Overrated: Shami Chakrabarti
(Illustration by Michael Daley)
Shami Chakrabarti has spent the last 15 years making her name as the country’s leading human rights campaigner. She left her legal role at the Home Office to join the civil liberties group Liberty the day before 9/11, and two years later became its director. Protector of habeas corpus to some, for others, such as the Sun’s Jon Gaunt, she was “the most dangerous woman in Britain”. But it was the commentator Rod Liddle who had it right, viewing her as the paragon of that incestuous coterie of “people who run us”, an unelected liberal elite she so thoroughly embodied that he coined the phrase “Six Degrees of Shami Chakrabarti” to describe her treasured place among them.
Years of praise by the people who run us have left their mark on Chakrabarti. Her 2014 book On Liberty captures just how highly she thinks of herself. The very title is an attempt to place the author in the liberal pantheon — but instead invites unfavourable comparisons and reminds us just how far faddish statist liberalism has strayed from its classical articulation by John Stuart Mill. The book’s cover, too, is hardly the picture of modesty, depicting Chakrabarti as Lady Justice herself, blindfold and all. Well, not all actually — Chakrabarti forgot that Justice carries a sword (as, by the way, does soldierly Freedom).
And that’s the crux of the whole ongoing civil liberties debate in which Chakrabarti has played such a conspicuous part: you never got the sense from her that she had any solution to the problem of Islamic terror — or even that she viewed it as particularly perilous. Instead, her offering has always been what you’d expect of one of the people who run us: warnings that terrorism’s real goal is to provoke us into implementing measures that invariably “don’t make us any safer”. Chakrabarti is no Lady Justice — but she did get the blind part right.
Chakrabarti’s media output has always been reliably one-dimensional, as if authored by a sixth-form student in an essay-writing competition, raising superficially valid points but never showing any sensitivity to the security concerns of her antagonists. Actually, that’s unfair to sixth-formers, as they usually have to show both sides of an argument. Indeed, she’s often to be found behaving like a petulant schoolgirl, huffing and pouting on panels and — in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at the Home Affairs Select Committee’s hearings on anti-Semitism — passing notes in class to her new patron until the teacher (chairman Keith Vaz MP) told her to cut it out. Cue more pouting.
Having left Liberty earlier this year, she and her career could have been pleasantly forgettable. But then “The Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry” happened. If you don’t know what that was about, it’s by design: the Labour leadership preferred not to highlight the series of anti-Semitic episodes that have engulfed the party over the past year, which the inquiry was supposed to investigate. And what better way to sweep it all under the rug than to have Lady Justice herself do the cleaning? In return she could have the report named after her. Oh, and a peerage.