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.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain