Howard Jacobson: What has happened to your dignity, Ann?

If you are going to weigh in on matters of religion, you can’t turn yourself into a pantomime grouch

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Midway through watching Ann Widdecombe being flown on to the Strictly Come Dancing set in a harness last weekend, I had one of those things.

No, not one of those things. I mean an epiphany. A blinding light. Except that what came to me was no glimpse of the divine but the very opposite, a sort of visitation of revulsion. I don't mean that personally. It wasn't Ann Widdecombe herself from whom I recoiled – I thought she looked rather sweet, if incongruous, in her Alice band and pink lipstick – but what she had agreed to lend her presence to: the whole paraphernalia of this increasingly low-lewd programme, the sequin and spandex chortling, the campery, the grand condescension shown by youth to age, the creaking self-congratulatory artifice of the production, the formulaic celebrity gushing (never worked so hard, never enjoyed myself so much), but above all the assumption that the whole world loves a good sport.

I confess to being easily agitated in the matter of being a good sport. Would that be because I am not one? Maybe. To my father, being a good sport was almost a religion. He was a good sport every day of his life. Not me. When it came to joining in and not minding whether I looked a fool I was of my mother's party. Her family was the mirror opposite of my father's, every one of them as bad a sport as every one of my father's family was a good one. On festive occasions when the families came together, my mother's sat hugger mugger in the darkest, quietest corner of the room, wondering when they could be released from this living hell, while my father's rumbaed, cha cha-ed and made conga lines out into the street. I never congaed and I never will. I never clap along when someone's singing. Or include myself in a Mexican wave. It's almost a religion to me not to join in anything.

Shyness has something to do with this, I accept. I also accept that shyness is a species of egotism. What could be more self-centred than to suppose that of all the people dancing the conga you alone will be found ludicrous? But shyness won't explain it all. It wasn't only shyness that stopped my mother's family from being good sports. They came originally from Lithuania, a sombre, intellectually minded place. The Jews of Lithuania were known as mitnagedim, meaning opponents, nay-sayers, refusers. And what they were primarily opponents of was my father's lot, who came from Ukraine and demonstrated their holiness by doing cartwheels with a bear. Rather than succumb to this all-singing, all-dancing Russian Jewishness, my mother's ancestors remained mindful of what they owed to their intelligence, which was, among other things, bodily restraint and dignity.

And here is where I take issue with what Ann Widdecombe has consented to be done to her. She has forfeited her dignity. That's precisely what being a good sport entails, you will tell me, but must being a good sport trump all other considerations? There's something higher than being a good sport, I say. There's saying no. There's being serious.

You could argue that it's a bit late to be asking this of Ann Widdecombe. Has she not been forfeiting her dignity on television for years? I intend no unkindness to her, asking that. If anything, I see her as a victim of her own success. She is what's called a "character". And to be a "character" on television is to be no different from that dancing bear with whom my father's forbears cavorted in Lvov. "Be forthright, Ann," and Ann, accepting a sugar cube, does forthright. "Growl, Ann," and Ann growls. She is, of course, good at it. She is well educated. She knows her Bible. She can see through cant. And she can put the wind up any adversary wheeled out for her to maul. But mauling to order soon grows tiresome as a spectacle and more importantly demeans those principles on whose behalf the mauler mauls.

Her principles are of a piece. She left the Church of England for Rome because she disapproved of the ordination of women priests. In her time as an MP she advocated zero tolerance for users of cannabis. She opposed the repeal of Section 28, And recently she opined that you have only to look out of your window to see there's no such thing as climate change. That she held and still holds these largely preposterous views sincerely, there is absolutely no reason to doubt. And in an age of liberal consensus their unfashionableness has charm.

But sincerity and charm aren't the only measures. There is also seriousness. If you are going to weigh in on matters of religion, gender, permissiveness and the future of the planet, and expect to be listened to, you can't turn yourself into a pantomime grouch. Where the subjects are grave, it behoves you to have gravitas.

And now the seriousness owing to her person is compromised as well. This coming week, if rumours are to be believed, she will be led into Strictly on a horse. Lady Godiva? We shall see. The joke is on her body, which is neither young nor svelte. And on her foundation garments. She will not consent, she has insisted, to doing anything suggestive. (As though she could if she wanted.) "What I won't show the Pope, I won't show the audience," she has said. It's a good gag, but in its own way a highly suggestive one. We, and the Pope – if he's watching – are now implicated in the issue of what she shows and what she doesn't, in what's becoming to her age and ungainliness, and in the hideous pretend flirting with her partner, made more ghastly by our knowing – because she's told us – that she is a virgin. A virgin half-apeing unvirginal acts.

I know the argument. I can hear my father making it. Loosen up, for crying out loud. The woman's just having a bit of fun. I don't begrudge her that. But what are we having? Fun also? Myself, I call watching this a blood sport. But then I'm something of a Lawrentian as well as a mitnaged. I think the body is hallowed. And is no more to be derided when it's old than when it's young. In fact, it is to be derided less. Fun is often another word for cruelty. I would save her from it if I could. From the cruelty, the indecorum and the all-round gracelessness of body and spirit. Ann Widdecombe is a religious woman. She should know what I mean.

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