The New Statesman Interview - Helena Kennedy

A chum of Blair and Brown, she warns that the charge of being "fixers" could undo them as sleaze und

First, I get the lecture. I am, on no account, to stray from Helena Kennedy's chosen agenda into trickier terrain. Kennedy has "been profiled to death" and so wishes only to discuss the work of the British Council - hitherto profiled, in literally deathly fashion, as "some ancient, obscure, post- colonial organisation". Her mission, as chair, is to dispel such myths. "On that basis, I am happy to meet and talk with folk. Otherwise, I am not. But we'll try."

She does not sound hopeful; nor, briefly, am I. Although Kennedy is said to take her title lightly, the nameplate on her door says "Baroness". As she walks towards her office, a bag-carrier smoothly divests her of her briefcase and a party frock in a plastic sack. Someone else brings in a pile of letters to sign and an invitation to the Tate Modern. Perhaps Kennedy, a diminutive woman in a stern, brown trouser-suit worn over flirty lace, is a more contradictory character than a bale of past profiles might suggest.

She is, bar Cherie Booth, the best-known woman lawyer in Britain - implacable in her support for human rights and civil liberties, and the scourge of those (Jack Straw included) who seek to erode them. Feted in worthy circles and in frothy ones (this month's Aura magazine rates her as the 19th most admired woman in the land), she is both a passionate advocate of new Labour and judge and jury on its besetting sins.

Still, none of that, as we are here to discuss the British Council, which Kennedy sees as a prime mover in the new diplomacy. "Most problems, if you look geopolitically, are about conflict based on ethnic or cultural clash. So what's being done in the area of cultural diplomacy is actually the crucial work. There is more and more acceptance from the Foreign Office that cultural diplomacy is where it's at."

Alas, neither Robin Cook nor Gordon Brown seems yet to have matched enthusiasm with cash and accepted that Kennedy's initiatives cannot flourish suitably on £127m a year. "I do not want to be left waiting for the crumbs to fall from the Foreign Office table," she says. "A 2 per cent increase for them does not have the same impact for us; 2 per cent of bugger all is bugger all. Please quote me on that."

It is the first hint of Kennedy's trademark truculence, which surfaced most recently in her opposition to vouchers for asylum- seekers and her successful campaign to have Straw's plan to curtail trial by jury quashed in the Lords. Now she has embarked on a new battle: to expunge a clause in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill stipulating that defendants awaiting trial will have their benefits cut if they breach probation orders by missing two appointments.

"Think of the implications. Why are we invoking a punishment that can only impact on poor people? Here we are, the party that's supposed to address child poverty. I think it's appalling. I see it as a manifestation of something more. There still hasn't been enough clear thinking about what Labour's position is on civil liberties."

Beyond her specific campaigns, Kennedy seems increasingly concerned about the core philosophy of Blairism. "There are a number of areas where new Labour is either caught up in old Labour ideas - which make it not the great modernising party - or in thinking that modernising means moving away from many of the values that are Labour's heritage. They get rather frightened. There are real contradictions and a lack of coherence in the modernising agenda." Many of Kennedy's complaints are targeted at Straw, who - in her view - has failed to walk the tightrope between human rights and civil liberties. "He has come down very clearly on the side of the victim. However, he - naughtily and possibly because there has not been enough hard thinking - uses the language of the victim to support any encroachment on defendants' rights. For instance, it was argued in the jury thing that there would be fewer trials and therefore fewer delays - all good for the victim.

"I cannot be accused of being some hidebound old fart; but I've always said to the women's movement: be careful. The right will always be very happy to hijack the argument of victims to take away the civil liberties of defendants . . . A good Home Secretary should be conscious of that."

And is Straw a good Home Secretary? "He has championed the Human Rights Act and really taken up the cudgels on behalf of women. He is a committed anti-racist. However, to court and keep an ear to the baying crowd, he is sometimes influenced in unhelpful ways on issues such as race. You have to be very careful not to create mood music for very unpleasant, atavistic feelings in people. Jack knows this. I've discussed it with him."

Kennedy's filleting of Straw and others is done always with protestations of fondness and on first-name terms. Once viewed, quite mistakenly, as the paradigm of a tractable Blairite baroness, she is a personal friend of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, whom she meets on Cape Cod holidays.

Such allegiances make her criticisms more trenchant than the barbs of the marginalised. One imagines, therefore, that her campaigns may have injected some froideur into her bond with Blair, but she says not. "Downing Street and Cabinet level are not a problem. I can still sit down to dinner with them and be invited to their homes. Jack is a true professional - a nice guy who does not snarl into my face about all this stuff. I cannot say the same about amateur politicians - some of the people in my own House. Also, some of my friends at junior ministerial level are frightened that, if they are seen to be too close to me, it will rub off in terms of their careers."

But the real "unpleasantness" seems to come from the "apparatchik" tendency in the Lords. Who can she mean? Lord Bragg seems one obvious suspect, given his public eulogies to Blair. "Oh, I can't bear all that. But I don't want to speak about Melvyn. I am very fond of him. But I was brought up to feel you have to be true to yourself. I didn't spend all those years doing Irish trials, or arguing for women when it was considered to be wild harridan stuff, just to become some roll-over."

She was born 50 years ago; the third daughter of a Glaswegian newspaper despatch handler and of a mother who worked as a part-time waitress. When asked how her brilliant daughter can combine a university chancellorship, a career as a QC, heading the new Human Genetics Commission and assorted other roles, she replied: "Aye, but have you seen her skirting boards?"

Both Kennedy's grass-roots pedigree and her experience as a jury advocate have made her adept at "sniffing the air" - currently polluted with distrust for new Labour. "I'm good at tuning in to what folk think. My warning to Labour is that, just as sleaze was the downfall of the Conservatives, ours is much more likely to be seen as being fixers. That is so old Labour - so much about the past and about conservatism."

Has she discussed with Blair this possible nemesis? "I haven't had an opportunity. Not enough space is made for talking about these things. In the mayoral election, people thought they would be damned if they would play a part in some fix. The same thing is going to happen in the House of Lords. I go round hiding my title, and it's going to become more like that. Nobody is going to want to admit to being in there."

This seems a damning indictment of an interim House that has, ironically, offered her a prime platform for attacking government flaws. "It [the House of Lords] pokes a stick at the fix-it mentality, but no one should take comfort from that. This is not how things should be in a modern democracy," she says, disturbed - among much else - by the posturing of some new appointees. "The first thing they do is get their credit cards changed. These old British institutions are very seductive, and Labour people are as seduceable as anybody."

Even so, the spectre of a new Establishment does not much disturb her, possibly because she is so ineluctably branded as part of it. I suggest that her life - glittering career, marriage to the cancer specialist Iain Hutchison, and three children - seems unduly blessed, and she says: "I've been so lucky. I'm bound to get breast cancer tomorrow", in the manner of someone accustomed to testing providence.

There was, seemingly, only one bleak episode. Her former partner, the father of her eldest son and an actor currently rehearsing Albert Speer at the National Theatre, "fell in love with someone else. Keir was still a baby, and it was all very painful. I am a great defender of single mothers because I know how bloody hard it is."

Equally, she remains a staunch advocate for battered women - she was delighted when Glenda Jackson admitted that she had never had a relationship with a man who had not raised his fists to her. Kennedy is sure that there are other women in parliament who could tell similar stories. "And don't forget the men who are batterers. You can be damn sure there are some of them on the benches. The good thing about Glenda saying what she did is that there is still a terrible stereotyping of victimhood."

Kennedy herself remains categorised by some of the judiciary as "a terrifying virago", but any scary front seems purely for show. Outside, her taxi waits. Inside, we talk on. The conversation, I suddenly realise, has become perilously unhinged from any British Council renaissance.

So, for the record, Kennedy believes that her organisation will establish cultural and community links undreamed of in the days when gin-swilling ambassadors called all the shots. She will help non-governmental organisations in emerging democracies to link up with British counterparts and work on disability and women's issues. I expect she will make quite a go of it all. Success rarely eludes her, except on one key issue. Whether the government grows to see her less as a clubbable maverick and more as the articulator of widespread discontent seems far from certain.