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12 June 2024

Shami Chakrabarti: “Surely Gogglebox is the best of all reality TV?”

The legislator and human rights campaigner on Nina Simone, culture wars and the wisdom of The Terminator.

By New Statesman

Shami Chakrabarti was born in 1969 in London. She is a legislator in the House of Lords, a leading human rights lawyer and campaigner, and was director of Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) from 2003 to 2016. Her written work includes On Liberty and Of Women: In the 21st Century.

What’s your earliest memory?

My late mother’s voice. She sang beautifully, so there were lullabies, but she was also a voracious lover of books. There were bedtime stories every night when I was small and she taught me to read before I went to school.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, my hero was Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As an adult, it’s Brenda Hale, the former president of the Supreme Court. I suppose you could say that there is a common theme of the rule of law – and equal treatment in particular.

What book last changed your thinking?

Yellowface by Rebecca Kuang. Who knew that the culture wars could be hilarious as well as tragic?

Which political figure do you look up to?

The climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The case for defending and applying human rights.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A not-too-distant, slightly better future where visionary statesmanship of the kind seen after the Second World War returns and there is consensus about rights, freedoms and the value of people and planet.

Who would paint your portrait?

Alice Instone, a fabulous painter but also a good friend.

What’s your theme tune?

Some might say “Mission: Impossible”, but “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Nina Simone has always been a favourite of mine.

What TV show could you not live without?

Gogglebox – yet another fabulous innovation from Channel 4 that allows me to glimpse shows I might not otherwise see and enjoy the warmth and wit of families around the UK. It’s surely the best of almost all reality television?

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“Just look up and you’ll find the sky still there.” I haven’t always remembered this, but mostly I have.

What’s currently bugging you?

The current ruling faction in the Conservative Party seeking to trash human rights. Their forebears must be spinning in their graves.

What single thing would make your life better?

A more visionary government.

When were you happiest?

I have had a great many happy times. My 50th birthday was a particularly good one. But I am often happy. Solidarity is an activist’s blessing and the intimate version is love and friendship.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

If I weren’t a human rights lawyer, I would have been a screenwriter.

Are we all doomed?

No – there is no fate but what we make for ourselves… and we best do this together. (With apologies to the makers of The Terminator for the slight twist.)

Shami Chakrabarti’s “Human Rights: The Case for the Defence” is published by Allen Lane

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency