The NS Interview: Ann Widdecombe

“Secularism means everybody is infallible except the Pope. Crazy”

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. Coalitions are bad news - you never know what you are voting for. But I do not see that we had any choice, given the economic situation.

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.

Do you feel that religion is pushed to the margins in British public life?
It has been for a very long time. 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. It's almost an article of faith now that you can't exercise Christian conscience.

With about half of the population being non-believers, what role should religion have in public life?
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.

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.

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.

Are the rumours true - are you about to become the British 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. But why just pick on the Church? 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?
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.

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. 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.

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?
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.

Does Britain's religious plurality concern you?
I don't have a problem with other people having different faith; my problem is if we confuse respecting that with surrendering our own faith.

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.

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.

Read a longer version of the conversation.

Defining moments

1947 Born in Bath. Spends her childhood there and in Singapore
1969 Latin BA at Birmingham University; then studies PPE at Oxford
1987 Elected as an MP on her third attempt
1993 Converts to Catholicism
1995 Becomes minister of state for prisons
2000 First of four novels is published
2001 Failed leadership bid; leaves cabinet
2010 Retires from parliament. Rumours that she is to be Vatican ambassador