What Can the Matter Be, Shami Chakrabarti?

This post is about Shami Chakrabarti. If you are interested in current affairs, and live in the UK, and are not just pretending to be interested in current affairs to impress people at parties, and have not been in a coma for the last few years, and know what the words current affairs mean (hint: it has nothing to do with who got evicted from Big Brother) then you know who Shami Chakrabarti is already. For everybody else, you only need to know two things. First, she is the head of a British pressure group, called Liberty, that, according to its constitution,

shall advance measures and take such steps as it shall deem necessary for the defence and extension of civil liberties and human rights in the United Kingdom and the rights and freedoms recognised by international law.

Second, you do not want to know any more. So stop reading immediately!

Okay, so you either already knew who Shami Chakrabarti was, or could not stop yourself from reading on anyhow. Well, if you are going to read on, let me make one thing clear right now. I am not going to personally attack Shami Chakrabarti as a way of attacking her stance on defending habeas corpus, opposing extraordinary rendition, fighting against ID cards or any of that. I agree with her point of view on all of that. I really like civil liberties. They allow me to say what I think and do what I like (up to a point). So, just to repeat, I am not going to personally attack Shami Chakrabarti because I disagree the points of view she regularly expresses. No, I am going to personally attack Shami Chakrabarti because she really gets on my nerves. She annoys me. I want less Shami on the telly, less Chakrabarti on the radio, and fewer stories about her home and children in the press. I want to be liberated from the oppressively omnipresent Shami Chakrabarti.

How unfair of me, especially as I am now allowing Shami Chakrabarti to invade my own tiny plot of the blogosphere. Perhaps I am being unfair. I have never met Shami Chakrabarti in person, so maybe she is a lovely human being. Maybe one day I will meet her and be won over by her charm. If that day comes, I will probably regret what I am about to write. But feeling your life is overrun by people you have never met, and never chosen to have enter your life, is rather the problem with our modern cult of celebrity. Nothing has any substance greater than personality. For some reason, talk about our freedoms, liberties, and rights has escaped the common man, who did so much to establish them. It now belongs to the specialists, with Shami Chakrabarti serving as media personality specialist #1. To soften the blow, and popularize the idea of liberty amongst the dullards, we also get to hear about how Shami plays with her kid and what she thinks about some book. She is there to defend us, in a language we can understand, and whether we like it or not. She is there to protect us, because we are dolts who cannot protect our freedoms without her inspiring leadership. She is the face of freedom. Heaven forbid we ever live in a world without Shami Chakrabarti. This was how she put it when she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire:

I hope it will send a timely signal that democratic dissent is not disloyalty, it is a positive civic duty.

There you have it. Democratic dissent = what Shami Chakrabarti does. Forgive me for thinking democracy should have something to do with the people and not an elite that speak on behalf of themselves and their supporters, however noble their cause may be.

Cult of personality. That is why I dislike Shami Chakrabarti. She sits on panels for book awards. She has just been appointed chancellor of a university. She attempts to joke around on Have I Got News For You. She gives poor answers to questions about taxation when she is on Question Time. She is everywhere, and always with the same flimsy justification – that she defends our rights. From what exactly? From the British lawmakers that were elected by… the British people. I have literally no idea how she does it. It seems to involve her not being very witty on comedy shows, not being very incisive on panel shows and during interviews, and having her photo taken an awful lot whilst wearing too much eye make-up. Other than that, I have no idea what she does. Maybe it will influence us to vote better at the next general election… if only we thought voting would make a difference and if only we were less preoccupied with petrol prices going up and house prices going down. Somehow the rationale must be that we need Shami Chakrabarti to personify the issues we otherwise would not care about or try to understand. Just check out her flippant and unfunny answer to a perfectly reasonable question asked by a reader of The Independent:

Paddy Fletcher, Vauxhall: Do you ever worry that you’ve become overexposed?

Shami Chakrabarti: Whoops. Many thanks. Zips can be so unreliable.

The problem with the cult of personality is that it has nothing to do with democracy. The good thing about democracy is that we can chuck out rubbish rulers. We may well replace them with even more rubbish rulers, but we can chuck them out too. But nobody can chuck out Shami Chakrabarti. She exists in the gulf between nobodies like you and me (the people) and the lawmakers we vote for (who are hence accountable to voters and can be chucked out). Her vote counts no more than yours or mine. She is not in any kind of office. Yet somehow, by some mysterious process, she is supposedly important, at least to journalists desperate for someone to fill all those precious column inches, television pixels, and radio frequencies.

Once upon a time, Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt were important in the same way Shami Chakrabarti now is. Harman and Hewitt were also the kind of people who defended our liberties, working for the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). H&H were crusading in the NCCL long before Shami Chakrabarti became a lawyer (apparently we had some liberties back then) and before the NCCL decided to rebrand itself with the media-friendly moniker of Liberty. So, in short, H&H used to do the same kind of thing as Shami Chakrabarti does now. Since then, Hewitt and Harman started entering and winning elections. H&H ended up being the kind of people who get into power and use it to introduce ID cards and threaten habeas corpus. Hewitt has returned to the back benches, and become a little more outspoken on our liberties as a result, but Harman is still right there at the middle, serving as Lord Privy Seal, Leader of the House of Commons, Minister for Women and Equality, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and Party Chair. So you could say she is right in the middle of the current government. The current government that Shami Chakrabarti is endlessly campaiging against. Ironic, huh? Not really. We should not be surprised that self-important people use single-issue groups like Liberty as vehicles to promote themselves. By doing so, they get more power, and become more pragmatic (by which I mean they are compromise on some things to get their way on other things) and end up being exactly the kind of people they were supposed to be vehemently opposed to. And even then they refuse to see the truth of it. Power corrupts. Even the meagre, listless prominence that comes with fronting a pressure group can offer a taste of power that would seduce the weak amongst us. Now, of course, I may be horribly unfair to Shami Chakrabarti, but if the previous representatives of her pressure group are anything to go by, there is good reason to be sceptical about whether Chakrabarti really is motivated by a deep-seated concern for our liberties and not by the wonderful opportunity to put herself in the spotlight. Looking at Liberty’s website, you get the impression that a Stalinist airbrush has already been applied to eliminate the inconvenient truths about its recent history. You can find no trace of the close personal connections between the pressure group and the government which it is so critical of.

Now, irritating though I find Shami Chakrabarti, my being irritated is not enough reason to blog about her. If I blogged about everybody who irritated me, my hands would be crippled from RSI. However, like Chakrabarti, I feel recent events compel me to take a stand. Despite her appearances on comedy shows, it seems Chakrabarti has a poorer sense of humour than an Abu Ghraib prison guard. She combines this with a skin so thin that, in comparison, an extra sensitive condom would feel like a coconut husk. And/or (take your pick) she is even more desperate for public attention than… I thought she was already. Which is a lot. Bystanders are at risk of being caught in the political cross-fire between the Labour government and David Davies, former front-bencher for the Tories, as Davies tries to generate publicity through fighting a by-election. In an interview with the Blairite Progress Magazine, a journal primarily written by Labour party members for other Labour party members, Andy Burnham, Labour cabinet member, said the following:

To people who get seduced by Tory talk of how liberal they are, I find something very curious in the man who was, and still is I believe, an exponent of capital punishment having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti

And that was it – the only mention of Shami Chakrabarti in an article that hardly anyone would ever have read. If it was meant as an insult, it is a pretty tame one. It is also hard to work out whether the insult is intended more for Davies or Chakrabarti, though I assume it is aimed at Davies, as Chakrabarti has not stated an ambition for high office (yet). Heart-melting is a pretty strange choice of words, but this is hardly the most vicious verbal assault one could imagine. I have no affection for the talentless New Labour drone Burnham, but the way I read this, he was trying to conjure up the idea that Chakrabarti and Davies make strange bedfellows, without meaning to imply they are literal bedfellows. The language is crass and ham-fisted. If he had just said they were strange bedfellows he would have achieved the same allusion without anyone questioning the metaphorical nature of what was said. Given this is the knock-about world of politics, you might expect Davies would be the one who might react to slap down Burnham. Yet Chakrabarti was the one who flew into rage, and penned this missive:

Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Department for Culture Media & Sport
2-4 Cockspur Street

19th June 2008

Secretary of State

I am writing in relation to your recent article in the ironically titled “Progress” magazine. In that article you set out to smear my dealings with the former Shadow Home Secretary. I must say that I find this behaviour curious, coming as it does from a Cabinet Minister; let alone someone with a partner and family of his own.

By your comments you debase not only a great office of State but the vital debate about fundamental rights and freedoms in this country. Indeed you seem reluctant to engage in that debate except in this tawdry fashion.

I look forward to your written apology as I’m sure does Mrs Davis. If on the other hand you choose to continue down the path of innuendo and attempted character assassination, you will find that the privileged legal protection of the parliament chamber does not extend to slurs made in the wider public domain. The fruits of any legal action will of course go to Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties).


Shami Chakrabarti

21 Tabard Street
London SE1 4LA

The Prime Minister
The Attorney General

[Before I pull the letter apart, an interesting sidenote for all those people who still refuse to believe that cynical political careerists use nice middle-class pressure groups as CV-building exercises: The Chair of Progress is Stephen Twigg, the man who slayed Michael Portillo in 1997, and who suffered his own surprise election defeat in 2005 due to the backlash over Iraq. Before he entered Parliament, Twigg was employed as a lobbyist for another human rights organization – Amnesty International.]

Hmmm. Where to begin with analyzing Chakrabarti’s letter? Well, for a start, it is poorly written. I know my writing here is hardly perfect, but this is a blog, and I hope you never catch me making a mistake about where to use a semicolon; let alone using a contraction that treats the written word like it’s spoken. Next, to accuse Burnham of a smear is an exaggeration. Calling John Prescott a fat stupid Northerner with two Jags is a smear, but that never stopped anyone. Then we get the strange idea that this kind of behaviour might be considered curious. Who still thinks that a personal attack by one politician on another politician, especially one using humour, sarcasm or innuendo, might be curious? I mean, what did Shami Chakrabarti think was happening when she appeared on Have I Got News For You? The perceived wrong – that Burnham might be hinting there really is a romantic connection between Davies and Chakrabarti – is simultaneously so oblique and absurd that to read the comment that way borders on paranoia. Nobody would have noticed if she had not drawn attention to it. Perhaps Chakrabarti really should steer clear of real politics in her later life. Imagine how she would react if she faced some real mudslinging! If you think about the nonsense that early pioneers like Barbara Castle or Margaret Thatcher probably had to put up with in order to reach high office, this trifling slight would barely register. Or perhaps Chakrabarti is the perfect modern politician, able to turn any piffle into positive publicity.

In the second paragraph we find out Burnham has debased a great office of State. Come again? He is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Since when was that a great office of State? Then we get a bit of not-too-subtle innuendo from Chakrabarti herself, implying that Burnham is afraid of debate. She might as well have written that Burnham is a great big scaredy cat with a yellow streak down his back… and started making buk-buk noises and flapping her arms like chicken wings. Is she talking about the same Andy Burnham that appeared alongside her on Question Time on February 7? How much debating does the poor man need to do with Chakrabarti? It must be hard to compete with Chakrabarti, who is employed to debate full-time, and hence is spared the responsibility to do anything else in life. In the end, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport does not need to debate human rights with some self-appointed champion. We have a Parliament to sort that out. It is imperfect, but nobody said otherwise.

Final paragraph: apologize… or else! Perhaps Burnham hit a raw nerve, because Chakrabarti writes like a jilted lover. And then comes the big threat if Burnham continues “down the path” (he never reached the front door, never mind the garden gate.) Chakrabarti will use the law to… shut him up. So what should I be more angry/bemused about? Is it:

  1. This is not so much making a mountain out of a molehill, but rather making Everest out of an atom;
  2. The likeliest reason for all this hyperbolic posturing seems to be to create yet more press coverage for Chakrabarti – this story has been repeated everywhere from the Daily Mail to the BBC – and not to promote any meaningful debate about our liberties or anything else; or
  3. The flippant attitude it shows towards our freedom of speech?

I think I am going to settle on that last answer.

Note that Chakrabarti has not sued yet. She has threatened to sue, if Burnham continues to do what he has done so far. So far he has spouted 45 words that might be construed as a mild rebuke of Chakrabarti. If he even dares to write a nasty postcard about her, his allowance will be all used up and Chakrabarti will be compelled to unleash the dogs of law. Threats serve only one purpose in life. They serve to intimidate. Intimidation is not the natural tool of the libertarian. This episode shows an unpleasant flexibility and asymmetry in Chakrabarti’s attitude to our fundamental liberties. She will happily discourage people from speaking freely by using the threat of legal punishment, if they dare to copy her tactics of personalizing an abstract argument. Meanwhile, Chakrabarti revels in the freedom to criticize and chide from her unelected platform through one media outlet after another. And remember, it is not just the government she is qualified to criticize. Chakrabarti is equally quick to find fault with the writings of J.K. Rowling or the commonsense suggestions of “well-meaning liberals”. Here is a quick mental note for any would-be Salman Rushdies and Danish cartoonists out there – better not turn to Chakrabarti for help in a fight about your right for free expression. Chakrabarti obviously does not subscribe to the libertarian principles of Voltaire:

I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.

The problem with the Director of Liberty is that she has lost her sense of perspective. She fails to properly distinguish the difference between principles and personalities, which is understandable, as she is a product of the syndrome that blurs the two. Chakrabarti may espouse freedom, but she does not embody it. Public criticism of Chakrabarti is not an attack on our liberty, it is the enjoyment of our liberty. In a democracy, people in the public eye must be subject to criticism. There is a happy union between criticism and comedy, which has a rich history within Britain. Chakrabarti is in many ways the ideal spokesperson for our era. In a world obsessed with delivering equality through quotas, a young, female poster child of Asian parentage must be an ideal complement to all those horrid old white men. Never mind that she is a lawyer nevertheless, and still part of an elite and privileged class in our society. And never mind that J.S. Mill was no less right because he was a white man who wrote On Liberty when he was in his 50’s. But if Chakrabarti turns into a po-faced and litigious harridan every time somebody rebukes her, we are better off without such an advocate of our liberties. Let us have a quick look again at the constitution of Liberty, the pressure group that Chakrabarti represents and is the source of her fame:

2.1 …In particular Liberty shall strive to ensure and safeguard the right to…

(f) freedom of thought, conscience and belief;
(g) freedom of speech and publication…

So that would include the freedom to think that Shami Chakrabarti may be behaving in a contradictory or confused manner, and to say so out aloud. But then I am not a lawyer or CBE like Shami Chakrabarti, and hence lack the brilliant legal mind which would doubtless explain why she is not really vain and selfish, but only seems to be. I only have the naïve instincts for liberty shared by democratic masses, which doubtless explains why Chakrabarti must work so tirelessly – interview after interview, panel show after panel show – to protect us from ourselves.

Humour is a necessary and vital weapon in democratic society. It punctures the egos of the pompous and cuts down the would-be leaders that seek to rise too high above the rest of us. It is essential to the execution of the British sense of fair play. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. If that is so, then the pen used in humour is a rapier, that dazzles as it slices through opponents with finesse and ease. We must use humour to remorselessly prick at anyone who, like Chakrabarti, would don a lawyerly suit of armour to evade the barbs of democratic wit and ridicule. We must use sarcasm and satire to expose the faults of anyone and everyone in public life. Comedy, even the clowning of Andy Burnham, is an essential tool for bringing the would-be elite back down to the level of the common man. We must all learn to tolerate jokes and japes without regular recourse to legal threats. In that spirit, I present my own modest contribution to the British legacy for lampooning our would-be betters, a variation on this traditional theme

Oh dear, what can the matter be,
Dear Sha-mi Chak-ra-ba-r-ti?
You’re too used to the flattery
Don’t go into such a sulk.

They promised to let you on Have I Got News For You?
Interviews on Today; slots on Question Time too,
But no-one said that they’d ever poke fun at you,
Better learn to take a joke.

[repeat until liberties and spirits are restored…]

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