Jon Gaunt famously referred to Shami Chakrabarti as “the most dangerous woman in Britain” in his column for The Sun, a label which he apparently intended to be negative. Chakrabarti seems now to wear it as a badge of honour.
In her time as Director of the human rights group Liberty, the organisation has campaigned on behalf of whistleblowers, fought against legislation such as Gordon Brown’s proposals for 42-day pre-charge detention for terror suspects, had the courts confirm that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible, and fought modern slavery, amongst a myriad of other causes.
Despite all this, Liberty is still not that widely known. Chakrabarti explains, “We’re a multi-disciplinary team of human rights campaigners. In“particular, we’re the champions of the Human Rights Act. We are also a membership organisation, and I’d like to say that loud and clear, because we’re dependent on our members.”
Liberty works in litigation, bringing test cases to the courts which they believe will move the law in the right direction. “We’ve got scarce resources,” says Chakrabarti, “so we have to choose carefully, and it’s heartbreaking, because of course legal aid has been all but destroyed. Civil legal aid in particular is all but dead in this country.” Liberty also does parliamentary work: policy analysis and research, “mostly around government legislation and legislative policy that impacts on human rights”.
Before she joined Liberty, recalls Chakrabarti, “I did Law at the LSE. I was always drawn to the idea of Law as a means of achieving a better life, a better society; as an agency of change, not just a means of maintaining the status quo. In particular, that grey area between law and policy and politics always fascinated me.”
After bar school, Chakrabarti’s first work in law was uninspiring to say the least. “Getting up at five in the morning to go and possess somebody’s house in Folkstone one day and going to wind up some company the next didn’t do it for me. The glamour and excitement of standing up in court wasn’t enough, it was the issues that I was most interested in. And I saw an advert for a job as a lawyer in the Home Office, and I thought that would be more interesting.”
She’d heard about Liberty at university, Chakrabarti tells me, and read about cases in which they’d been involved, including numerous important cases against the government. Harriet Harman had been a lawyer at Liberty years before. There’s a famous case called ‘Harman and the Home Office’ where she’s taking on official secrets and” – a slightly derisory laugh here – “abuses of power and so on.”
Harman, of course, was heavily involved in the 2010 scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses. After she failed to make MPs’ expenses exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in 2009, it was revealed that she was amongst 40 MPs who had secretly repaid wrongly claimed expenses between 2008 and 2010.
This scandal is extremely important for Chakrabarti’s perception of the state of modern politics. When I wonder why people are so disillusioned with politics at the moment, she is quick to reply.
“We’ve had crises of trust. The government misled us over weapons of mass destruction. That’s the executive. Then you’ve got MPs, who were wagging their fingers at ordinary people saying ‘don’t be a benefit scrounger, don’t commit crime and anti-social behaviour’ on the one hand, and on the other hand rifling through the till – that was MPs’ expenses. So now we’ve lost trust in the executive and the legislature; then we have the bank managers, who we think are the most trustworthy people, and they’re in the back room with a roulette wheel, and we lost trust in them. And then even the journalists, who we rely on to hold power to account, with phone hacking and all that, and then the police…
“It’s not necessarily that these institutions are more awful than they’ve ever been, it’s partly proper scrutiny and exposure and so on. However, we do need these institutions, because democracy relies on institutions. We do need government, we do need a parliament, we do need journalism, we do need banks.
“These various institutions, particularly the political leadership, have not done enough to show us a new direction and inspire us; instead they’ve been leading us down this cul-de-sac of politics of fear and hate and xenophobia.”
The recent rise in xenophobia in Britain, argues Chakrabarti, grew out of political battles in the late 90s, when Michael Howard and Tony Blair “fought an authoritarian arms race in British politics”.
“Yes, it was law and order and terrorism, but it was immigration too. Many of their battles in the courts in the mid-90s were about immigration. They started putting home affairs issues on the front pages again. And then when 9/11 happened that escalated, and immigration and anti-terror policy became conflated. Administrative detention, to which immigrants have been subject for a long time, now became used as a device for circumventing criminal charges in the anti-terror context. With rhetoric and politics you demonise the other, and then you use immigration-type laws as anti-terror laws.”
It is often argued that the rise of UKIP and other far-right parties across Europe owes much to hard circumstances brought on by the recession.People in difficult times,it is said, are driven to the authoritarian right. “I don’t think they’re driven,” Chakrabarti insists, “but I think they can be led.
“They’re not driven,” she underlines, “but they’re misled.
“The people are scared, and they’re rightly scared, of economic uncertainty, and crime and terrorism and so on. But they’re being offered scapegoats. Talk is cheap, tough talk is cheap, legislation is cheap, and picking on vulnerable scapegoats is cheap and easy. The bottom line is, it’s a quick fix but it doesn’t work. It’s pure divide-and-rule, and I think the powerful have been doing this to the vulnerable all over the world forever.”
Chakrabarti talks about the political and economic elite whom she holds responsible for so many of the human rights issues which exist in our society with anger.
“Tony Blair was so tough on asylum seekers, and what an irony, when this man is now a great world traveller. He’s the globe-trotter of the first-class lounge.
“The biggest irony of all is: capital is globalised, the internet is globalised, climate change is globalised, and the one thing they say shouldn’t be international is human rights. What [they think] shouldn’t be global and international are the values which protect ordinary people and link them to each other all over the world. And that should give the game away.
“There is internationalism for the powerful! They’re in the first-class lounge, they’re trading their money from one country to another, from one Byzantine financial arrangement to another, and they’re all mates in the first-class lounge, but they’re saying we the people outside the first-class lounge shouldn’t be brothers and sisters and have human rights protection all over the world.”
The Human Rights Act is Liberty’s main project at the moment. Passed in 1998, the act protects all persons resident in the UK, and is based on the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The act effectively means that judges must act in a way compatible with the Convention, and that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with it.
Chakrabarti calls the Conservative government’s plans to scrap the act, “the existential threat to rights and freedoms in this country at the moment”.
The “fundamental question of our time”, she says, is, “do we want to be human beings everywhere, with shared problems and shared solutions, or do we want to retreat into the cave, and be citizens with privileges bestowed upon us by the ruling elite of our little country?
“Remember, it’s still a young instrument, which had a really traumatic infancy. It came into force on October 2nd 1998, and soon after we had 9/11 and the War on Terror. It’s a lot of pressure to be put on a young Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights need time to bed down, to be shared by the people, to be read. But our politicians don’t want to share this with us, and most people who comment on the Human Rights Act have never actually read it.
“How many politicians can tell you that they’ve actually read the Human Rights Act, and that they understand how it operates, what the rights and freedoms are in it?
“The reason Guantanamo Bay still stands is that someone advised the American President that despite their great written constitution, and their American Bill of Rights, they’re for Americans. So if we stick these people off- shore, and we only do it to foreigners, we can get away with it. When we retreat from human rights towards citizens’ privileges, that’s the way to Guantanamo Bay.”
Liberty has come a long way since Shami Chakrabarti was appointed Director, but it’s clear she has no intention of resting on her laurels. Liberty’s battle over the Human Rights Act is just beginning, and when I ask her if she thinks it will survive this threat to its existence, she enthuses, “Will it survive this week, next week, next general election…? The real answer lies with you and your colleagues”.