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Sinners and Saints
By Michael Seed, Noel Botham
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2009 Michael Seed and Noel Botham
All rights reserved.
WHISKY AND ICE – HOW ANN WIDDECOMBE 'CONVERTED' IN A MEDIA FRENZY AND UPSET THE BISHOPS – FOX HUNTING AND THE MAU MAU – 'SOMETHING OF THE NIGHT'
It was purely by chance that I met the remarkable woman who I now value as one of my closest friends. It happened, like so many of my chance meetings, in a bar. This one was the Pugin Room in the Palace of Westminster.
She is without doubt the most formidable person I have encountered in the Palace of Westminster. A true phenomenon with a unique personality. You would not, willingly, want to cross Ann and would contradict her only at your peril. In the early days of our friendship, virtually all I did, I admit, was to listen. I didn't dare interrupt her until I came to know her a good deal better. If truth were told I think that to begin with I was more than a little frightened of her. And probably, at times, still am.
Ann could be described as a one-woman task force combining the fire and courage and passion of a crusader and the mental wizardry of an Oxford don, with a captivating and quite unexpected and bubbly sense of fun. She was destined, perhaps surprisingly, to become one of my closest confidantes; I have an endearing love for her.
She is also the most notable of all my 'Seedlings', the term invented by Frank (Lord) Longford, to describe my many 'converts' to the Catholic Church.
Ann is a deeply committed Christian. She comes from an evangelical Anglican background and her brother, Canon Malcolm Widdecombe, was actually vicar of St Philip and St Jacob, Bristol – known as 'Pip 'n Jays'. She was educated at Bath Convent boarding school, run by nuns (La Sainte Union Sisters), a traditional Catholic stronghold of discipline, mystery and doctrine. It was there she learnt how to stand up for herself; it undoubtedly had a lasting effect.
It was in 1987 that my guardian angel led Ann over to the table where I was enjoying an early evening drink with Ken Hargreaves, who was Tory MP for Hyndburn from 1983 to 1992. It was a fine, sunny evening and we had a splendid view of the terrace and the River Thames from the most popular Commons bar. Ann, it turned out, was a close friend of Ken's and having spotted him came straight over to our table. After the introductions she ordered a very large Famous Grouse whisky, in a glass topped up with ice, and took a long swallow when it arrived. Her smile went all the way up to her eyes, and she sighed, 'I think I needed that.'
I soon learned that Ann could consume substantial amounts of Famous Grouse whisky – but loathed other brands – and never diluted her drink with water. Her drinking, like her talking, was ever straight.
In those days Ann's hair was deepest black and cut in a severe, trademark Cromwellian, puritan style. Perhaps difficult to recall now since later on she stunned everyone by suddenly and disconcertingly becoming a blonde, still her colour of choice. But today she has finished with dyes. From now on it's Ann – au naturel!
It turned out that Ann liked the clergy and also approved of anything strict, and when I explained my background in the Salvation Army and as a Strict and Particular Baptist she clearly warmed to me. I have always been attracted to nonconformists, for I find, for the most part, that conformists are dull and boring and only ever seem to want to talk about committees, structures, mechanisms or documents. Ann definitely does not conform; she is a one off – absolutely her own person and completely devoid of spin. She is, I have come to believe, like a matrix – a complex place in which ideas are shaped and developed.
After that first meeting I came away thinking, 'This is a very unusual lady. She is either going to kill people verbally, or inspire them to great deeds'. Later, I discovered she would do both with equal dedication and enthusiasm.
As a young woman she had been an administrator at the University of London, which she had seemingly handled with ease. She is an awe-inspiring organizer and I believe could, one day, become a splendid Chancellor of a large university. Indeed, it was widely rumoured that she was shortlisted for the Chancellorship of Oxford university – a post now held by my friend Chris Patten.
Ann and Ken Hargreaves, I learned, were members of a sort of unofficial club affectionately known as the Holy Gaggle. The other members were David Alton – a former Chief Whip for the Liberal Party who, at the time of his elevation in July 1997, was the youngest Life Peer – and David Amess, then Tory MP for Basildon and currently MP for Southend. All four are Catholics and leaders in the pro-life movement, opposing abortion and euthanasia and other related 'life-issues'. I became the fifth musketeer.
In common with most of the events in Ann's somewhat turbulent life, her conversion to Catholicism was characteristically dramatic and a media frenzy. It also earned me a severe ticking off from an irate Cardinal Hume.
Ann's views on women priests matched that of many traditional theologians. The argument is complex, yet simple. For Ann, 'God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, human and divine, to teach his Word and Jesus chose only men to be His Apostles. God's choice is good enough for me and should be good enough for the Church of England.'
But, of course, not everyone agreed and on 11th November 1992 the Church of England General Synod voted – by a majority of only two – to bring in the ordination of women priests the following year. It almost didn't happen this way as two members of the Synod, both staunchly opposed to the ordination of women were delayed on a train from Brighton (a hotbed of High Church Anglican observance) and therefore were unable to vote on the matter. But as Lady Bracknell observed, the line is immaterial.
Elsewhere in this book, I allude to the enormous impact of that decision on the Catholic Church, but its impact on Ann was no less devastating. She believed that a male-only priesthood was something very special and very sacred and she just couldn't stomach the change. She sought Reception into the Catholic Church. Ann set a date of Wednesday, 21 April 1993 for her 'conversion' (as it is commonly called) and she would have liked it to have been in the chapel in Parliament. But because this was in a palace, was the Queen's chapel, that day happened to be the Queen's birthday and as Ann was a Minister of the Queen, the Cardinal ruled it would cause too much furore and controversy and that I should change the date or change the venue – or ideally both. I should have paid heed, but I didn't. As a compromise, it was agreed that Ann would be Received into the Catholic Church in the Crypt of Westminster Cathedral at 7am on the date set. As a kindness, the Cardinal agreed that I could give her a Catholic Mass in the Parliamentary chapel that evening.
The Cardinal had said a Mass in the Common's Chapel fifteen years earlier and had been splattered with red paint by one of the Reverend Ian Paisley's supposed supporters. But the celebration of Mass by the Cardinal had set a precedent and Catholics were given permission to use the Chapel for Mass by the then Black Rod, the late Admiral Sir Richard Thomas (himself a Catholic) and the then chaplain to the Speaker, Canon Dr Donald Gray, a courtesy which continues to this day.
Ann expected that if word got out, her Reception could turn into a 'three-ringed circus', and she wanted the occasion to be a private and modest affair, with only a few people present. Only a handful of people joined us. David Alton and Julian Brazier, the Catholic Tory MP for Canterbury (standing in for John Patten, then Secretary of State for Education), were Ann's sponsors; Ken Hargreaves and David's PA, Christopher Graffius, were also present.
On reflection, my biggest tactical error about that day was in asking my good friend, Father Norman Brown, a blind priest, to guard the door of the Crypt to make sure nobody came in during the service. We had known the media were hovering about the Cathedral as Ann had issued a press statement that she would give interviews on the Piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral at 8am following her Reception.
The previous night's television news and that morning's papers had carried the story of her 'conversion'. Of course, in the event, it didn't take the Fleet Street hacks long to find out that something was going on in the Crypt and when they couldn't get to us through the Cathedral, they quickly discovered a back way in near the Choir School playground on Ambrosden Avenue.
I had barely launched into the service when there came a great hammering on the Crypt door. Father Norman unfortunately made the mistake of opening the door a chink – but of course, being blind couldn't see who was there. Before he could utter a question as to who was there, he was flung aside as over forty reporters and photographers and TV cameramen, French, Dutch and Germans among them, were through, and had us surrounded at the altar. Father Norman, regaining his composure, sought to ask who these intruders were – though sadly in his confusion, addressed his question to a cupboard full of relics rather than the assembled journalists.
Ann, looking quite serene in her little blue hat and blue dress, clearly wanted the liturgy to proceed and told me to continue despite the intrusion. All that was required of her at the service was for her to say 'I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church reveals, teaches and professes as revealed by God'. But Ann chose to add some words of her own – 'And I accept all the teachings of Pope John Paul the Second and all his Successors and the Magisterium [authority] of the Church'. What could I say? Sadly, these words are not even uttered by candidates for ordination!
I then preached a little sermon and she knelt down and I confirmed her by invoking the Holy Spirit and applying the sacred Oil of Chrism, and she was 'done'. Not only had she been received into Communion with the Catholic Church, but during the whole event, the cameras never stopped clicking or the bulbs flashing and one could say she was also received by the media! Ann carried on giving interviews all day, and I hoped that by the evening the media would have been satisfied. But when we arrived at the Parliamentary chapel they were again there en masse to greet us.
I had billed the occasion as a special Easter celebration and proposed simply to incorporate Ann's first Mass as a Roman Catholic into the service. However, word had got out as to what was to happen and over 200 people were packed into the chapel. Ann's brother Canon Widdecombe had come up from Bristol, and wore his Anglican robes to say prayers and do a reading.
I believe I used the first incense that had ever been burned in the chapel since Tudor times – though in the process managed to set off the fire alarm. This, of course, alerted the Parliamentary police and the already packed Chapel was suddenly inundated with police officers. The other bell, which we were alerted to by one of the Doorkeepers from the House of Lords, was for a vote in the Upper House.
We sang the hymn Faith of our Fathers, Ann's favourite, and in honour of the Queen's birthday, the National Anthem. Then fifteen of us went for dinner in the Churchill Room, a room in the Houses of Parliament used for celebrations. The then Prime Minister, John Major, had sent a very friendly, handwritten note to Ann (who was his Pensions Minister), which was read out at the table.
I ought to have realized the amount of publicity Ann's Reception would attract and known that it was simply impossible to keep that kind of event secret. In hindsight, I should also have been more sensitive to other issues within the Catholic Church on that date before agreeing it with Ann. Not to have done so turned out to have been a catastrophic mistake. Diplomatically I was hung out to dry. In just twenty-four hours, I had focused the rage of every single Catholic bishop in England and Wales on myself – not to mention the very personal rage of Cardinal Hume. I was so wrapped up in Ann's Reception, I had completely forgotten about the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales annual Low Week meeting, the week after Easter, during which they would be debating several highly significant and controversial events, including their response towards the inauguration of women priests into the Church of England.
On the day of Ann's Reception, the bishops had agreed a number of important and sensitive statements which were due to be issued two days later, on the Friday, and they were confident the statements, because of their content, would receive widespread press and media coverage. Instead, because of my faux pas, Ann's Reception overshadowed everything they had hoped to achieve. In the event, the bishops' conclusions received virtually no coverage. I can see how extremely embarrassing this was for the Cardinal, who felt he had to apologize to the bishops. As an Anglican terrorist I could not have done a better job of torpedoing their collective endeavour.
In turn, I felt I should make some explanation and write a letter asking for their forgiveness. The Bishop of Plymouth, Christopher Budd, kindly set it in front of their places at dinner that night. But for the Cardinal forgiveness, I discovered, did not always begin at home.
I was summoned to the Cardinal's study and given a blistering telling off. Words like 'idiot', 'irresponsible', 'reprehensible' and 'downright bloody stupid' were all contained in his tirade and I was convinced I was about to be sacked. Then, when his anger seemed to be at its peak and he was red in the face, he suddenly stopped. 'And tell Miss Widdecombe I am delighted to welcome her into the Church,' he said. 'Now get out and don't let me catch sight of you for at least a week!'
Having very strong opinions, Ann is rarely upset when someone speaks against her. But she was thoroughly alarmed when members of her own constituency condemned her for her views and began moves to deselect her. In 1995, at the height of the anti fox-hunting controversy, only six Tory MPs supported a ban; Ann, who was violently opposed to the sport, was one of them. However her difficulty in this was that the vast majority of her constituency, Maidstone and The Weald, were just as passionately in favour.
A sufficient number summoned her for a face-to-face hearing with her Constituency Association for her deselection as their MP. It was the first time I had ever seen Ann, who was then a Home Office minister, really rattled. Politics were her life, and for her to have been dumped by her Constituency and thrown out of Parliament would have been her worst nightmare. To me it seemed like an excellent time for her friends to rally round and give her some support. I discussed it with David Alton and suggested to him that we ask Miles, the Duke of Norfolk, to write a letter to the chairman of her Constituency to be read out before the meeting.
The Duke and I were firm friends and I knew that he was a strong supporter and admirer of Ann, and even though I also knew him to be a great champion of fox-hunting, I believed he would help. Miles didn't hesitate. Yes he would do it, and with the greatest pleasure, but added, 'You and Alton must draft the letter.'
The two of us struggled through most of one evening to prepare the letter, repeatedly altering phrases and words until we were both satisfied the tone and content were right. At which point, unbeknownst to us, Miles decided to do a partial rewrite.
Ann confided to me before the meeting that she was extremely tense, and no wonder. She knew that her constituents were mainly committed country folk and that their support for fox-hunting was both traditional and emotional. As their representative in Parliament she was aware that she had chosen to vote, on their behalf, in a direction that would not have had their majority support. But she could not vote against her conscience. That is, in my opinion, one of Ann's strongest points; she is a potent and resilient force for what she sees as the moral right.
Excerpted from Sinners and Saints by Michael Seed, Noel Botham. Copyright © 2009 Michael Seed and Noel Botham. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Ann Widdecombe 1
2 Our Cheating Ways - Tug of War 29
3 The Blairs 33
4 Cardinal Basil Hume - The Beginning 51
5 Cardinal Basil Hume - A New Beginning 91
6 The Queen 117
7 Canterbury 129
8 Alan Clark 137
9 The Cathedral 151
10 Norfolk & Getty 165
11 George Carman QC 175
12 Bearing the Cross 179
13 Weddings 191
14 Duchess of Argyll 197
15 The Root of All Evil 203
16 Billy Graham 213
17 The Ambassador 219
18 Sandhurst and Piers Morgan 225
19 Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor 231
20 Club Capers 245
21 Frolics and Forgiveness 253
Author's Note 275