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High Profile

Serve 'Em Right

For 40 years, from the Inns of Court to the House of Lords, Helena Kennedy QC has worked for justice and the common good. For an hour in Westminster, she was Third Way's witness.


Can we begin by talking about your formative years as a child in Glasgow? You've described your family as 'warm, loving, down-to-earth and principled'. Your father was a trade unionist who worked on the Daily Record -
He was a despatch hand, so it wasn't a skilled job; but he was actually a very clever man. If he'd had educational opportunities, I think life could have been rather differ­ent for him. He was a great reader - he took me to the library from when I was a tiny little thing of four or five.

I was very lucky: I had very decent parents. They found time to help people - and it wasn't that we had a lot: we didn't have very much at all. We were part of a big working-class Catholic community, and of course we were also from a big extended family, all of whom were Catholic. We lived in a tenement, four girls and my parents, in fairly constrained circumstances.

People would come to my mother - the husbands had drunk all the wages at the end of a week and their families had nothing - and my mother would go into the cupboard and fill a bag full of tinned food and stuff. One of my earliest memories is of her, you know, 'finding some money'. She used to line drawers with newspapers - it was always a source of amusement to us that she would read them a year later when she went back to refresh them - and she used to hide money underneath them, basically as a safety net. I remember her giving it to an English girl who lived in our tenement, who was being battered by her husband, and saying to her, 'Go back to your parents.'

You grew up watching your parents helping people and I suppose you just breathe that in. You know that you have a responsibility to other people and that's how you should be measured.

Were you aware of being 'disadvantaged'?
Well, I knew that we weren't well off, and one exercised self-restraint. If there was a school trip, I didn't even ask, because I knew that my parents just didn't have the money. But most of the people we knew lived not very differently from ourselves. Occasionally there were people at our school whose parents were teachers, and we considered that to be very grand.

You went to Holyrood, which is one of Scotland's best state secondary schools. Did your parents see education as the way out?
Oh, very much so. Actually, both my parents had gone to good secondary schools but just hadn't been able to afford to stay on. My mother went to a convent school but had been so poor that her uniforms were always hand-downs from better-off families, so it wasn't a good experience, really. My father went to St Mungo's Academy, but his father had died in the First World War and he didn't ever want to be a burden on his stepfather and so he left school at 14.

I had two older sisters, who were nine and 10 years older than me, and our family circumstances at the time meant that they left school at 15. I was the first to go on to higher education.

Catholicism is still very important to you, you have said, but you have rejected some of its traditions…
There was a period in my life when I got rather cross with Catholicism - my rebellion against my parents took that form, I suppose. When I was 18 or 19, I came to England and I discovered that there was a doublespeak. One of my close friends came from a family where, I learnt, it was possible actually to get a divorce (though I thought it was Jesuitical how it was done). I thought of the women who had stayed in miserable marriages in Scotland because that was what the church expected of them, and how the church was so tough on women who (for example) were abandoned by their husbands and if they then took up with another man they were a 'scarlet woman'. And yet those things were possible if you were from a different class background.

A point comes when you kind of make peace with those anomalies, but I still feel that I'm not very orthodox as a Catholic. I believe that there should be women priests. I chaired the Human Genetics Commission1 and I believe very strongly that stem-cell research is an im-­portant way to understand, and perhaps find a cure for, many of the terrible diseases that blight human life. I feel that women who are facing infertility should be able to have IVF. I believe that women should use contraception.

And they do - people just get on with it.

Hence the very low birthrate in Italy.
Yes. So, I just think there are ways in which the church says one thing and then people live differently - except in the world's poorest countries. So, I am prepared to voice criticism of the things that I think are not right.
You still go to Mass, and that suggests to me not just a Catholic worldview but a personal spirituality.

It's important that there's a space in my life for reflection on - on, you know, how I am conducting my life. I think it's important for people to have that space.

I feel that I've made peace with my relationship with religion; but I'm not altogether happy with the hierarchy of the Catholic church - I feel very unhappy about the way it has dealt with the scandals about child sexual abuse, for example.

Have you ever had to defend your faith in public?
No, because I don't parade - I'm not - for me, it's very private. In fact, I feel uncomfortable when I see people parading their religion.


But are there issues - perhaps ethical issues - on which you would take a specifically Christian, or even Catholic, position?
I have to say, my heart was soothed by the fact that the Catholic church took such a strong position against the war [in Iraq] - as did the Anglican church. I spoke of­ten with Rowan Williams about it. I feel that that was an area where it was right to speak out. I'm ab­out to give a lecture on the use of drones - I think there are many ways in which we fall short of what I think is ethical in the way we conduct ourselves in terms of warfare.

I'm always surprised that Christians somehow man­age to square the circle - but then we know that people have been able to do that since the beginning of time. And that's why I think there's some­thing profoundly unattractive about people parading their faith when of-­ten they have double standards ab­out all kinds of things. But I don't feel that I could escape without stones being thrown at me, and so I tend not to throw stones at other people.

But there is such a thing as a Christian ethics, isn't there, which is a legitimate voice in the public square?
Absolutely, yes. But I think that where Christians often get it wrong is in imagining that their ethics are confined to themselves. I think there are values that are shared by everybody and that you can create a highly ethical society bringing together people of religion and no religion. I know plenty of people who have no religious faith and who are much more ethical than many of the people who parade their religion.

But Christians would go back to the Bible, maybe, for the authority for their ethics, just as Muslims would go to the Qur'an -
And people draw their ethics from many other sources, too. There's no doubt that in the ether of a society are all the things that have impacted on that society, and the way the United Kingdom has developed over centuries has drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition - or now we would say the Abrahamic faiths - and it's in the mortar, if you like, of the spaces we occupy.

Do you think that the Bible has got anything to say to our society about ethics?
I'm a New Testament person - I much prefer it to the Old Testament - but I actually have a resistance to people who rely on texts and are too literal in their interpretation of them - whether it's law or religious texts. I always think it's the refuge of people who are looking for certainty when in fact feeling un­certain is sometimes the most fruitful way of being. Not always being sure is perhaps a healthier approach to the world and to other people.

Isn't it important to democracy to be able to enter the public square with confidence in your point of view, even though you listen to others because you respect their views? That is not fundamentalism, is it?

Yes, but too often there is a pretence at tolerance but it's not really tolerant. There isn't an openness and a willingness to really hear what other people are saying.

For example, I have a real problem with people who say that they really believe we're all God's children and yet so excoriate people who are homosexuals and want to live in loving relationships with others of the same sex. I find it hard to believe that someone is genuinely a believer in the Christian ethic if they are prepared to be so hostile to people whose sexuality is different.

In many of these really fierce ethical debates - abortion may be another - the argument is often not between moral and amoral or immoral people but between moral people who have come to different conclusions. How do we make sense of that?
It's very interesting that the issues that exercise people in British society are different from the ones in the Un­ited States - which really can turn elections. For exam-ple, although members of my family feel very strongly about the abortion issue because of their Catholicism, it would not affect how they voted. It would be part of their expression of their faith, but they would not seek to, if you like, make their view the one that was going to determine the colour or shape of a government. And I think that that is a much healthier position than the one that's developed in the States: that people recognise difference and recognise that society, to hold and hang together, has to acknowledge those differences. I think that that is what real tolerance is about. And, in order to live together, we have to be tolerant of each other. That is what being in a community is all ab­out.

You talk a lot about the pace of change and the fact that change needs to be based on tradition and not destroy it. Many people would say that we live in a society where tradition has lost its authority and is now just one choice among many. Do you think that matters?
You see, I don't think that's true. One thing that is ab­solutely vital in holding society together is the rule of law, and if you look at the common law in this country it's sort of built on accretion. It shifts and changes, but it does it comparatively slowly and it's built on a long history of tradition. Something people often forget is that it was struggle that got us our civil liberties - you know, people with power don't give it away easily and those things have always had to be fought for, whether it was freedom of relig­ion or votes for women or whatever.


Britain is still, in a positive way, mindful of its traditions and where things HP4.jpgcame from. Many societ­ies want to tear up the past, but I think we're kind of wedded to ours. And as a lawyer I feel very wedded to the idea that you can only interpret law in the context of a nation's culture, practices and traditions. When El­ean­or Roosevelt gathered law­yers and judges from ar­ound the world to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,2 the starting-point was: Can we create global law that will prevent more atrocities like the Holo­caust happening? And they agreed that you cannot create glo­bal law, but what you can create is a sort of template of principle against which every legal system can be tested.

And so [the UDHR] is an acknowledgement of a set of values that actually are shared by all people and all religions; and I think we just have to keep reminding ourselves of that. And so I'm always looking for ways to make common cause with people who are different, and from different traditions.

But there are social institutions such as marriage, which are not so much an expression of legal infrastructure -
I know, but we have to remember that historically mar­riage wasn't [the norm for] the poor in past centuries. I think these things go in and out of fashion.

So, is it wrong to say that something such as marriage has some intrinsic authority and there is a moral change in society if it becomes merely one choice among several? Do such things just come and go?
For me, marriage is about making a public declaration about your commitment and having the support of your family and your community and wanting to bring up a family in that context. Some people aren't able to have a family but still see it as being about declaring something special about the way they feel about each other. And I think you will find that those things start to have a purchase on people's imagination again.

We mustn't idealise marriage - you know, it's not always wonderful - but I would lay money on it that in 50 years' time [the pendulum] will have swung back. That's how societies work. I don't believe in the great decline of the human condition.

Can we talk about -
You see, rather than the Christian churches worrying that people are not getting married and so on, I feel that what they really should be worrying about is materialism and the commodification of everything. What they should really be worrying about is the way in which we have made money a god. And there's plenty of churchgoing folks who don't want to challenge that.

I was in the United States recently - my husband's a surgeon and he was speaking at a big medical conference - and we were sitting with surgeons who said that they would not support any kind of health-care system that would make sure that the poor were covered. It's hard to understand how a rich country like America, so full of Christians, would make that choice. One of the reasons, these surgeons said, why they did not want to go down the route [of universal health care] was that they needed to maximise [their in­come] because they'd had to pay a million dollars to be­come so highly qualified, and also they expected that they would have to spend tons of money on the education of their children.

That's what happens to societies when you commodify everything, whether it's health or education or whatever. You are actually destroying things that hold society together. I would like to see the churches being much more vociferous on all of that.

Some people say that our society has become less moral than it used to be. Do you think there's any truth in that?
I think that the homage that's paid to money has led to a fall in ethical standards. Why do you think Members of Parliament were fiddling their expenses? Because they looked around at people that they had gone to university with, people they socialised with, and they were earning tons of money; and [MPs] thought, 'Why am I expected to take home [only] £60,000 a year?' And what happens in groups is that once one person starts low­er­ing their standards, they en­courage others to do it and people say, 'But we're all doing it!'

But I don't think that people have become less good. I mean, I meet wonderful people all the time. I see young people coming through the education system and what they really want is to do good in the world. So, I haven't in any way lost heart about the human condition. If you speak to their better angels, I think human beings actually can do wonderful things - but I think that we have to decide what our priorities are.


HP5.jpgAnd people don't go into politics with bad purposes. I believe that strongly. Politicians really do want to serve and they do want to make a difference to people's lives. I find that most professionals want to live by high ethical standards. I look at people like my husband and his commitment to do no harm - and when I was chairing the Human Genetics Com­mis­sion I would see these tab­loid headlines about gung-ho scientists but I have to say that I didn't come across them. Most of the scientists whose work we looked at agonised over the ethics of what they were doing.

Where do human rights come from? Religious people might want to source them in what they would say has been revealed about the nature of creation…
Well, of course it was always argued that there were nat­ural rights… But those who have got no religion would argue that it's just about a recognition of what it means to be human, and so I'm not sure that we need to settle that argument.

I've read some of the records of the creation of the [UDHR] and what is so interesting is the way people sat down and said: What is it that human beings need in order to be fully human and to live in communion with others and with the world around them? And once you recognise the things that people need, and yearn for - to love and be loved, to be part of a community, to be free to practise your religion, to be free to express yourself and so on… And then the whole business of torture - there isn't anybody, whether religious or not, who doesn't know that in order to inflict pain on somebody else you have to in some way diminish yourself, too.

Even at the time, however, there were people who felt that the Declaration was an expression not of something universal, as it should be if it is about human nature, but of Western values. Muslims, for instance, protested about the statements about women…

There wasn't much conversation in 1948 about women as distinct from men. There is no doubt that there continues to be argument about what the rights of women mean - but nobody will persuade me that female genital mutilation is something that somehow we should find acceptable because it's a cultural practice. I just can't accept that.

You have talked about the fact that when a society is frightened it can trade freedom for security…
I watched the rush to legislation after '9/11' and I just knew that it was going to have serious consequences, because I had been there already, because I had done so many cases during the Irish Troubles. We used to detain people without trial then, and those experiences should have taught us some lessons.
When we're fearful, you know, the child in every human being wants to be cared for, wants to be protected, wants the parent to step in. And if governments promise us that [they will protect us] if we al­low them to legislate away our rights, lots of people will happily sign on the dotted line, because they've been persuaded that this will be the solution to any threat. And that's the problem, that people write a blank cheque for governments. It's not that there isn't public consent - there is; but governments should know better, you know?

And then there is a threat to the rights of minorities, such as immigrants, who are viewed with suspicion.
Well, as soon as you have high levels of fear, the risk of scapegoating becomes very real. And people have high levels of fear for different reasons - it can be the threat of terrorism or the threat of crime, but it can be just the insecurity that is created by uncertain financial times. I think people's lives have become more uncertain, and I think it goes back to the way we've torn up the old soc-­ial contract. The fact that you can't feel secure in your job, the fact that you thought you were paying into a pension and suddenly you find out that it isn't go­ing to be there - these things make people profoundly an­xious and that makes them much more likely to look for peo-ple to blame for the changes in their lives. People always want to blame immigrants, because they are different. Difference is always an issue in all of this.

You have been a lawyer all your working life. Is there a difference between the way a woman practises law and the way a man practises it?
Oh yes, of course! When you are practising law and you are applying judgement to the problems that come in front of you, of course you bring your own experience, and your own baggage, to it. And there's no doubt that the fact that I am a woman, from a working-class back­ground, a Scot practising at the English Bar - all those different things in many ways, I'm sure, have affected how I am in my practice of law.

I think I've always sort of felt that you can't really do justice without seeing the wider context of people's lives, beyond the courtroom door, in a world where it's harder for women to make it financially, where women often bear the burden of greater poverty, where often it's women who are left with the children. If you were to treat people all the same, you wouldn't do justice.

Does it ever trouble you that our system is adversarial, rather than a Continental-style search for truth?
I'm always very leery about truth, because I think there are truths when it comes to the human condition. We see events through different prisms. The prosecution can present the facts of a case and then, when it's put into the context of the life my client's having to lead, suddenly it's different.

So, I'm never confident that we can be sure that we know what the truth is, and that's why I think our system is so wonderful. Although it has its shortcomings, and there are areas where it can fall down - I think it's pretty unsatisfactory when dealing with children - I think that by and large, like democracy, it is not perfect but it's better than anything else that's been devised.

Finally, if we dispense with all doublespeak, how do you think Christians should be living?
Simpler lives. I think… I mean, I just think that.

We have allowed the gap between rich and poor to grow, and I think we should be in some way trying to narrow it again. I do think you pay a price for creating huge inequalities in society. In fairness to the chur­ches, they have often taken a lead on this (and when they do, when they speak out about 'faith in the city',3 or ab­out social justice, they're ex­coriated for it).

Listen, we see the scandal of child sexual abuse and yet we all know that the church is full of so many wonderful and good people who have given their lives to be priests, to be nuns, to work with the most disadvantaged; and you feel that they are besmirched by the con­duct of others.

And what life teaches you - and as you get older, you are able to see it more clearly - is that it's all a much more complex story, and that's one of the reas­ons why it's important always to be willing to see the other side, to see how it is from somebody else's per­­spective.

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