Shami Chakrabarti: 'Liberty is about more than just one woman'

Monday Interview: The director of Liberty is as passionate – and optimistic – as the day she took up her job. Robert Chesshyre meets her

It had been six years since I last sat face-to-face with Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, the civil rights pressure group. The venue was unchanged: her bunker-like office in Southwark, from where she has conducted one of the highest profile lobbying campaigns of the past decade. She will be 42 next week, and might politely be referred to now as a mature woman, no longer the firebrand who captured our television screens in the mid-Noughties.

Articulate, impassioned and committed, she ran rings round the staid politicians, hobbled by their platitudes and handcuffed by party lines, who shared studios with her. And she blew away the kneejerk, rent-a-gob image from which Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties) once suffered. When I started in journalism, a reporter could write the NCCL quotes before lifting the phone.

Six years ago, I had feared that Chakrabarti might pitch forward out of her chair, so impassioned was she by the issues. The fire still burns, but her delivery is more measured. She is, after all, the wife of a City lawyer, mother of a nine-year-old son, chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, a governor of the London School of Economics (her alma mater), and the recipient of a CBE.

Chakrabarti, who wears a green trouser suit, replacing the velvet jackets that were once her uniform, will move offices from her Southwark bunker to a converted music hall in Westminster. Liberty is growing; membership since Chakrabarti took charge eight years ago, has swollen from 7,000 to 11,000; its annual turnover has grown from £1m to £1.5m; its staff from 20 to 25; and its influence has flourished.

Soon Chakrabarti is listing the policy successes of her time in office. "We have defeated proposals to lock people up for 42 days without charge; halted ID cards; had important victories on issues like stop-and-search. We are not alone, but, without sounding arrogant, we have led the field because we have been prepared to say difficult things before they became popular, and have won important arguments with reason, evidence and alternative ideas.

"We have persuaded people from a broader spectrum of life and politics that our concerns should be their concerns. People are more alive to the importance of rights and freedoms than they were."

However, and it is a huge "however", the failure to educate people to the universal nature of human rights and the manipulation of the "war on terror" have allowed politicians to concoct populist rows; denigrate independent judges (here and in Strasbourg) as "unelected"; attack the Human Rights Act as a pernicious protection for the undeserving; and throw a xenophobic blanket over the right to rights – "our" rights (good) versus "their" rights (usually bad).

"When you explain the Human Rights Act, people are very supportive. But in the absence of effective education, it is easy for politicians and commentators to denigrate it. It is a quite wonderful piece of legislation that allows British judges to adjudicate on the basis of post-war human rights principles. But, the way things are going, it is possible that in the next few years the nation will be swindled out of their modern Bill of Rights."

She blames the current mood on the wash created by the "worst excesses of war on terror" – in the US in particular – which gave rise to the idea that you take care of your own people at the expense of others. "People forget how interconnected the world is: we are all foreigners somewhere."

It is the independent element in any constitution that guarantees people protection against tyranny. Chakrabarti says: "I am so surprised by the attack on judges for being unelected. Elsewhere we have seen governments come to power with majorities that they pervert into mandates to do as they please. Mugabe was once legitimately elected. There must be independent referees in society who do their best without fear of favour." Liberty is, for this reason, strongly opposed to elected police commissioners.

Liberty's successes fuel Chakrabarti's upbeat approach. Speaking of the opportunism which stains much of public life today, she says: "I have learnt that there is a deep reservoir of good sense and decency among people even in the face of manufactured and populist rows over sensitive issues. I still have optimism."

Chakrabarti qualified as a barrister, didn't like the life, so quit to work at the Home Office legal department where young lawyers have access to top people and influence over policy (she has a high regard for the Civil Service).

Chakrabarti says there are no absolute human rights. "I believe passionately in free speech and open justice, but it is nonsense to suggest that privacy doesn't matter and is always trumped by media freedom." She adds: "I am glad that politicians have discovered this zeal for open justice so we can know what footballers get up to."

Chakrabarti believes that some of the current hostility directed by politicians at judges can be explained as a backlash from the MPs' expenses furore. "Politicians understandably feel bruised by public condemnation. They are, perhaps, still suffering collective hurt that some parliamentarians have been hauled before ordinary courts of law."

Chakrabarti says confining people without allowing them or their lawyers to know what the cases against them are – remain in the now proposed "control orders lite". Both Coalition parties opposed control orders before the election, but now the basic principle of people being subjected to punishment without charge or trial is to remain.

Like Asbos, any short-circuiting of due process is lazy, Chakrabarti asserts. People want the police to get the evidence (and Liberty supports allowing phone intercepts as evidence) and the offender to be tried and, if guilty, banged up.

Chakrabarti gets flak. Anyone as ubiquitous as she stands accused of a hunger for publicity, and people whose role is to put others to right, as they see it, are liable to be dubbed sanctimonious. The Sun once branded her "the most dangerous woman in Britain", a label Chakrabarti wears with pride. "If you never read what people wrote about you, what kind of campaigner would you be? At the same time, if you spent your time Googling yourself, you'd go mad."

She insists that Liberty is not a one-woman band but confesses to a tendency to hyperbole; she was corrected – quite rightly, she says – when she suggested divisions in British society amounted to "apartheid".

Where next? Two former senior Liberty/NCCL women staffers – Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt – entered politics, but Chakrabarti is not temperamentally suited, she claims, to toe a party line or to take pot shots at opponents just because that is the game. She is happy to be an "establishment" (my word, not hers) figure but retains, however, the bright-eyed characteristics that propelled her to national attention. "I am older... but there is still something of the professional teenager in my role."

The new "Liberty Hall" in Westminster will be a far cry from the shabby rooms near King's Cross, where I first met Chakrabarti's long departed predecessors, and even a fair distance from this corner of Southwark. Housed within strolling distance of Parliament, the campaign for civil liberties will finally have arrived at the heart of government.

Chakrabarti's challenges will be to translate that proximity into a public acceptance of human rights for all humanity and not just for themselves and their own kind. It will be a test even of her optimism.

A life in brief

* Age 41

* Education Girls comprehensive Bentley Wood High School, and Harrow

Weald Sixth Form College. Bachelor of Laws at London School of Economics

* Career Called to the Bar in 1994 and worked for the Home Office until 2001 before joining Liberty as an in-house counsel. Director of Liberty since 2003

* Other roles Master of the bench of Middle Temple, chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, member of LSE's ruling council, governor of the British Film Institute, former judge of the Orange Prize for new fiction

* Awards CBE in 2007, Honorary doctorate from the School of Law at University of Southampton

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