One of the most colourful characters in the history of British politics, former conservative politician, Employment minister and MP for Maidstone and The Weald from 1987 to 2010, Ann Widdecombe has left an indelible mark on the history of Whitehall. Known for her forthright ideology and formidable approach to government, she remains the ultimate dream for satirists to create endless comedic material. Yet away from the seriousness of politics, Ann has also allowed the public to see an alternative side of her hard political persona which has offered her an unlikely entertainment career beyond politics. Despite this, she still lends a voice to the campaigns and movements which she believes in.
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Born in Bath just two years after the end of the Second World War, Ann benefited from the pop culture revolution of the early sixties. The 1950’s was a very wonderful period for the stereotypical family where mothers stayed at home and nurtured their children taking advantage of the precious time to spend together. This was a stark contrast to fifties’ Britain, still in the midst of rationing with little escapism, the war was over but the country was still in a crisis and everything was grey. Fortunately the sixties brought with it some much needed positivity that swept the nation and suddenly Britain became reinvigorated in psychedelic Technicolour. Witnessing such a drastic contrast in the attitude towards life promptly set the tone for Ann’s fascination with social justice and politics. It was time for her generation to ensure a better life and this became the foundation for her political ideology.
Graduating from Oxford University in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Ann found herself within a class of students who would go on to help shape the future of British politics including Edwina Currie and Mary Archer. With a soaring ambition to play a dominant role to make Britain a much better country than she recalled throughout her childhood, Widdecombe used her post war experience as determination to make the country prosper once again. Winning her seat for her constituency of Maidstone and the Weald in May 1987, she joined Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in what was to be her third and final term. Thatcher was a heroine to any woman with a desire to make waves in the political arena as a result of her forthright approach to leadership and believing wholeheartedly in everything she stood for. Undeniably a significant divisive figure, she had many sceptics but her formidable stoic attitude was something which remained with her throughout her political life and this was something that Ann admired tremendously about the Iron Lady.
Yet it was in John Major’s cabinet that Ann got her taste for top flight politics. As Minister for Employment, she got to witness firsthand the huge legacy which Thatcher’s consumerism had on the succeeding decade on the backdrop of a significant cultural change which was now occurring. The 1980’s had taught the upper middle classes that there could be huge incentives in applying themselves as opposed to delegating to their subordinates. This sparked a social revolution as far a moment capitalism and communism became one and the same. However, by the nineties, Britain was changing and the lower classes realised the possibility of gaining the social mobility of the elite. This was the first time that Ann personally experienced the negative impact of the British media and its influence on the political landscape which is sadly something that has worsened over time.
Ever since the 1960’s’ age of deference which was ignited by David Frost’s landmark That Was The Week That Was, politicians have always been the subject for satirical japing by the mainstream media. However, Ann’s tenure within the walls of Whitehall coincided with the British press gaining more power and influence than ever which ultimately has greatly damaged the reputation and credibility of government. She believes that this is one of the reasons as to why Whitehall can no longer be representative of the major professions for the single reason that no self respecting adult professional would want to volunteer to be under the spotlight of the British media. Therefore the calibre of politician who would willingly do this is precisely the wrong sort of person who should be in government. This may go somewhere to explaining the state of modern British politics.
Her status as a senior member of the cabinet naturally put her in the media spotlight and made her the subject for satirical lampooning which she realised was merely a byproduct of the job. Throughout her political career, Ann was only asked for her approval by two comedians: Victoria Wood and Ken Dodd. Dodd wanted to seek her permission to do a joke about being her toy boy which she found very funny. While Victoria Wood seeked to make her the subject of the musical finale of her BBC1 Christmas special in 2000. Ann appreciated the opportunity to make her decision on the appropriate nature of the sketch which she wholeheartedly approved of as it was removed from the nasty, personal attacks which she had become accustomed to. In a way, this highlighted another side to the straight talking politician who the public thought they knew and set the tone for the next chapter of her career.
Beyond politics, Ann has always been a keen writer and has penned a repertoire of successful novels. Having written consistently since she was in her early teens, Widdecombe took solace from her ability to write but as a member of the shadow cabinet, there was little time to indulge this passion. However when confined to her back bencher status under Michael Howard’s shadow cabinet, she found herself with more free time on her hands in which she could devote to writing. During this period Ann was able to publish seven novels including Father Figure which was a satirical glance on the Fathers For Justice campaign. Her passion for writing outlived her parliamentary career and she has now penned seven novels to date and hasn’t entirely closed the door on her author career.
But of course in 2010 Ann wrote herself into the TV history books when she was unveiled among the year’s celebrity lineup for the BBC’s heavyweight Strictly Come Dancing. Self confessed lacking in rhythm and technique, Ann assumed that she would merely last a few weeks and then that would be it. With several stipulations to her contract which included that she wouldn’t wear anything remotely revealing and wouldn’t do anything overly physical, Ann fell in love with the Strictly experience. Making it to Blackpool was an absolute achievement for both her and the multitalented Anton Du Beke who never failed to see the funny side of their journey. This offered Ann a surprising new chapter of a career which she always assumed was coming to an end.
This wasn’t the only surprise which Ann had in this period. When David Cameron’s conservative government claimed victory in the 2015 general election, he promised the electorate that there would be a referendum on Britain’s place in Europe. Brexit was to spark major debates throughout the country and for the first time would create strong divisions within political parties. As a former MP, Ann never expected to return to top flight politics but this was an issue which was totally unprecedented and the most significant political event in a generation. With an understanding of the socioeconomic structure of all areas of the electorate, Ann recognised the fatal flaw in Cameron’s Londoncentric plan for Brexit. Totally unaware of the consensus in more deprived areas of Britain, the government totally disregarded a large portion of the population which ultimately became their downfall.
I’ve interviewed many political figures in nearly seven years of Beyond The Title and am always struck by their shock at their success after their political career. Leaving Whitehall in 2010, Ann Widdecombe was set for a peaceful retirement on the Dartmouth coast with a couple of dogs and novel ideas. Yet an unlikely, unexpected collision with the world of Light Entertainment has both elongated her career and helped to transform her into a celebrity. Once mocked for her forthright, old-fashioned approach to politics, Ann is now one of the most dynamic, honest and articulate voices in the public eye and could even be considered as a national treasure. It was an absolute privilege to interview the formidable Ann Widdecombe and with such a decorated career behind her, it’s fascinating to see what awaits her next!