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.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).