Sir Richard Heaton was appointed Warden of Robinson in 2021Wikimedia Commons

Surrounded by four walls each adorned with numerous paintings, I’m well aware Sir Richard Heaton is not only the Warden of Robinson and an ex-lawyer, but a huge fan of art. After he studied Art History for a Graduate Diploma at Courtauld, I wonder how he feels about the importance of studying art?

“I’m a passionate believer in not only art as a discipline to study and a window into history, but as a creative force for people who are studying all sorts of disciplines,” Richard tells me. “I am delighted this is a college and a university that is strong in both STEM and the arts & humanities, and I wouldn’t like to be anywhere near an institution which failed to offer that diversity”. Heaton also chairs the Board of Trustees at Koestler Arts – a charity helping ex-offenders and current detainees express themselves creatively. “Koestler Arts believe the practice of art brings hope into an environment which is characterised by despair”, he says. “They find it is a particularly helpful element in rehabilitation and re-entry into society.”

For his undergrad, Richard studied law at Oxford, and remembers his undergraduate days as being “pretty care-free”: “I did lots of student drama, made lots of friends who’ve remained with me”, Richard replies. “I think I enjoyed my degree; I was taught by some pretty inspiring people”. I do probe whether he can compare his Oxford experience to that of Cambridge, but Richard confesses: “It’s pretty hard to do – I was a young man then, and I’m not a young man now. I was an undergraduate then, and I’ve got managerial responsibilities now. It’s been 40 years, so the world has changed.”

Moving onto Heaton’s career, I start by focusing on the change Richard made from being an independent/self-employed barrister at Inner Temple, to joining the civil service: “For all sort of reasons the independent bar just wasn’t for me”, Richard tells me. “I remember saying there was two or three things that I really enjoyed about my law degree that I could build a career around. One of them was penology ... and the other was constitutional/public law.”

“I think it’s good that legislation is subject to robust scrutiny”

“I remember this moment of excitement when I realised I could earn a living practising those two things”, Richard says with a smile. “My first job in the civil service was an extraordinary mix of both, working on criminal justice and other matters”. He recalls one of the most exciting moments in his early career when he was “the lawyer responsible for a bill going through parliament – it was tremendously exciting”. Wondering whether he’d be able to pin down a favourite role over his career, Richard couldn’t choose: “They all have their different virtues.”

“I worked for the Attorney General helping and advising on the most difficult and thorny questions of law facing government [...] Working for the [Department for Work and Pensions] was my first exposure to a different sort of department that had tens of thousands of people working in call centres across the country [...] then the [Ministry of Justice] where I ended my career was in a sense where I’d started: dealing with criminal justice and the relationship between the various players in the state”. Hearing all about Richard’s very variable career, there is no doubt that picking just one role wouldn’t half be a challenge – so I let him off on this one.

There's one part of Richard Heaton’s legal career I had not yet heard about from him yet: his time as First Parliamentary Counsel – the head of the department of government lawyers specialising in drafting legislation. During his time there, Richard introduced something known as the “Good Law Initiative”, and I’m keen to find out more: “I haven’t thought about that for a while!”, he laughs. “It was a sort of rallying cry to those of us working on legislation [...] around some basic principles”. What were these basic principles? “The five values were law should be: necessary, clear, coherent, effective, and accessible”. He laughs at the first. “Yes, ‘necessary’ – that was quite a contentious idea, that we shouldn’t pass unnecessary legislation.”

“I was a privileged white man as race champion ... I had to listen and give a voice to people, not just talk”

I ask about Heaton’s views on current controversial legislation the government is aiming to (or in some cases already has) pass through. Understandably, a past civil servant of his stature would prefer not to comment publicly on political subjects, but he nonetheless praises the way the British public evaluates new laws: “I think it’s good that legislation is subject to robust scrutiny. I think it’s good that the conversation includes reference to exterior legal norms, the actual international law [...] If people are talking about its enforceability, its value for money – these are all really important parts of the conversation so I am absolutely pleased they feature in the debate of any new law”.

I then move the conversation to whether we are doing enough for equality in the UK, specifically in reference to racial equality and LGBT+ equality, given I was sat opposite the first Race Champion of the Civil Service and two-time Pink List member.

Admittedly, the topic is a very broad one, but Heaton slims it down: “I don’t think any of us is doing enough, none of us should be complacent”, he tells me. “I would encourage colleges and the university to be open to debate, to be respectful of their student body to understand where we are, and to listen as well as talk [...] this can helps us be an environment where people feel free to think, to speak, to express themselves [...] In terms of widening participation, broadening the Cambridge appeal is something I’m very keen on doing, and doing it with Robinson”

Richard then focuses on the two areas separately, starting with LGBT+: “I’m very conscious that my experience as a privileged, white, gay man fighting the battles when I fought them, are by and large not the same battles as those that are currently being fought”, he says, thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t dream of addressing an LGBT policy forum right now without thinking hard and listening hard as to what the current issues are”. Linking this to his time as Race Champion in the Civil Service, Richard tells me, “I was a privileged white man as race champion, and to make any progress in that sphere I had to listen and give a voice to people, not just talk.”


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“It was important I wasn’t just presuming what people need, and instead actually finding out what people who experience racism need, so I could stand up and talk about it.”

Why did you take the job of Warden at Robinson?

Robinson is a college I respond very positively to in many ways. It’s a modern college with its roots in the 20th century; it’s got a touch of difference about it, a touch of iconoclasm, a touch of doing things differently. The fellowship made it clear they wanted that tradition – if you can call it tradition, that “anti-tradition” – to continue. They wanted it to be part of the DNA of the college.

What is your favourite part about the college?

I’m a modernist, by character and by art and temperament. I mean, I love historic Cambridge and that I’m part of this extraordinary city – the University’s medieval foundations and the historic architecture are continually inspiring. But Robinson does offer a particular version of the university which is pretty unique.

The best and worst thing about being a head of college?

The best thing is when students return in Michaelmas. Colleges without students are sort of empty institutions and there’s something extraordinarily inspiring about the moment when all the freshers arrive and the rest of the students return and the long summer comes to an end. You feel the place buzzing with creativity, music starting again, posters being put up for events that are going to happen: the place comes alive.

The worst thing… I mean, financially, colleges and universities are struggling – costs are going up and revenues are not, and we want to protect our students from hardship. There are loads of things we would like to do and we cannot afford so finances is a big deal for us. Also, it’s a busy job, a full-time job with lots of evening and weekend work so the terms are pretty intense. I love being part of college life by living in the college but it’s quite a full schedule.

If you had to be the master of another college, which would you choose?

It would have to be my undergraduate college, Worcester College Oxford. That’s not me making a move though!

What would you say to your successor in this role?

There is a community and set of values here that are really worth championing – so good luck.