September 27, 2013 7:14 pm

The Inventory: Helena Kennedy

‘If I lost everything tomorrow, I’d retrain as a midwife,’ says the human rights lawyer
Helena Kennedy©Rick Pushinsky/Eyevine

Helena Kennedy, 63, is one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers and a champion of civil liberties and human rights. She was created a life peer in 1997.

. . .

What was your earliest ambition?

I had two older sisters who left school at 15. My first real ambition was to go on to higher education.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

Holyrood RC Secondary School in Glasgow; it was largely working class and really did well by the kids who went there. In 1968 I came to London and got a summer job in an office. I loved it. I met young people who were students and started wanting to spread my wings. I applied to the Council of Legal Education and once I got started I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Who was your mentor?

Leonard Boudin, a great constitutional lawyer in America. He made me see law as part of a bigger picture.

How physically fit are you?

I’ve got a lot of stamina. I do Pilates and yoga.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Talent’s more important than ambition. I’ve seen ambition without talent and it can be unattractive. Ambition and cowardice is another ugly combination; it’s very important to remain ethically courageous.

Leonard Boudin©Getty

Mentor: Leonard Boudin

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

Not that I’m aware of.

How politically committed are you?

Very. But I’m not tribal politically, I’m a pluralist. My commitment is to social justice.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I use public transport and take the train rather than aircraft if I can.

Do you have more than one home?

When our children were small we bought a house on Loch Lomond so we could ensure they had a connection with Scotland. We’ve also bought a house in Cape Cod.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

I’d like to start de-possessing. I’m surrounded by stuff.

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

Helena Kennedy's imaginary coat of arms

A lion and a lamb; I’m fierce in battle but to those who know and love me I’m benign. The scales of justice; books; a red star to represent my politics. I’m of the left and proudly so.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Taking my family to Cape Cod.

In what place are you happiest?

My family home in north London.

What ambitions do you still have?

I’d like to head up some really active policy change on prisons. I still feel an urgency around prison reform – I can’t believe that so many people end up in prison that I think shouldn’t be there.

What drives you on?

I haven’t lost my desire to change the world.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

I played a seminal role in changing the law in relation to women. I was the first loud, clear voice speaking about that from the late 1970s.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

Labour in government. It’s not that there weren’t achievements; there were. But I can’t get over the fact that Labour took us into the Iraq war.

Loch Lomond©Dreamstime

Second home: on Loch Lomond

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?

She’d be amazed. I never had a plan about my life.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

I loved having my babies; that celebration of new life is one of the great joys. So I’d retrain as a midwife.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

It’s an incredibly complex issue. Morally I am somewhat ambivalent. We don’t distinguish enough between the two fears we’re expressing: dying in pain and living in a bewildered state. We need a Warnock-style report that leads to sensible legislation. And when we talk about assisted dying we also have to talk about assisted living.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I don’t talk about my sex life and I don’t talk about my spiritual life.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Nine and a half. I would hate that to sound self-satisfied; I’m conscious of my good luck.

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