Interview with Margaret Casely-Hayford: Coventry’s chancellor on black women at the Bar, and managing a rapper
Margaret Casely-Hayford studied law at Somerville College, Oxford, and was called to the Bar in 1983. She was the first black woman to be made a partner at a City law firm in 1998 and was legal director for the John Lewis Partnership for nine years. She now advises young entrepreneurs, board members and organisations on governance. She was made chancellor of Coventry University in July 2017
Where and when were you born?
London, England, on a cold November dawn back in the mists of time.
How has this shaped who you are?
Growing up when the Cold War was a dominant theme inevitably caused some feelings of alienation and political activism to spill over into so many areas of my life. In particular, into music, prose and poetry, all of which inspired me. I was very political from a surprisingly young age. I was inspired by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the age of nine, and I have been moved by musical and prose articulations of protest ever since. Everything from Shostakovich to Jack Kerouac and Johnny Rotten, and from Buffalo Springfield to Albert Camus, Gil Scott-Heron, Arnold Wesker and Stormzy.
Your brothers are also high achievers. What did you all learn from your parents?
All my three brothers are independent, gentlemanly, quiet, courteous, creative and resilient! Joe owns his own business as a fashion designer. Peter was managing editor of the BBC’s Panorama programme before starting a television production company, Twenty Twenty, with two other former BBC directors. Gus is an art historian and writes, lectures and broadcasts. Our parents, both intelligent and diligent, recognised that everyone has a responsibility to society and undoubtedly instilled in us their family values and their reverence for education.
Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes. Very early on I realised that boys had more freedom and opportunity than girls. As a result I’ve been a feminist pretty much all my life. But never with a “hateall-men” agenda – it was more a constant questioning of the abject lack of opportunity that exists for so many in society. I have always believed that feminism is really about equality of opportunity for all. I’m so pleased that Coventry offers scholarships and bursaries not only for women in STEM, but also for men in healthcare subjects, particularly nursing, where men make up only 10 per cent of students.
You have managed a rap artist. What do you enjoy about this role?
My rapper Kelvyn Colt recently signed to Sony so I am now more in the role of mentor, although I do still get involved with some music decisions. He was at university with my daughter and I was impressed by how bright and articulate he is. He was studying a combined law and business enterprise degree and quickly understood he could pretty much manage himself and be able to dictate his own terms to a major label when the time was right. I helped him with his early recordings, promotional videos and marketing. It is something I really get a buzz from.
What keeps you awake at night?
What do you do for fun?
Listen to music and play the cello – when I can squeeze in any practice time; grow a prairie garden; yomp on Exmoor with husband, daughter and dog; or write.
What kind of undergraduate were you?
A very sociable one! I was always out with friends or meeting new people. I’m very interested in people and learn something from everyone I meet. There is barely a person who is genuinely boring if you take the trouble to get to know them.
If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
A massive reduction in the interest
rate on loans. The government shouldn’t see itself as a lender and seek to create a business for itself, thereby making education unaffordable for the next generation.
My advice to anyone facing any sort of negativity from others is always to believe in yourself
You were the lawyer for Chelsea FC for many years. Tell us about an interesting moment at the club.
Stamford Bridge was the Premier League’s first ground with integrated leisure facilities – this has changed the nature of being a spectator. I negotiated the consents and led the public inquiry team in the midst of a good deal of hostility from residents who didn’t know what to expect. I remember the late Alan Clark MP [MP for Kensington and Chelsea in the latter part of his career] stood up to oppose the scheme – it soon became evident that he hadn’t ever been to a game.
Is racism still an issue in British society and the legal profession? Have you experienced it at any point in your career?
I’ve met people who clearly felt that a black person would never amount to anything and this made me more determined to prove them wrong, and to fight for the rights of others who perhaps wouldn’t have had the ability to counter that sort of opposition. My advice to anyone facing any sort of negativity from others is always to believe in yourself. Never let those voices change who you think you are and what you can achieve, because that belief is the most powerful thing any person can have.