Shami Chakrabarti: Heart of the matter

How the world turns. Once upon a time it would have been safe to assume that the head of a civil rights organisation such as Liberty would be on the side of a Labour government. It was certainly the case when characters such as Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt were at its helm. But that was before 9/11 when the political establishment decided that the rules had changed. Not for Shami Chakrabarti, it is now clear. If ever it was in doubt.

The director of Liberty has not only stoutly opposed anti-terror legislation, ID cards, detention without trial, extraordinary rendition and much else. Now she has, extraordinarily, threatened to sue a cabinet minister in the aftermath of the row over the vote to allow suspects to be detained without charge for 42 days.

The focus of her ire is Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, who raised his eyebrow at her alliance with the former Tory shadow home secretary, David Davis, in combating the 42-day plan. Mr Burnham had made a stupid joke about how odd it was that a "man who was, and still is, I believe, an exponent of capital punishment" should be having "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti".

It was the late-night, heart-melting bit which caused the stir. Ms Chakrabarti took it as a reference to House of Commons gossip that Mr Davis had pushed the Tories into opposing the 42 days – despite the fact that most Tory supporters were keen on the idea – because he had somehow been bewitched by the "winsome kohl-eyed heroine", to borrow one blogger's description of the human rights campaigner. Ms C swiftly wrote to the minister accusing him of "innuendo and attempted character assassination" and demanding a written apology – which has not been forthcoming and which Ms Harman, who is now Leader of the Commons, yesterday hinted was entirely unnecessary. Watch this space.

What is undoubtedly the case is that Shami Chakrabarti has never been an entirely predictable political figure. Girlish and gamine, standing at just over five feet and with close-cut hair, she has always looked nothing like the stereotype of the human rights campaigner as a strident figure, always shouting against everything and in favour of nothing, caring more for murderers than victims, sticking up for failed suicide bombers and defending the right of mad mullahs to incite hatred and destroy the British way of life. It somehow did not ring true when her critics announced she was "an anarchist in a barrister's wig" or The Sun branded her "the most dangerous woman in Britain".

That's not how she comes across on the telly where she is routinely measured, clear and restrained as the well-cut dark suits which won her fifth place in one of those Britain's best-dressed women polls. Indeed, she has upset some of those who think they are her natural constituency with some of her views. She spoke up for the police after they shot dead Jean Charles de Menezes. She said the billions which are to be wasted on ID cards would be better spent on massively increasing policing and recruiting Asians to infiltrate terror networks. She has even sympathised with the pro-hunting lobby in the Countryside Alliance. When asked to cite a source of inspiration she quotes not a political philosopher but Harry Potter. The Order of the Phoenix, she insists somewhat idiosyncratically, "is all about human rights".

But then Shami Chakrabarti has specialised in not being entirely what she seems. Because of her Bengali ethnicity she is routinely expected to be a Hindu, but her parents were educated in Catholic schools in Calcutta; she went to a Baptist Sunday school and last year did a Lent talk for Radio 4 on the trial of Jesus. She is dubbed a classic Hampstead liberal, was born in Belsize Park in 1969 long before it was fashionable, and moved to the poorer side of Harrow when the landlord said that children were not allowed in the family bedsit.

Her father was a bookkeeper and her mother a shop assistant who lived modestly with Shami and her brother. Their daughter attended a girls' comprehensive in Stanmore and then a sixth-form college in Harrow Weald. Her upbringing was thoroughly British – "fish fingers, Blue Peter, the whole thing". She had music lessons, playing a tuba which was not much smaller than she was and a violin whose violin case once saved her from being crushed by a car, which may explain why she has never learned to drive.

Her father, Mintoo, had a keen interest in politics. Her parents entertained often and politics was discussed at the dining table. As young as 12 Shami was holding forth about subjects such as capital punishment, opining that the Yorkshire Ripper "was a complete animal" who should be hanged. Her father had asked what she would feel like, if she had been wrongly convicted, as she climbed the steps to the scaffold, knowing she was not guilty. The moment, she later said, "had such a profound effect on me, it brings tears to my eyes now... Something sparked in me that day". After reading To Kill a Mockingbird and seeing the film Twelve Angry Men, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer. She went to the London School of Economics to study law.

But when she tried to practise as a barrister she found "a world of stuffy old white men". She married one of them, a litigation lawyer, Martyn Hopper, in 1995. But the next year she applied for a job in the Home Office. There she worked on policy, legislation and litigation in the counterterror, asylum and criminal justice areas and on the implementation of the Human Rights Act. She worked for governments of both colours, under the Tory Michael Howard and then Labour's Jack Straw, who has since revealed that Chakrabarti "often gave him a hard time" but had always been worth listening to as she often got him out of trouble.

She enjoyed the work but became disillusioned in the process. The best officials, she observed, gravitated towards the eye-catching pieces of legislation rather than the more important mundane stuff. There was too much legislation, too much high politics and not enough priority given to administration, she concluded. The home secretaries, she once said, should be banned from making new laws for five years and instead concentrate on achieving results in other ways. She decided to apply for a job as in-house lawyer at Liberty.

She arrived the day before 9/11. After the twin towers were bombed she was consumed with the fear that her friends at the Home Office, and her husband in his office in Canary Wharf, would be targets. Was this the time for civil liberties? But she soon decided it was, because for a government to react to terrorism by eroding civil liberties and denying justice was playing into the hands of the enemy. True security lay in remaining on the moral high ground.

It is a line she has defended ever since. Two years after 9/11 she became director of Liberty and a familiar face and voice on British television and radio. And though there were a few critics who complained that her appearances were about self-promotion, she became a popular and influential figure. In December 2005 a poll of Radio 4 listeners said she was one of the 10 most powerful figures in British public life. In 2006 she beat Tony Blair, David Cameron, George Galloway and Bob Geldof in the contest for Channel 4 News' most inspiring political figure of the year.

She seemed everywhere – condemning immigration regulations, speaking up for Guantanamo detainees, attacking the indiscriminate use of Asbos, defending trial by jury, telling Muslims that they couldn't outlaw jokes against Islam and then refuse to countenance any crackdown on incitement to terrorism. She had several notable victories, as when the House of Lords ruled that David Blunkett's intention to suspend the Human Rights Act was a "real threat to the life of the nation".

Despite her joke of always describing herself as "a recovering lawyer", she was taken into the establishment, becoming a governor of the LSE and the British Film Institute, being made a master of the bench of the Middle Temple and last year being made a CBE.

Those who meet her outside the public eye describe her variously as warm, bubbly, gossipy, flirty and with a mischievous a sense of humour. It is that style which set tongues wagging, initially in the Tory party, over the nature of her relationship with David Davis.

Those who know her well give no credence to the notion, dismissing the idea as utterly preposterous. But those whose acquaintance with her is more passing, particularly among Mr Davis's enemies within the Tory party and outside it, have been happy to indulge in the kind of innuendo which would have been unthinkable had the director of Liberty been a man.

The Conservative home affairs spokesman consulted Ms Chakrabarti, as he did Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, before announcing his decision to stand down as an MP to force a by-election. Privately she warned him not to do it but publicly she praised his "courage and conviction". Suddenly the gossip intensified about her siren seduction having influenced his decision. Little was said about Mr Clegg's manly powers of persuasion.

This was the minefield into which Andy Burnham blundered with his "by-election political knockabout". It was "curious", he said, that Shami Chakrabarti was supporting a man whose other civil liberties stances include support for the death penalty. What is really curious is the fact that the world has shifted from one in which the political fault lines on civil liberties now run through parties, not between them. But that is an altogether less sexy story.

A Life in Brief

Born 16 June 1969, in London.

Family Married Martyn Hooper, a partner in City law firm Herbert Smith, in 1995. They have a six-year-old son.

Education Achieved three A-levels at Harrow Weald Sixth Form College and went on to read law at the London School of Economics, gaining an LLB.

Career In 1994 she was called to the Bar and did a pupillage at 39 Essex Street Chambers; worked as a lawyer for the Home Office between 1996 and 2001; joined Liberty in 2001, and became director in 2003.

She says "Al-Qa'ida plays on this concept of us not having strong values. If you attack democracy and human rights in the search for security from terrorism, you send the signal that they don't mean very much."

They Say "I have found her to be a lawyer of the utmost brilliance and integrity. Since moving to Liberty she has combined a real knowledge of legal issues with a passionate commitment to the campaigning side of her job." – Rabinder Singh, QC, Matrix Chambers

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