Ann Widdecombe - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

How is life, now that you have left parliament?
Absolutely wonderful. It feels like I left 20 years ago, rather than two months ago.

How is the coalition faring without you?
I'd rather we didn't have one. I think we gave away too much in order to get it. Coalitions are bad news -- you never know what you are voting for. Coalitions are built on traded manifesto promises. If, for example you were a Liberal Democrat who specifically voted Lib Dem because you had a moral objection to Trident, and it was the only mainstream party offering you no Trident, well, then, bad luck. And if you were a Conservative who specifically voted Conservative in order to get rid of the Human Rights Act, then bad luck. But I do not see that we had any choice, given the economic situation.

Are there particular concessions which bother you?
Well, the Human Rights Act is a very obvious one. I've yet to see how it pans out on inheritance tax, but that's another. I think we just have to see. A headlong rush into electoral reform is not sensible and is a distraction. We have an economy to get right and there shouldn't be much that distracts us from that.

Does this government, to borrow a phrase from Alastair Campbell, "do God"?
Well, Eric Pickles has said he will do away with the nonsense of playing down Christianity and funding any activity unless it's a church one. So one of the earliest coalition pronouncements was, from my point of view, a very good one. The change away from the last Labour government has brought in a greater recognition of the role of the church.

Do you feel that religion is pushed to the margins in British public life?
It has been for a very long time. Under the last government we saw a raft of law, principally equality law, which specifically set out to crush religious freedom and to crush freedom of conscience. There is an immense difference between being told that you must not discriminate against something and being told that you must promote it. The last government failed to preserve that distinction.

Which particular issues concern you?
Catholic adoption agencies, for example, had to either place children with homosexual couples or close. Now some actually did close; they were placing the children who were hardest to place -- that was the job of Catholic adoption agencies. So that very, very vital role disappeared. It's almost an article of faith now that you can't exercise Christian conscience.

Were you upset by the row over Christian bed-and-breakfast owners being told they had to accept homosexual guests?
. . . even if the B&B is your own house. Chris Grayling, when he was shadow home secretary, said there should be a distinction between having a say over what goes on in your own house and if you are running a large hotel where anybody comes and goes. When he said that, the result was demotion [to below the rank of shadow cabinet minister].

With about half of the population being non-believers, what role should religion have in public life?
You've picked one statistic. If you actually look at the census results and all the rest of it, most people do classify themselves as Christian. And we do still have an established church. If we deny our culture and become nothing and everything, that weakens us. Our state ceremonies have a religious foundation. We have compulsory religious education. And the Church should be a moral guardian. We have in this country a long Christian heritage and Christian culture and we shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to give that up.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that at least half the country isn't religious . . .
Half the country won't be practising, but when you get events like 9/11, the first thing that happens is the churches fill up. People may say they're not religious, and when Richard Dawkins says he's not religious he actually means it; so would Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. But when people who are shrugging say they're not religious, they mean they're not attached to a particular church, they're not practising at the moment. They may not necessarily mean that they discard the concept of God altogether.

If we are in a position where the majority, or a very large minority, of the population are not practising Christians, is it necessarily the best thing to define ourselves as a Christian country?
Well, yes it is. You can't get away from the fact that our culture and our heritage is that way, and if we just deny it all and become nothing and everything we shall lose our character. That actually weakens a country: it can weaken a country very, very badly not to have a clearly defined character. I also think, for example, that if you disestablish the Church of England that would be a very dangerous step. It would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the monarchy -- I mean, not by the middle of Tuesday afternoon, but that's where it would lead. So I think there are all manner of reasons for keeping the church at the centre of society, and the established Church in this country is Anglican. And I would die in a ditch for its establishment. Sadly, the people I wouldn't expect to find in the ditch beside me would be the hierarchy of the Church of England.

What's your opinion of the Pope's intervention on the Equalities Bill?
The Pope was absolutely right to comment. A lot of his flock are feeling under pressure. We think we're being neglected, and I see no reason at all why the head of the Catholic Church shouldn't give us some comfort by making an announcement.

His intervention with the government of another country is acceptable?
Well, of course. The Vatican is a state, and we all have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It's not some isolated little cult somewhere, it represents 17.5 per cent of the world's population. And that's just the Catholics -- there are all the other Christians on top of that.

Are the rumours true -- are you about to become Britain's ambassador to that state?
No. That is pure speculation from the press. Your profession loves speculation. [She laughs]

True! To return to the Catholic Church -- is it in crisis, given the abuse scandal and so on?
No. Obviously, this is serious. One child abused is too many. But in, for example, America, which bore the brunt of the first very big scandal, 2 per cent of its priests actually faced allegations -- and that doesn't mean they were actually proved. So it isn't as if there is abuse going on in every parish. Unfortunately, as I say, one abuse is enough. It's something that the Church has to get on top of; I think it is something the Church is getting on top of. But why just pick on the Church? This happens in teaching, it happens in children's homes, it happens just about everywhere that you can mention. The overwhelming majority of abusers are secular, married men.

You converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the 1990s, with a period of agnosticism in between. What caused the shift?
I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England's compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn't care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it's true it's true, and if it's false it's false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it's theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being "Is this theologically possible?" the debate was "If we don't do this we won't be acceptable to the outside world". To me, that was an abdication of the Church's role, which is to lead, not to follow.

Do you welcome the formal discussions that are going between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church over conversion?
The rejection of Rowan Williams's amendment in the last few days -- which would mean that conscientious objectors would not have had to answer to a woman bishop -- means that you've now got a group of objectors with nowhere to go. Because that has happened, I think the likelihood of a split in the C of E, along the lines of the one we saw in the early Nineties, is more rather than less likely. If it happens, what I sincerely hope is that the Catholic Church in this country is better geared up to cope with it than it was last time.

Last time, I think the view was, "Well, this isn't going to happen for another five years", so nobody had put anything in place. What happened depended entirely on what parish you were in. So in some dioceses the priests were fast-tracked through if they were wishing to become Catholic priests. The laity were put through the following Easter; everything was fast-tracked. In other parishes, the bishops didn't like it, dragged their feet, didn't want to receive Anglicans, and Rome finally gave guidance, but only after there'd been a long period of muddle. I just hope that this time, if there is a split, that the Catholic Church has got its house in order, rather than trying to react piecemeal. It was a mess last time, a serious mess.

Are you optimistic that the Church will be more supportive this time round?
I think the very fact that the Pope has, as you mentioned, opened up this dialogue between the two churches should make the path easier. I think he's done this because he can see the split coming just as well as everybody else can. It's not a split I'm wishing on the Anglican Church, because I want everyone to be spiritually happy where they would prefer to be, but if it does happen then I would hope that we are better geared up than last time.

Is the priesthood the only field from which you feel women should be exempt?
I despair when people say, "But you're a successful woman." I do not stand in persona Christi at the point of the consecration. That is what we're talking about -- we're talking about a woman standing in the person of Christ. You might as well ask a man to stand in the person of the Virgin Mary. It's something that's been brought about purely in response to the modern pressure for equality. And that's fine: I believe in equality, from the Prime Minister down through the country. But the Church is a thing apart and always should be.

What did you learn from your agnostic period?
My faith was much stronger when I came back because it was more hard-won. That is a fairly common experience of people who hold a view and then change it. They are normally very much stronger and more convinced than people who've always grown up with that view.

Do you understand secularism better now?
I understand well enough where people who do not believe are coming from. What I do not like is militant secularism, whereby anything is acceptable as long as it's not Christian.

Is the growth of secularism a worry?
I think secularism was always going to be a very difficult force to cope with and I think people have seen it coming for some time. Its benefit for religion has been that it's united us much more. Somebody once asked me how I got on with Ian Paisley when I converted to Catholicism, and I said, "Well, actually, we get on extremely well because we've got a common foe." I think it's meant that Christians, instead of agitating over each other, have actually started to look outwards and have banded together. Secularism has no central goal, it's just promoting endless relativism. That's why there is a huge moral drift in the country: everybody is infallible except the Pope, if you like. Crazy. Once you say there's no such thing as truth, everybody can make up their own mind, then truth becomes irrelevant, because it cannot be true both that God exists and that God does not exist: it's impossible for both statements to be true. One statement is true and one is not.

Does Britain's religious plurality concern you?
I don't have a problem with other people having different faiths; my problem is if we confuse respecting that with surrendering our own faith. That's what we have been doing as a country for a couple of decades. We've been saying, "Oh we mustn't do that, because it might offend other faiths." Well, actually, other faiths just scratch their heads in disbelief.

Who are your heroes?
William Wilberforce is one -- not just because of the abolition of slavery, but because he stuck at it when everything was against him. So, if you like, what I respect in Wilberforce is the sheer moral resolution.

Where is home?
Home is Dartmoor. Beautiful, beautiful wild Dartmoor.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
God has charge of these plans, but my plan at the moment is to enjoy retirement.

So your plan doesn't include, say, an ambassadorial role at the Holy See?
Good try, but I'm not being drawn.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing. Even bad things are lessons learned.

Are we all doomed?
We can be saved. But it's up to us.

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain