Star Interview: Sheffield Hallam University's new chancellor Baroness Helena Kennedy QC: 'Too many people have no idea how the majority live'

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Picture: Steve Ellis
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Picture: Steve Ellis

The trajectory of Baroness Helena Kennedy QC’s life is a case study of social mobility writ large.

One of four sisters brought up in a two-room and kitchen tenement in a working-class area of Glasgow, she was the first in her family to study in higher education, became one of the country’s most distinguished barristers and now sits in the House of Lords with a peerage bestowed by Labour.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Picture: Steve Ellis

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Picture: Steve Ellis

But this barely scratches the surface of her extraordinary CV. A determined champion of human rights and justice for women, she has chaired the British Council and the Human Genetics Commission; led inquiries into sudden infant death and safety at Aldermaston atomic weapons establishment; has written a string of books and is chair of the Booker Prize Foundation; presented the fondly-remembered Channel 4 discussion programme After Dark and was principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, for six years until earlier this summer.

Now she has taken the helm as Sheffield Hallam University’s new chancellor, succeeding Professor Lord Robert Winston whose tenure lasted nearly two decades.

From the dreaming spires to the Steel City, then – quite a contrast, but the move reflects a wider theme.

“I’ve always been very interested in widening participation, and I have committed a lot of time to the business of giving opportunities for people to have higher education who might not have expected it to be in their families, or whatever,” she says. “Because that was my background. And higher education changed my life.”

One of her reasons for accepting the Mansfield College role was, she says, to expand the intake – when she left, 92 per cent of its students were joining from state schools. And she already had strong ties with Hallam, where we meet before her installation ceremony; four years ago she opened the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at the former polytechnic, which gained university status in 1992 and has 31,500 enrolled on courses. It says 96 per cent of young people attending full-time are from state schools and colleges, with 41 per cent coming from low income backgrounds.

“I got to know what Sheffield Hallam was doing, and I liked it.”

She was ‘delighted’ to be approached about becoming chancellor, a ceremonial post rather than the ‘full-on job’ at Mansfield. “It really does speak to my heart and the things I care about.”

Baroness Kennedy arrives at a pivotal time for Hallam, which nurtures an ambition to become the world’s leading applied university – an institution that offers teaching with a practical purpose – as competition to recruit students increases. Earlier this year the first, £220 million phase of a 15-year campus masterplan was announced, promising bold developments including new buildings for the business school and social sciences.

“I love Sheffield,” she says. “As a practising barrister and QC I came up and did trials. It’s a great city.”

She accepts the ideal of removing barriers to gaining a university degree is being assailed, chiefly by expensive fees which stand at £9,250 a year.

“I think these are hard times financially for many families, and the whole business of fees is a tough one. The promise was, if you got a higher education it followed you would get a great job afterwards. There are jobs, and a lot of employment, but not always of the sort people want to see as fulfilling their lives. What I love about Sheffield Hallam is it’s really equipping people for the world of work, employment and practice. It’s so welcoming to people who would have felt higher education wasn’t for the likes of them.”

Her parents were, she says, perfectly intelligent people, but life didn’t ‘present them with those opportunities’. “So they left school at 14. My father was in the Army during the war and became a despatch hand on the newspapers – it wasn’t a skilled job, but he wanted his children to do better. My mother, too, had left school and worked in a grocery store. Is that promise going to be kept, of making it possible for people to have that better life?”

A university does more than teach skills for a particular career, she says. “It’s also about citizenship, knowing how the world ticks, getting on with people and learning how to work in teams – and learning how to learn, because in our lives we often have to rethink what we’re doing and look for another form of employment.”

Twenty years ago the Helena Kennedy Foundation was established; the charity provides mentoring and gives scholarships worth thousands to disadvantaged students.

In the late 1960s she was set on studying for a BA in English, but was tempted by the law and trained instead at the Council of Legal Education in London. She was surrounded by privilege in the capital. “That was a shock to my system. Very few people from working class backgrounds like me were going to study law and become a barrister. It was a rarer thing. Most of the people I studied with had gone to very posh public schools. Mainly they were all single-sex, boys’ schools, so they weren’t used to having women who were their friends.”

Deploying qualities that have served her very well over the years, she somehow managed to overcome the divisions of class and gender while remaining rooted. There’s no snobbishness about her, and her talkative manner suggests she’d be happy to engage in a debate about anything. Aged 68 and a mother of three, she is married to surgeon Iain Hutchison and lives in Hampstead, North London.

“People say to me I’m part of the establishment – and I couldn’t possibly pretend that’s not true. But I’ve always felt I’ve been able to keep a foot out, because of the strong sense I have of pride in my background. Too many people have no idea how the majority live.”

Baroness Kennedy is Hallam’s first woman chancellor. It’s a welcome step forward, but discrimination remains rife, she says. She argues that British justice is failing women, and has written a book on the subject called Eve Was Shamed which will be published this autumn. It follows a similar title, Eve Was Framed, which broke new ground in 1992. In its wake she received letters from victims whose ordeals had been hushed up by those who could have acted.

“We know that’s gone on. We know it from Rotherham, and all those scandals in cities where there was the grooming and abuse of girls, and the turning of a blind eye by the police and social services. It just amazes me, I’ve been writing about this stuff for over 30 years and it’s only in recent times that people have started saying ‘How did we manage to miss all this?’”

Victims – women, ethnic minorities, gay men – have also been reluctant to come forward out of shame, she says. “We attach taboos to certain things and it means people are silenced. We have to lift those veils of ignorance and make sure people can talk about what they experience. That way you bring it to an end.”

She is a firm supporter of the #MeToo movement, having dealt with plenty of harassment and blatant sexism in her early legal career. As a barrister she has acted in many high-profile cases, including the trial in 1986 over the Brighton bombing on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet ministers and the successful Guildford Four appeal in 1989. She was also junior counsel for Moors murderer Myra Hindley at her 1974 trial for plotting to escape from Holloway Prison.

“It was a male profession,” she says. “I remember when I started men would ask, ‘Are you planning to get married? Are you engaged, do you have a fiancée?’ Because the idea was you were a bad bet – why would you take anyone on in chambers if they’re going to go off and have babies? They really didn’t feel it was a place for women.”

Then there was the ‘constant commenting on your femaleness, your clothes and how you looked’.

“There were occasions where you had to run round tables with people trying to pinch your behind. In those days there was a sense we had to self-safeguard, because we knew complaining was going to crush any prospect you had. Young women are saying, ‘We’ve had enough of this’. And I think it’s great. I think we did put up with too much in the old days, and I get very disappointed when older women say ‘All you have to do is slap somebody’s hand, it was simple’. It wasn’t always simple. And it’s not simple when it’s about power.”

She readily lays claim to having been at the vanguard of big changes in public life. “I don’t feel it’s self-aggrandising.”

A thread runs through her achievements, she notes. “Whether it’s about education, law, the trafficking of human beings – justice has always been there. It isn’t just something that happens in law courts, it’s about the way in which we live with each other, and the way our society is configured. For me, you don’t get justice in the courts unless you have social justice outside the courtroom doors.”

'Oliver Reed was a wounded person'

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC hosted a notorious episode of the Channel 4 discussion programme After Dark that is seared in her memory.

In 1991, with the Gulf War at its height, the actor Oliver Reed was among the guests in a debate on the topic ‘Do men have to be violent?’ – he got drunk on camera, made baffling and incomprehensible observations, lunged at the feminist author Kate Millett and was eventually told to leave.

After Dark was transmitted late in the evening and had no scheduled end time, often extending into the early hours.

Baroness Kennedy can pinpoint why Reed, who died in 1999, became so agitated.

“It turned out his father had been a conscientious objector, and he felt deep shame about it and had obviously been bullied at one of those posh schools. That’s why he felt so belligerent, I think, because he had a real chip on his shoulder.”

He was, she recalls, ‘very hostile’ to Millett. “He did this very intrusive thing of taking her face and kissing her, on the mouth, in a full-on way. It was disgraceful.”

She agreed with Millett that his behaviour was unacceptable – Reed asked if he should go and the other guests said yes, so he sloped off into the night. All this came after the live broadcast was briefly taken off air because of a hoax call.

Reed was ‘a wounded person’ who inflicted his pain on others, Baroness Kennedy believes.

“I think his misogyny derived from problems around understanding his own masculinity, and what masculinity is. And to have derided his own father because of his not going to war was a way he failed to understand that’s not a test of masculinity.”

After Dark was ‘very much of its time’ and would struggle to find an audience in 2018, she says.

“People don’t watch television in quite the same way. But it was open-ended, and meant you got past those soundbites which are very much currency today. There is a way we could consider the possibility of reintroducing that kind of longer discussion that perhaps exposed the real positions people have.”