Sean Curran talks to former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe about her life and political career.
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Hello and welcome again to Conversations.
My guest today is a woman whose journey through life
has taken her from a convent school education in Bath
to the benches of the House of Commons,
from the offices of government to the stage of the Royal Opera House
and the Strictly Come Dancing studio.
Somewhere along the way, this once-controversial political figure
has veered dangerously close to becoming a national treasure.
She once described herself as the Westminster oddball,
who was so unaccountably popular in the country.
She is Ann Widdecombe.
-Ann Widdecombe, welcome back...
When you come back, does it feel like the return of the native?
-Do you think this is your home?
-No, not at all.
I got the point of exit right.
If I'd gone earlier, I would have missed it.
If I'd gone later, I would have been very jaded.
I actually got the point of leaving right
and therefore I've left
and just as when I had finished with politics,
I accepted that I'd left and that I could go on and do things
like Strictly, etc, so now this is a part of my past,
but it's not a part of my present.
-We're at the start of a new political term.
Is there not part of you that thinks,
"Well, I'd like to be in there, in the fray"?
Even if it was in the House of Lords...
Well, I'm profoundly grateful
that I wasn't there during the period of coalition.
-I don't think I would've done well in coalition at all.
I don't like not knowing where we're going.
I think when a government's been elected,
you want a programme, you want to set that programme out.
When you're in coalition, very often the tail is wagging the dog,
but I will add that I thought
the Liberals suffered quite unfairly from being in coalition.
My view was it was the responsible thing for everybody to do.
I mean, I thought Cameron was right
because the economy was in such a parlous state.
If you remember, there was no money left,
according to a departing Labour minister.
-That's Liam Byrne's famous note.
-Indeed. "No money left," he said.
And it was not a situation in what you wanted was to have
a minority government for, say, six months
and then another general election.
I don't think the markets would have stood it.
So I thought he and Clegg were right to say,
"OK, we'll manage a coalition," but of course,
that was never going to be popular with the followers of either side
and I think the Liberals paid for it disproportionately badly.
-So you've no regrets?
You wouldn't like to come back if the call was to say, "Oh, Ann,
"we need you come to come back to be in the House of Lords?"
-Would you come back?
-Oh, of course I would have done.
Yes, of course I would have done
and I don't think I'm revealing anything too much when I say that
initially I was hopeful that that was going to happen.
But it didn't, and, as I say, you know,
I can always accept when something is over,
so I settled down to a new life.
And your new life, is that the life of a celebrity?
Do you think of yourself as a celebrity?
No, I don't think of myself as a celebrity.
It's the most ghastly word.
Anyway, I'm never quite sure what a celebrity is.
I mean, when I was growing up, you were celebrated for doing something.
You were a celebrity if you were Captain Scott,
not that he was in my time, or Edmund Hillary, you know,
you were a celebrity if you had done something like that.
But now it's used quite vacuously,
sometimes to describe people who have done nothing at all.
They've just come onto the scene by way of a reality programme.
Do you think your appearance on Strictly Come Dancing
gave you that national treasure status?
Did you feel people reacting to you in a different way?
I think a lot of people were surprised because, of course,
when you're a politician,
it isn't appropriate to do some things.
I was asked to do Strictly Come Dancing for years
while I was actually in the House of Commons.
I said, "No, absolutely not."
it wouldn't have been remotely appropriate.
So that is a side of you that you can't show.
Certainly I wouldn't have gone into pantomime
while I was in the House of Commons.
I was offered that as well at one point,
so you do need to keep the two things separate.
If you're doing a serious job of work,
you need to be a serious person,
you need to present a serious aspect to the electorate,
but when that's over, then by all means have fun and, you know,
if you've got something you want to do, go and do it.
Isn't a strange British phenomenon, though,
where people who've often had quite a controversial career,
sometimes people who'd had quite challenging views
and they've challenged the status quo
and they've challenged people's thinking,
end up being absorbed by the Establishment
and they become national treasures and it's almost then as though
we don't have to listen to their challenging views any more
because we've put them in a different category?
Well, the interesting thing is that I still do quite
a lot of political interviews and I've still got
a weekly column in a national newspaper,
so I do still put forth political and general views
and I haven't abandoned doing that
and there are people certainly who leaving the Commons
wouldn't dream of going into, if you like, the showbiz side of things.
They just wouldn't do it.
Now, you were a huge hit on that programme
and it confirmed the fact that a lot of people
are really interested in you and they're intrigued by you.
Do you understand why you're such an interesting figure?
Not really, not really.
I mean, I spent 23 years as a politician,
which I had causes that I fought and offices that I had to discharge
and I don't really understand why there was suddenly
that huge swell of warmth as there was when I did Strictly.
You could feel it in the very first programme.
I did a very clodhopping waltz,
I did look a bit happier than Ed Balls managed to look,
but I did a really pedestrian waltz and people loved it.
Would the young Ann Widdecombe in school have thought
-that this was the sort of career she was going to have?
Never mind school -
if you had told me in the spring of 2010,
when I was getting ready to leave Parliament,
if you'd said to me, then, "Well, Ann, this is how it's going to go.
"You'll be dancing for three months on prime-time television,
"then you're going to be touring the entire UK
"in a live dance show with Craig Revel Horwood,
"then you'll be going into pantomime,
"and oh, yes, by the way,
"you're also going to be on at the Royal Opera House,
I'd have said, "Lie down and have an aspirin."
I wouldn't have believed it then, never mind when I was at school.
So what were your aspirations when you were at school?
To be a politician. I had political aspirations very early on -
initially, for all the wrong reasons,
cos I grew up in the post-war generation,
thus very influenced by Churchill and the immediate past history
and seriously believed when I was 13 or 14
that all politicians were like Churchill.
I mean, now I say I wish,
but that's what I believed then.
So I was very inspired by that.
By the time I was 20,
I had a much more realistic appreciation of what it was about,
but the ambition remained because by then,
I was very driven to fight socialism.
Of course, if you say that to an 18-year-old today,
they look you as if you've just started speaking Greek or something.
You know, it means nothing,
but in our day socialism wasn't New Labour, it was neo-communism.
So, did your parents consciously seek to influence
your political views, do you think?
No, I don't think so, but people talked politics at home.
You know, it was never a taboo subject or a strange subject
or something that they weren't interested in.
We talked politics at home and largely, as I say,
it was Conservative politics.
For example, you know, we were a family that believed very strongly
in grammar schools, very strongly in grammar schools.
The comprehensives were being talked about in the early '60s
and when I was I was listening, if you like, to the conversation,
and I knew that I believed that people should have the opportunity
to grow tall,
so there were different things around and, of course,
what everybody forgets,
cos it's nearly 30 years since the Berlin Wall came down,
we were in the Cold War.
-You know, the Russians were regarded as a serious threat.
We were in the space race.
We even had our own little Sputniks,
you know, we were in the space race. It was a different world altogether.
These all sound like quite serious dinner table conversation topics.
-Was it a happy childhood?
-It was a very happy childhood.
It's one... If not the greatest blessing...
I mean, one is obviously health, but a very close second to that
comes a happy childhood and I think if you have a happy childhood,
you're very well equipped indeed to face life and we did.
It was a nomadic childhood because I was with an Admiralty family.
We still called it that then.
It wasn't the MoD (Naval), it was the Admiralty,
so we moved around every two to three years,
so I'd been to five different schools, for example,
by the time I was 11.
I spent three years in Singapore, so we moved around
a great deal, but, nevertheless, it felt very stable and very safe.
-And you were close to your parents...
..all the way through your life, weren't you?
Yes, I was and there is that wonderful period when
they're no longer looking after you and you're not yet looking
after them when you really get to know each other as human beings,
as opposed to just the parent-child relationship,
but, yes, I was and when my father died,
my mother came to live with me.
-Did you have to work hard on managing that relationship?
Were there difficulties or a generation gap?
Oh, I'm sure there was a generation gap, because there always is.
I mean, that's part of family dynamic,
but I also had a grandmother living with us when I was growing up, so if
you want to put it in those terms, there was a double generation gap.
And she told me fascinating stories
which I now wish I'd paid much more attention to
and are one of the reasons why I did the series on this Victorians
or I did the programme on the Victorians,
was to try and see something of what Gran had seen around her.
How difficult was it later on when you had to be, as you say,
looking after your parents?
You've moved from that stage where they can be friends and companions
and then you're having to juggle all sorts of demands
and in effect be a carer as well?
Yes, it was quite difficult, but neither parent really declined
until the last two years of his and her life, neither.
So I didn't have a long period that a lot of people have to go through
when the parents are either physically weak
or they're dementing or whatever it might be.
But obviously responsibilities come along and I'd always said that
if I had to, I would put them before my own career
and indeed I was always glad that I left the front bench when I did
cos it gave me...
My mother was by then living with me
and it gave me those extra years, not entirely with her,
cos I was still in Parliament, but far more with her
than I could ever have been if I was on the front bench.
-Now, let's go back in time a bit. So you had your happy childhood...
-..then you went to Birmingham University...
..and you read Latin and then when you left Birmingham,
-you started all over again?
Now, you went to Oxford and you did an undergraduate degree.
Why did you start again?
I'd always imagined that I was going to spend six years at university
because I had intended to do a PhD
in classics, in some aspect of Roman history,
and I was by then getting very, very interested in politics
and I thought, "Well, look, I was going to do
"these other three years anyway..."
my parents were already prepared for the fact that I was going to do
another three years, "..instead of doing the PhD,
"why not do something political?" which meant starting again,
because I didn't have any qualifications in politics
or economics or anything like that.
And I thought, "Well, if I can get into Oxford
"and also have the Oxford Union
"and the contacts and all rest of it, it'll be well worth doing,"
or Cambridge, or Cambridge.
So that's really why I decided to do it.
So the Oxford Union is the famous debating society
at Oxford University that's produced...
-Regarded as a political nursery, yes.
I mean, do you think you'd have been a politician if you hadn't
had that Oxford Union experience?
Oh, yes, because it works this way round.
It isn't that people who do well in the Union become politicians,
it's that people who want to become politicians strive to do well
in the Union.
That is the way round that the flow of causation works.
So it is a political nursery.
Anybody with an iota of political ambition goes for it big time,
-though there are exceptions.
-Tony Blair didn't.
Tony Blair didn't. And Shirley Williams didn't.
Well, let's have a look at you in the nursery.
If you have a comprehensive school,
even if it's cross streamed with abilities ranging from people
who are very bright indeed to people who, academically speaking,
are not bright at all, I maintain that it's grossly unfair
on those children who aren't particularly bright.
Whereas segregate them,
give them an education suited to their particular needs
and they will feel their place in society,
they will feel what they are being educated for.
-Do you think you've changed much since then?
-Not much. Not much.
I don't look quite as good as I looked then,
but in terms of debating style, I don't think that much.
As you will have seen there, I wasn't reading from a script.
So you enjoyed debating.
Have you ever, either then or since,
gone into a debate thinking one thing
and then heard a speech and it's made you change your mind?
No, no one speech has ever made me change my mind.
I mean, speeches give you pause for thought.
There's something terribly wrong if you listen to a argument
and you've dismissed it even before you start,
you do need to listen to arguments.
I mean, over time, things change.
Ten years ago, I wouldn't necessarily have voted Brexit.
I certainly did this time and I would have begun with the view that,
as far as possible, we ought to preserve Sunday as a day apart
and you shouldn't have Sunday trading, looked at the realities,
listened to the debate and came up with a compromise option.
So, yes, I mean, I think arguments influence you,
but it's very slow, it's very gradual.
As I say to people, you haven't thought something through
if your mind's going to be changed on the spot like that.
You just haven't thought it through,
but if you've thought something through and you've reasoned yourself
to a conclusion, it will only be a very slow erosion that takes you
from that and generally brought about by experience.
So is your certainty,
and I think we can say you're a pretty certain person -
you seem to approach issues... By the time you're willing to speak,
you're pretty certain and you're not going to be shifted.
Where does that come from?
Does that come from your religious education
and your religious experience
or does it come from your long education at university?
Certainly I was always taught, both at home and at school,
to say what you think, say what you believe.
Say it with respect, but say it, you know.
If you prefer a poem and the rest of the class prefers another one,
doesn't matter. You prefer that one.
And if we did that, you'd always be praised at school.
If you were the odd one out, they'd always say, "That's brave."
So I grew up with the idea that it's OK to be different,
it's OK as long as I know why I've got this particular view.
But I've always said, "Look, if you hold a view,
"what is the point of holding it if you don't stick by it?
"What's the point in having reasoned yourself to that conclusion,
"having thought about it, having internally or externally
"debated it and you arrive at a view,
"and then you keep quiet about it?"
What's the point of that? What is the point of that?
But now we live in an age in which you really do have to keep quiet
and the only people who don't have to are the parliamentarians.
We can say what we like, we can be against gay marriage,
we can be against abortion, we can want to limit immigration,
we can say what we like.
The ordinary citizen is much less blessed these days
and you can be disciplined at work for something as simple as wearing
a tiny Christian symbol.
I do this quite openly,
why shouldn't everybody be able to do it quite openly?
Political correctness silences a great, you know,
a great body of thought and you actually get people saying to you...
I mean, bright, intelligent people who could hold their own
anywhere saying, "Of course, but you can't say that these days."
And I think, "Yes, you can."
If that's what you think and we do live in a free society,
and I'm now beginning to wonder if we do,
but if you do live in a free society,
this isn't the Soviet Union,
you shouldn't be constrained by state orthodoxy.
You should be able to say what you individually think
and if it's unpopular, you should stand your ground and if you can't
stand your ground, then, yes, by all means, shut up.
I noticed then that when you're talking about parliamentarians,
-you said we...
-..so in spite of leaving it all behind...
-..you're still thinking of yourself there.
I very often when I'm describing the way they vote,
I'd very often hear myself saying, "And the way we vote in..."
Yeah, yeah. I mean, that's 23 years speaking.
It took you quite a while to get here.
You fought a couple of election campaigns before you were
selected for the seat that returned you to Westminster.
Did you encounter a lot of sexism?
Were people not willing to have a young female candidate?
I think I would have encountered it if I'd looked for it.
I never looked for it.
Occasionally it came out and there was one which I always quote.
I went up for interview for one of the Sunderland seats,
I can't remember now if it was South or North, but it was one of them,
and one of the women - it always is the women -
one of the women on the interview panel said to me...
And in those days it's necessary to say that I was 6 stone 12,
and I stand just about over five feet high, so she said to me, "Oh,"
and she actually drew a triangle in the air,
"you're very small and frail - are you sure you're up to it?"
When I went out, there in the anteroom
was a decidedly undersized man
and I bet she didn't ask him that, but I never looked for it.
And I went into Parliament expecting to be taken on my own merits.
It never occurred to me that I was a "woman MP",
I was an MP who happened to be a woman,
but I wasn't this peculiar thing called a woman MP,
you know, some great curiosity,
therefore I never found a problem,
but about six months after all the Blair Babes came in,
101 of them, you might as well have had 101 Dalmatians,
and they came in and one of them came up to me in a corridor
and said to me,
"Oh, Ann, isn't it horrible how the men are so rude to us?"
And I said, "Yes,
"and isn't it horrible how they're so rude to each other?"
And she hadn't thought of that,
she just been roughed up in the chamber, she assumed it was
because she was a woman, in fact, it was because she was useless.
So I never went around looking for problems,
therefore I never found them.
The only problem I ever found as a woman MP was
there were insufficient loos.
Most of the political parties now have campaigns to encourage
more women to stand for Parliament,
-would you have sought the help of one of those groups?
I have no problem at all with encouraging women to stand.
My problem is when encouragement turns into positive
discrimination because positive discrimination is another way
of talking about negative discrimination against men.
And I believe that every woman in Parliament should have the right
to look every man in Parliament, downwards,
if the man is Prime Minister, you know...
from the Prime Minister all the way down to the newest MP and to know
that she got there on exactly the same basis as he did.
And if she got there because her path was artificially smoothed,
she is a second-class citizen.
-Do you think of yourself as a feminist?
I was a '70s feminist rather than a '90s feminist.
The '70s feminists wanted equality of opportunity.
I always amaze the next generation down when I talk to them
and I say, "Look, I can remember when it was perfectly lawful for
"an employer to advertise a job and underneath would be two rates
"of pay, one for men and one for women and that was lawful."
And it was perfectly lawful for an employer to say,
"No women need apply."
It was lawful for a landlord to refuse to rent property to a woman.
It was lawful to turn down a woman for a mortgage.
These things were lawful when I was graduating.
So in those days, all I wanted was equality of opportunity.
Did that make you angry?
Well, what I wanted... it made me determined.
I wanted equality of opportunity.
What I and other '70s feminists wanted was - give us the same
opportunities and we will show you we are as good as
or perhaps even better than the men.
'90s feminism had changed completely.
It was then a massive whinge.
And a demand for all sorts of concessions to be made.
It was more or less saying actually, we failed on equal ground.
Now we want the playing field tilted towards us.
We want positive discrimination, we want this, we want that.
No, it's not what I see as equality.
And in fact, I think it's pathetic, pathetic.
So, how were you received
when you did get into the House of Commons in 1987?
That was when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister.
Yes. Yes, I got the last three years of Thatcher.
-So what was the mood then?
-The mood was extremely upbeat.
I mean, we were in the middle of the Lawson boom, if you think about it.
We had just won a third term which, you know,
in those days was quite something to have done.
We were very, very buoyant and we became even more buoyant as
it was clear that the Cold War was coming to an end.
The future suddenly looked very bright.
Gorbachev looked human compared to the miseries that we'd had in
the Kremlin before.
So there was a huge optimism about, an economic optimism,
a party political optimism, an international optimism.
It was a very, very buoyant time.
It was also the time when everybody believed
they were going to be a millionaire by the time they were 30,
you know, there was huge enterprise.
There was an enormous enterprise culture in the economy at that time.
So, it's a time I remember with some affection but of course it
didn't last and what I always say,
and I say this to my great-nephews and great-nieces,
"Look, good times and bad times have one thing in common,
"they never last."
-Was it exciting?
But I suspect new MPs always find it exciting, always.
I remember sitting in the House of Commons, the members' dining room
in the House of Commons and listening to two older MPs.
There was an MP called Gilroy Bevan
and John Butterfill, who had gone on into my time quite a lot.
And sitting at lunch with them and they were discussing when
they were going to leave.
And I thought, "How can they be talking about leaving?
"They don't want to go out.
"They only ones to go out feet first, surely?
"Why are they having this discussion?"
And then in my last term I remember talking to Danny Kawczynski,
who was a new MP,
talking about leaving and he was saying, "I can't imagine leaving,"
so I think it's always exciting for a new MP and it should be.
Now, you were there for one of the great moments, I suppose,
of political history of the late 20th century.
-The downfall of...
-..of Mrs Thatcher.
I'm not sure... Has there ever been a time really to compare with that?
Well, not in my time.
I mean, there may have been in the past history.
I'm sure that was.
We forget now that Churchill was, you know, hanging by a thread
at one point when the war was going badly.
We forget that.
But certainly in my lifetime,
no, there's never been a moment quite like that one.
And it stirred up a huge amount of emotion.
The men were all very upset.
They weren't just angry, they were terribly upset.
I've never mopped up so many male tears in Westminster as I did
during the fall of Thatcher.
But also there was the sense of well, history is about to change.
And a sense of disbelief.
I was quite disbelieving.
I thought, "Look, we've achieved all of this.
"And we've done all of this thanks to this one person.
"And now we're going to get rid of her?"
But the Tory party had in those days a real in-built sense of survival.
We were doing very badly in the polls,
largely because of the poll tax.
We were doing very badly.
We sniffed defeat on the horizon.
We weren't going to do it. We weren't going to do it.
And indeed, we got another term as a result of not doing it but
that wasn't how I saw it at the time.
At the time I was absolutely livid.
-You were livid?
Did you feel sympathy for Mrs Thatcher?
-I felt outrage on her behalf because I felt
she had done so much and achieved so much, I mean,
what was this business of suddenly turning on the leader?
You know, didn't we have a bit more courage than that?
But as I say, the Tory party in those days was pretty good at
surviving, pretty good at it.
We got an unprecedented fourth term.
Did you shed any tears? You were talking about male tears.
No, I didn't cry. But I was very cross.
Now, of course, the Major years were very different in tone and there
was a deliberate attempt to present it as a change of government.
-How did that feel as one of the people sitting behind him?
It's very interesting that you use that phrase
"change of government"
because that's exactly what people thought had happened.
We hadn't changed the government, we had changed the Prime Minister.
But everybody thought this was something completely new and
they were prepared to put us in for a fourth term.
How was he with backbench MPs
compared to the way Mrs Thatcher treated you?
Let me describe to you, and this is the way I do always
illustrate it to audiences, who always ask that question.
And I can best describe it
by the way that they used to come through the lobbies.
Now everybody watching this programme knows that the way
you vote in the House of Commons,
you walk along a long corridor called the lobby.
And at the other end, you give your name in to
a clerk and you've voted.
And it takes a quarter of an hour.
You are given a quarter of an hour, rather, to get through the lobby.
Well, nobody hurries through it because it's the one time of
the day when all the party's together.
So if you want to grab hold of a minister or,
if you are in opposition, a spokesman,
or if you want to grab a neighbouring MP because you've
got an issue of mutual interest or you want somebody from
a Parliamentary pressure group or,
for that matter just want somebody to have a drink with,
and you're standing there looking round,
looking for people, not hurrying through.
When Mrs Thatcher came through, her PPS used to go in front of her
and it would be like the parting of the Red Sea.
And then Moses would come through and vote.
When John Major came through, he'd go up to one person and say,
"That was a great speech you made the other night."
He'd go to another person and say, "Is your wife out of hospital?
"Is she better? Is all well?"
He'd go up to somebody else and make some similar comment.
And even at the height of the pressure on that beleaguered
premiership, when you'd think any Prime Minister would be glad
to get through the lobbies and have done with it,
he never came through any other way,
even when we were torn apart by the Maastricht Treaty,
we were beset by sleaze scandals,
our majority was down into the very low single figures,
we didn't know from day to day whether we going to get
our business through, we were trying to whip effectively without
a majority, with all that pressure,
the press were in full cry because we'd been there four terms,
they just wanted us out, they want a change...
All of that going on, he never came through any other way.
He always came through taking an interest in his...
in his colleagues, backbenchers and frontbenchers alike.
So how would you rate him as a leader,
given that you served under
Mrs Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith,
Michael Howard, David Cameron -
that's a lot of Conservative party leaders.
-Where would you place John Major?
And I believe that future historians will rate him very
differently from contemporary ones.
I think a lot of the problem was that people expected him to do
what Thatcher did with a fraction of her majority.
Thatcher had a rebellion a week and it didn't actually matter.
I know I used to rebel from time to time.
Not very often, but I did.
It didn't matter because she could always ride it down
with her majority.
But with John, if there was a rebellion, it could actually
result in a government defeat in the House of Commons.
It was a very... So you had to wheel and deal and bargain in
a way that she never had to.
And one does need to recognise that.
I was a minister throughout the entire Major administration
from the moment he came in to the moment he left.
I was never a minister under Thatcher.
But I know which one I'm glad I was a minister under.
Now, of course,
-the most senior position you held was at the Home Office...
..where you were the Prisons Minister.
Most senior office in government.
-I was shadow Home Secretary.
Yes, you'd been a junior Pensions Minister and
-a junior Employment Minister.
-Then a Minister of State in Employment.
No, I didn't.
In those days it was a waste of time and indeed the department was
We didn't have employment issues.
It was... unemployment was actually falling.
You were mainly looking for things to do, whereas in pensions,
there had been plenty to do.
You didn't have to go looking and in prisons, there was plenty to do.
which I was also in charge of at the Home Office.
And there was plenty to do with those and they were genuine
Employment was more or less - you made it up as you went along.
Now, we can't talk about the Home Office without talking
about how it all ended.
-"Something of the night."
-"Something of the night."
How difficult was it for you to stand up and make that
criticism of Michael Howard, who'd been the Home Secretary,
and you were criticising him over his handling of the prison
system and the way he treated Derek Lewis,
who was the head of the Prisons Agency,
a very long story which we probably don't have to go into details...
We don't have time to go into it.
I'm interested in you breaking ranks and making
that comment, basically to stop him from becoming Conservative leader.
Yes, I waited until after the election.
I did not disturb the party before the election.
I wouldn't have done.
And I particularly wouldn't have done that to John Major.
So I did not resign and I kept my mouth shut
until we had actually lost the election,
but I had always said to a few friends
whom I trusted completely, you know,
"When I am free to speak, I am going to tell all I know about this."
And that is what I decided to do. Now, that may sound just like,
well, that was a decision I took.
It was horrendous.
It was absolutely horrendous.
You don't attack your own side -
you think of Howe attacking Thatcher, you know.
It's the exception that proves the rule.
You don't attack your own side.
And when you do it's got to be for a very serious reason
and I was about to launch into a massive attack on a colleague.
When the Speaker, it was Betty Boothroyd, when the Speaker
called my name, I didn't want to stand up.
One of those moments in Parliament, the only moment I can recall,
when I really didn't want to stand up
and do what I had set myself to do.
Did you have any doubts, did you have a moment of doubt?
No. I knew what I had to do. I knew I was going to do it.
I did talk to a priest at the time because I wanted to be fairly
certain that I wasn't doing it just for the sake of vindictiveness,
just to get back at Michael for what I considered he'd done to
somebody else. But apart from that, I knew what I had to do.
I mean, I had, after all, had 18 months to think about it.
How do you get on with him now?
Well, the interesting thing is that a year after that incident,
a year after that, we were working together in the same Shadow Cabinet.
And he was then Shadow Home Secretary and I was
Shadow Health Secretary, and we worked together.
You don't have to be lovey-dovey to work together.
But I can't believe he regards me with any warmth, and vice versa.
So, you were Shadow Health Secretary under William Hague,
and, as we're about to see,
you became the darling of the Conservative Party Conference.
The famous conference speech.
So we're committed to the National Health Service.
We're committed to the doctors and the nurses who work in it,
we're committed to the patients who use it, which is all of us.
We are committed to making sure that it is adequately funded,
that it is properly run, that it is efficiently managed.
But we're also committed to finding ways of increasing the total
expenditure on health in this country because we prefer
that to ever increasing rationing.
By having the guts to address those questions,
instead of pretending there's some slick,
easy answer that can always be solved through some new
political process, by having the guts to do that,
we are guaranteeing to you the NHS for the next 50 years and beyond.
So, there we go. So, that was the 1988 Conservative Party Conference.
It was, indeed.
The Conservatives had really just started the business of
opposition and there you were, walking around, without any notes.
-Is that where David Cameron got the idea from?
He says so. He says so.
In one of his more generous moments,
as he came out after his speech that he did to try and become
leader at conference, he said to me, "I took a leaf out of your book."
And now it's become the big test for a politician, hasn't it,
if they can't walk and talk without standing up behind the lectern?
The interesting thing was that right up until that moment in 1998 -
I was absolutely the first to do it - right up until that moment,
even the big orators like Heseltine, had stood behind
the lectern and read from notes or latterly from an autocue.
But, you see, I'd grown up, although I'm a Catholic,
I'd grown-up in an evangelical household.
And I was used to evangelists like Billy Graham, who paced up
and down the platform, and they hold your attention the whole time.
You don't sort of nod off like this because you're following them.
And I always said to myself, "If ever I do
"a platform speech at conference, that is how I'm going to do it."
Now, nobody wanted me to do it that way.
Michael Ancram, who was party chairman, nearly laid an egg.
He nearly laid an egg at the thought that I was going to do this.
And I said, "I really want to do it this way."
And I insisted, and I did,
because we were only a year in to our opposition and I think we
hadn't yet formed a sort of disciplinary structure that
would have said, "No, Ann, you really can't do that."
So I did, and I grossly ran over time.
But, to me, the interesting thing about that was that I actually told
the truth - you didn't get it in that extract -
but I actually told the truth and I said, "Look, the NHS, you know,
"was a wonderful institution for its first few decades.
"It's not going to last.
"It's not going to last because it was never designed by Bevan
"and the founding fathers of the NHS,
"it was never designed to cope with today's situation,
"today's longevity, today's medical and surgical science."
He seriously believed that it would cause demand to decline, and,
as we all know, demand's gone towards infinity.
Now, when circumstances change,
you have to change the means of meeting them.
And yet nobody will do that, nobody else has said it since,
because there is an emotional engagement between the public and
the health service, and that sort of speech that I made would be
regarded as electoral suicide.
I could get away with it a year after we'd lost an election.
If were a year out from one that everybody thought we were
going to win, I would never have been allowed to make that speech.
The net result is that the health service
lurches from crisis to crisis.
We have not dealt with the underlying cause, which is
that it's wrong for today, therefore we haven't had the debate
about what the options might be,
therefore of course we've never selected any of those options, and
we've never debated the next stage, which is how to get there from here.
That's a pretty long process. I wish we'd started it in 1998.
You were Pensions Minister, you were the Prisons Minister,
you were the Shadow Health Secretary.
Is it frustrating for you that we're still having these debates
and we still haven't sorted out any of these big policy areas?
I made a big thing when I was Shadow Home Secretary,
based on my experience in the Home Office, my direct experience,
I had two big planks.
One was the importance of rehabilitation in prisons,
the other was control of the abuse of the asylum system by
practising automatic detention.
That's what I said then.
Automatic detention was carried on by Oliver Letwin in 2005,
Cameron dropped it.
Rehabilitation in prison?
Every Prisons Minster since, whichever party, speaks about it.
What's happening about it, what's being done about it?
Of course it's frustrating.
Every so often I can't resist saying in my Express column when
something is done that I called for donkey's years ago, well,
you know, I'm glad they've caught up with it at last. But the big issues?
No, they haven't been caught up with.
Given you feel so strongly about those issues,
-why didn't you try to become Conservative leader?
-But you dropped out.
-I had to.
In 2001, when William stood down,
I was Shadow Home Secretary, I wanted to stand.
And I am utterly convinced,
as a result of all the letters and the telephone calls that we had,
we weren't so much into e-mails in those days,
but as a result of all that correspondence and people
stopping me in the street,
I was convinced that Conservatives in the country wanted me to stand.
I didn't have enough support at Westminster and of course the way
that the leadership works is that the MPs produce the list of two,
those two go out to the country for decision.
If it had been the other way round, and the country reduced
the list, nothing would have stopped me standing.
But I found very early on, I just didn't have the support at
Westminster, I was never going to make the last two. So, why do it?
If the system had been different, and the party members had elected
you, do you think you could have won the MPs at Westminster round?
Oh, yes, I think once the party's anointed you, on the whole,
the attitude in Parliament then is, "Well,
"let's try and make this work, let's get on with this."
Sometimes, of course, that breaks down,
as it did with Iain Duncan Smith,
but there was nevertheless a real attempt to try, and, yes,
I think I could because I'd have tackled the things that needed
tackling, and that might have scared a lot of people.
Yes, it might well have done.
The health service scares people terribly.
But somebody's got to do something about it. When, oh, when?
You seem to be somebody who quite likes big challenges.
Is there part of you that would like to be sitting around the
-Cabinet table now with Theresa May, challenging...
Yes, I mean, I think undeniably I'd love to be doing Brexit.
I'd like to be doing the health service - you can't do them all,
of course, like to be doing the health service,
like to be tackling immigration, I'd like to be doing all those things.
Love to be doing education,
where my big bugbear at the moment is prescriptive marking,
where you just tick points that have to be made,
never look at the overall structure of the answer.
That's not education, that's a travesty of education and explains
why we've got grade inflation, of course.
So, would you focus on that rather than grammar schools?
Um, I'd get both going.
I mean, I'm happy with grammar schools but I do desperately
want to see the end of what I describe as prescriptive marking.
I actually had a letter from a Labour,
but it could just as easily have been a Tory,
Education Minister, saying to me,
"No, you don't need a degree in Latin
"to mark a Latin A Level paper."
Well, that's rot because there are umpteen different ways of
And I was only talking to a teacher the other day who said that
her school didn't make a practice of appealing right,
left and centre,
but every time they had appealed a low mark it had always come
about because the student had thought outside the box.
And actually it was a very good paper indeed,
but whoever was marking it didn't have the ability to appreciate that.
I have visions of a national assessment centre where
everybody's sitting there ticking boxes,
instead of assessing what's in front of them.
And you should always be able to assess what's in front of you.
And, indeed, teachers, markers used to have discretion.
You might get the actual answer wrong,
but if your method was good and it was obviously
a little slip somewhere at the end, you wouldn't do a cross,
you'd do a half or whatever it might be.
You'd read an essay and maybe the pupil had come out with
something that wasn't orthodox but that was well argued.
I can remember once my English teacher saying to me,
when I said that Fanny and Edmund,
from Mansfield Park, were as dull as ditchwater,
and they really were the most boring characters that Jane Austen
had ever invented, saying to me that she utterly disagreed with me,
she thought that any examiner would disagree with me, but that
the argument was very impressive and she'd given it a high mark.
Now, you know...
Not so these days.
So, after a lifetime of arguing, and writing books, presenting
television programmes, when you look back now, do you have any regrets?
No, I mean, if I have regrets it's about things like...
Well, I voted to stay in the European Community in 1975.
Certainly changed my mind on that one.
When people say to me I never change my mind, oh, yes,
I do, on one of the biggest issues of the century I changed my mind.
I regret things like that.
I might regret presentation rather than substance.
The drugs speech at party conference in 2000 would be one of those.
I don't remotely regret the policy,
I do regret the way it was presented.
So I have things like that.
Maybe tactical decisions which I took in any particular campaign,
but no major regrets. I've spent my life in a way that I do not regret.
I have embraced causes which I certainly would embrace
again tomorrow and do still embrace.
I had priorities which I believed to be right and I've tried -
nobody's ever 100% successful -
but I've tried to be utterly true to what I believe.
And, yeah, I shall be a fairly happy old lady.
And if we had the young Ann Widdecombe
-from the Oxford Union with us now...
-I did enjoy watching that.
..what advice would you give her?
I'd say, "Don't be in such a hurry, dear."
There is no hurry.
You really don't have to think you must do everything by
the time you're 30. Go away, forget politics for a while.
Go away, have a career, earn some money,
have a family if that's what you want to do, but I didn't,
but do other things and then come back to it.
And that is the advice which I do always give, male or female,
young or old, I always say, "Make sure you've done something else."
And I think that's sound advice.
But if anybody had given it to me at the time I would have ignored
that person. I was absolutely uni-focused on Westminster.
I would have ignored that person, I would have ignored that advice.
But that is the advice which I would give my 20-year-old self.
Ann Widdecombe, thank you very much.