Keep it civil: Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty

This is “my story and the story of Liberty”, Chakrabarti writes, but she offers no more than the odd glimpse into her life.

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On Liberty 
Shami Chakrabarti
Allen Lane, 208pp, £17.99

Shami Chakrabarti was 32 when she left her job as a barrister for the Home Office – or the “Dark Tower” as she “affectionately” calls it – to become the in-house counsel for the campaign group Liberty. Her second day at work coincided with 9/11, an event that she believes hasten­ed the erosion of civil liberties in Britain as policymakers, fighting a new “war on terror”, introduced laws that undermined our most basic rights. Take, for example, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, under which foreign terror suspects could be imprisoned for years without trial – and they were. From late 2001 until March 2005, HMP Belmarsh became, in effect, a British Guantanamo.

Or consider the evidence emerging of the ­complicity of UK security agents in the torture of suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. Under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, police have the right to stop and search people within designated areas without requiring “reasonable suspicion”. Soon after the law was passed, the whole of London became one such designation.

Chakrabarti, who became the head of Liberty in 2003, has continuously campaigned against such laws, with occasional victories, including when the government abandoned its plans to allow suspects to be detained for 42 days without charge. This is “my story and the story of Liberty”, she writes, but she offers no more than the odd glimpse into her life: how her parents were attacked by skinheads when she was still in a pushchair; the time she was the victim of a smear campaign that spread the rumour that she was having an affair with the MP and anti-42-day detention campaigner David Davis. Even when she recounts these anecdotes, she feels somehow absent. Her many media appearances attest to her eloquence as a speaker but her prose is unexpectedly flat and, at times, distractingly clumsy.

This is a shame, because her argument is an important one. The book’s grand title might suggest that she is aiming to update J S Mill’s On Liberty for the Asbo age, yet Mill goes unmentioned and Chakrabarti’s historical reference point is instead the post-Second World War European Convention and the Human Rights Act. This book is above all a treatise against David Cameron’s pledge that a future Conservative government would create a British bill of rights to replace its international commitments – a dangerous attempt to “redefine our fundamental rights as citizens’ privileges”, in Chakrabarti’s view.

Speaking in October 2013, Cameron promised that this British bill would be “rooted in our values” and he singled out a European ruling that prisoners should have the vote: “I’m sorry, I just don’t agree. Our parliament – the British parliament – decided they shouldn’t have that right,” he said. The problem is that human rights are too precious to entrust to party politics and external institutions – such as the European Court of Human Rights – act as an important safeguard to keep democracies liberal.

“If you don’t speak up for the terrorism suspect, there may be no one to speak for you,” Chakrabarti writes. Few criticised Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 until David Miranda, the partner of the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, was held under it. Legislation designed with a specific target in mind is often deployed more widely and Chakrabarti is able to employ an arsenal of ridiculous and depressing examples: the graffiti artist arrested on terrorism charges, or the suicidal woman who was given an Asbo to keep her away from bridges. Once you hand the government power, it is hard to claw it back.

There are, however, some big omissions in Chakrabarti’s account. Despite her mention of Miranda, she barely touches on the bigger story of GCHQ’s mass surveillance of citizens’ online data. Nor does she discuss in detail the government’s plans for a so-called “snooper’s charter” that would increase state powers to monitor mobile and internet communications.

In her opposition to other anti-terrorism measures, she often highlights their ineffectiveness – the government’s detention of foreign nationals would not have prevented the 7/7 bombings, she points out – but would she argue the same for spooks’ online snooping and phone-tapping? In November 2013, the MI5 spy chief, Andrew Parker, claimed to have thwarted 34 terror plots since 2005. Would a country with greater individual privacy be a more dangerous one? I don’t know the answer but an honest, unflinching defence of liberty should try to give one – and convince sceptics that freedom is worth the price.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution