterly true to what I believe.

0:43:210:43:26

And, yeah, I shall be a fairly happy old lady.

0:43:260:43:30

And if we had the young Ann Widdecombe

0:43:300:43:32

-from the Oxford Union with us now...

-I did enjoy watching that.

0:43:320:43:36

..what advice would you give her?

0:43:360:43:39

I'd say, "Don't be in such a hurry, dear."

0:43:390:43:42

There is no hurry.

0:43:420:43:43

You really don't have to think you must do everything by

0:43:430:43:46

the time you're 30. Go away, forget politics for a while.

0:43:460:43:49

Go away, have a career, earn some money,

0:43:490:43:53

have a family if that's what you want to do, but I didn't,

0:43:530:43:56

but do other things and then come back to it.

0:43:560:44:00

And that is the advice which I do always give, male or female,

0:44:010:44:04

young or old, I always say, "Make sure you've done something else."

0:44:040:44:09

And I think that's sound advice.

0:44:090:44:10

But if anybody had given it to me at the time I would have ignored

0:44:100:44:13

that person. I was absolutely uni-focused on Westminster.

0:44:130:44:18

I would have ignored that person, I would have ignored that advice.

0:44:180:44:22

But that is the advice which I would give my 20-year-old self.

0:44:220:44:26

Ann Widdecombe, thank you very much.

0:44:260:44:28

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