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Camden New Journal - One Week with JOHN GULLIVER
Published: 13 March 2008
Helena Kennedy
Helena Kennedy
Two natural-born fighters slug it out over their idea of justice

HELENA Kennedy was on home territory when she chaired a debate in Glasgow on Friday evening on crime and liberty.
While Helena – one of Britain’s leading human rights lawyers – has lived for years in Belsize Park, she remains a born-and-bred Glasgwegian toughie, and clearly enjoys every opportunity to return triumphantly to the city that shaped her.
I was visiting Glasgow over the weekend and dropped into the debate – part of the ­capital’s book ­festival.
Helena – a consistent critic of New Labour’s attack on civil liberties in the “war on terror” – said little she hasn’t said before. That is, New Labour has become another brand of Thatcherism while ­whittling away our civil liberties.
Philosopher AC Grayling, who lectures at Birkbeck ­College, sided with her. His latest book, The Light: the Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights, is a reminder of how people fought, and died, for the rights we enjoy today.
All these arguments are familiar – and most of the 500 strong audience were with the speakers.
But it was Clive Stafford Smith who impressed me. The festival’s brochure described him as a “hero of our age” defending prisoners on death row in the States, and those incarcerated in ­Guantanamo Bay.
While Helena, at one point, criticised the lengthening ­sentences now being handed down by courts, she implied that, in principle, judges in some recent horrific cases could do little else.
But here Clive Stafford Smith showed how he is an original thinker.
He said that apart from his mother and his wife, he respected another woman – the mother of a child murdered by a sex killer in the States.
When she discovered – due to defence ­evidence unearthed by Stafford Smith – that the killer had been given heavy doses of testosterone by his mother as a child, she said at the trial that she “wept for her own child, and for the killer as well”.
Stafford Smith pointed out that such killers should not be jailed but locked up in ­mental homes where their ­condition can be studied by experts. Not a conventional idea. Helena seemed to disagree. But Stafford Smith, a born fighter, is used to being the odd man out.
I recommend his latest book, Bad Men – Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons (Phoenix £8.99).

Just a Kodak moment as the NHS crumbles

I CAUSED a bit of a ­kefuffle on Monday evening when I refused to be ­photographed before being allowed into a public ­meeting!
At the entrance to St ­Pancras hospital a security guard pointed to a computer and asked me to key in­ ­personal details as well as to allow the machine to ­photograph me.
The sheer cheek of his request threw me. I had gone along to a public discussion at an open meeting on a contentious move by Camden Primary Care Trust to sell-off a GP practice to a large US company – and I didn’t see why I had to be security checked first (see page 7). Is this what democracy and free speech in Britain is coming to?
The guard stood his ground – and so did I.
After a few minutes, however, the PCT’s chairman, John Carrier, arrived on the scene and waved me in.
I should add that more than 50 local residents turned up for the meeting and all of them appeared to follow the guard’s instructions – but then I confess I am often the odd man out.
Carrier explained the PCT offices had suffered break-ins recently and the security system had been set up to keep thieves out. But I still didn’t believe it should also be used to record personal details of those who went into a public meeting.
Critics didn’t pull punches at the meeting – and PCT executive members looked shell-shocked at times.
I have been here before, I thought, as I listened to the anger of those around me.
It was all part of a ­continuum of public distaste of what first Mrs Thatcher, and now New Labour, are doing to the National Health Service. That is, slowly and stealthily handing it over to private companies.
I recalled similar scenes at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead in the early 1990s when plans were announced to turn it into a Trust – all part of Mrs Thatcher’s first devilish step to create a “private market” within the NHS.
Then, Tony Blair went a bit further with the creation of Foundation hospitals, built with private capital, and managed by private companies. Now, here is the next downward step, I thought – the sale of GP ­surgeries to private firms.
As a member of the ­public pointed out, the NHS belongs to the people – they pay for it, and therefore it belongs to them.
Who has given New Labour the right to sell off GP surgeries?
Was it in their manifesto?

Replace Jon? Snow problem!

WHEN Jon Snow was unable to compere this year’s Camden Music Festival at the Royal Albert Hall, the newscaster left some rather large shoes to fill.
So who better than a clown to fill them?
Congratulations to Pete ­Lawless White – entertainer, stuntsman, comically inept plate-spinner and understudy to Mr Snow for the past five years– who hosted the show with aplomb last night (Wednesday).
In previous years Mr White has settled for interval crowd warming – after five years in the wings, it’s good to see his patience rewarded.

Home comes the hero, with an award in hand

TIM Jeal returned from New York this week with a nice prize in his briefcase – the prestigious 2007 Biography Award from the American National Book Critics’ Circle. It is one of the top three literary award schemes in the American calendar.
He won it for his exhilarating biography of Stanley: The Impos­sible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, ­published by Yale University Press last year, which was also named biography of the year by the Sunday Times.
“Alas, there was no large cheque attached to this award, but it’s a tremendous accolade with lots of honour and glory attached – and it’s hopefully going to have a great effect on sales of the book,” said Mr Jeal, 63, who lives in Willow Road, Hampstead.
And he was up against some stiff opposition too, including four other Brits – Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton, John Richardson’s The Life of Pic­asso: The Triumphant Years, and former Gloucester Crescent resident Claire Tomalin’s life of Thomas Hardy.
The other finalist was American Arnold ­Rampersad’s biography of the black writer Ralph Ellison.
“The last time I won a literary award was when I was 35,” said Mr Jeal. “That was The John Llewellyn Reese Prize for my 1974 novel Cushing’s Crusade.
“I won’t say that this one has come in the nick of time, but it’s very welcome nonetheless.”

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