The rich, famous, interesting and powerful contact Cherwell all the time, desperate to grace our pages with their presence. Well, that’s not strictly true. From time to time our vacation bombardment of various PR firms does pay off, but there are still some weeks where you end up chatting to a retired politician, sitting up self consciously straight whilst inwardly cringing, and rather like a bad first date wishing there was someone sparkly and dynamic in front of you.
So it was a rather pleasant surprise to get an email from Mansfield College asking to set up an interview. Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, is technically an Oxford newbie – she asks me about “noughth week” and “plodge” – but she’s definitely not out of her depth.
Kennedy is an immensely impressive woman: it’s hard to believe one person can be so active in so many areas of public life. Human rights lawyer. Labour Peer. Chair of the Power Commission and Charter 88. Advisor to the World Bank Institute, chair and patron of dozens of charities (including her own), current affairs broadcaster – it goes on. Just reading her CV makes me feel tired.
Cross examining a QC is a daunting prospect. As is meeting a college Principal. Yet Kennedy is surprisingly easy to talk to – I’m immediately struck by how human she is. Her strong Glasgow accent and warm, direct gaze usher me straight from the office to the Principal’s lodgings for a cup of tea; she rather naturally takes over the conversation with the air of those who are used to their own authority.
‘I don’t think it’s a secret that Mansfield approached me for the position of Principal. It’s not the first time Oxbridge colleges have asked me to come on board but it is the first time it has fitted with the other parts of my life. I think there is a tide which is turning in the right direction and that’s why it is good for me to be here now.”
It’s odd to see someone usually pictured behind podiums or commanding Parliament busying herself around the kitchen in such a normal way. The beautiful house is still pretty bare, with cardboard moving boxes lining the walls. It has an air of expectancy. Why is she here? The freak October sunshine pours into the near empty room; Kennedy’s lime green dress seems suitably vibrant. It’s autumn, but it feels like spring – and at the start of the academic year, maybe it’s a pathetic fallacy. Kennedy certainly thinks so. “There’s a different cohort of people coming to be heads of house at Oxford. People like Will Hutton at Hertford, Hermione Lee, Mark Damazer – it’s a rather interesting spectrum of people.
‘Tim Gardam at St Anne’s was the first. This is a new generation, with very different views and experiences of things than the last generation of Principals, perhaps.”
The higher education sector doesn’t seem to me to be the rosiest place to be at the moment. But the smoothness of her voice, disciplined by years spent at the bar and with the BBC, has a self-assured tone, and I’m inclined to trust her. She says she sees herself as part of the early seventies generation – the original student activists. “Well, we’re not radicals. Maybe every so often there are always new waves, but I do think my appointment is indicative of change already happening.”
Kennedy, rather refreshingly, doesn’t downplay her achievement. She’s articulate and direct. “It’s important to feel OK about the person who looks back at you in the mirror,” she says, matter of factly. “Because of that, I’m a person who has been at the forefront of quite a lot of change and challenges to institutions.”
As a member of the House of Lords and QC you could say she’s definitely part of the system – but she’s not afraid of dissent. Kennedy has voted against her party more than any other Labour Peer; more than once she describes herself as doing ‘battle’ with government.
‘I’m afraid I wear it as a badge of honour. I know I was put into the House of Lords because I’m a human rights lawyer. One of them said to me, ‘we like your brand’, and I wanted to throw up on the carpet.
‘They liked my profile, the fact that I champion the disadvantaged. They wanted to harness that, but I couldn’t not vote against doing away with trial by jury, extending detentions without trial, all the civil liberties Blunkett was so happy to sign away.” She says that Mansfield, traditionally a college of nonconformists and dissenters, appealed for that very reason.
Kennedy does seem happy to be here. This is a woman who has a tendency to achieve what she sets her mind to; does she have an Oxford agenda?
Kennedy smiles wryly. Her chunky bangles clink as she puts her elbows on the table. “I like outcomes. This could be a challenge. I find that there’s something very satisfactory about completion – as a trial lawyer, that’s getting the verdict you fight for. When I chaired the Human Genetics Commission and the British Council I learned that it’s pointless sitting back. I brace myself.
‘The core of my life is about justice. Justice and law. I’ve never had a narrow view of what that means – you can only talk about legal justice if you have a strong sense of social justice too. You can’t deliver one without contemplation of the other. I’ve always done other things to make me a better lawyer.
‘It was education that changed my own life. The Helena Kennedy Foundation tries, I mean really tries, to open up education again for people who have been failed by the education system or their personal circumstances… And I think places like this, who do so much for access and outreach work, deserve advocates too.”
Kennedy has so much energy the space around her is electric; it’s exciting to imagine the effect she could have here, revitalising a student body jaded by cuts and fees and a government which ignores us.
She once said that voting is pointless; she tells me that no government will satisfy people. Yet Kennedy’s confidence in her ability to work within the system’s limits seems inexhaustible. She’s a positive person.
‘Yes, I am actually, that’s true. It’s other people. I see so much good stuff.” Even in court? In rape and unlawful detainment and terrorism cases? “Yes. I’m always amazed by the emotional resources of the people I meet, the people I defend.”
She speaks of a new wave at Oxford, and the metaphor is appropriate. I can’t imagine anyone more capable at the helm of a college; it’s a dark sea, but if anyone can navigate it, she can.