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60 Seconds with Anne Widdecombe

The former Conservative politician, 70, talks Big Brother, drug smuggling and the welfare of donkeys

What’s happening with donkeys in Mauritania?

I visited Mauritania to see work done by SPANA, the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad. It supplies veterinary treatment in the Third World. Mauritania is a Saharan country and the main water supply is 300km from the capital. It’s not piped into individual dwellings. Each day 70,000 donkeys carry water from pipe points to individual houses. Some are loved and looked after but too many have wounds, are lame or half-starved. SPANA gave 35,000 veterinary treatments to animals in Mauritania alone last year.

Is it true China is a big culprit?

The donkey skin trade is used for beauty treatments in China. SPANA puts pressure on governments about things like that and also educates owners about how to care for their animals. The donkey population has decreased by 50 per cent in China since 1990 and now they get skins from other countries. It’s promoted vast amounts of donkey theft. If you’re Mauritanian, from one of the poorest countries in the world, and you wake up in the morning and your donkey’s gone, then your living has gone.

One of the downsides of political correctness is that it does tend to suppress free speech

Before this you were in Big Brother. Were you lured into it under false pretences? Its feminist message got rather lost…

I felt that, to a certain extent. They said it would be more serious than usual and there would be more serious conversations — and those did happen but people have said they didn’t show much. I haven’t seen the recordings, I’ve been too busy. They delivered on the debates taking place so I wouldn’t say I was wholly deceived and I knew I’d go to bed each evening before the nasty stuff started — the vulgarity and swearing and sexual stuff.

Housemate: Courtney Act

How did you get on with Shane/Courtney Act? He called you homophobic. Was he aware you’d worked with gay people previously?

I’ve worked with lots of gay people — do you think there are no gay people in Westminster? It has no impact on me if someone is gay or not. All I care about is if someone is kind and humorous and if they’re doing a good job. I don’t bother about their personal background and I can’t understand this business of dividing people up into X and Y and making judgments on that basis.

Some people said Channel 5 should not have broadcast the opinions you expressed. Is society becoming less tolerant?

One of the downsides of political correctness is that it does tend to suppress free speech. You’ve got ‘no-platforming’ at universities now. Universities should be the very place you have all views debated and explored but now there’s this business that if you don’t approve of someone’s views you shouldn’t be asked to hear them. That’s nonsense. I’ll debate with anyone because the way you change views is by debating and exploring those views, not by shutting people up. That’s the mark of a totalitarian state. That’s what happens when you say to people: ‘If you have those views you need re-educating — no one must hear those views.’

Background concerns: Meghan Markle

Apparently you’re not keen on Meghan Markle…

That’s another example. I said I felt uneasy about her background, by which I meant Hollywood and her previous divorce and the way of life she’s used to in the States, compared to the rigidity of life in the royal family. Immediately I was called racist. I was called everything going on Big Brother — xenophobic, racist, misogynist, homophobic. I clocked up an awful lot of insults.

What’s been your proudest political achievement?

One of the best moments was getting one of my constituents out of jail in Morocco. He’d been convicted and lost his appeal for drug smuggling. It was nonsense from the start. One of his colleagues had taken a lorry out to Morocco, phoned his employer and said he had to go to another country urgently for a family emergency and couldn’t bring the lorry back. My constituent was sent out to bring the lorry back. When it went over the weighbridge they found a specially constructed compartment full of hashish. He’d picked up the lorry in full public view and driven it back — he didn’t have time to build any special compartments or do the necessary trade.

Widdecombe is an ambassador for SPANA, raising awareness of the plight of the world’s working animals, spana.org