On 30 November 2015, Shami Chakrabarti, Director of human rights campaign group Liberty, gave our fourth annual lecture at the British Library. Here is her lecture in full:
'Oppressive law no more shall
Peace, love and concord, once
shall rule again,
And heal the anguish of a
Then, then shall things , which
now confusedly hurled,
Seem Chaos, be resolved to
And errors night be turned to
So ends the only very recently revealed lost 'Political Essay on the Existing State of Things' by the 18 year-old undergraduate Percy Bysshe Shelley over 200 years ago. The excitement around this publication, as well as its more timeless sentiments against injustice and towards popular activism for change, speak more eloquently than I could ever hope to, about the enduring power of the written word and its role in vital peaceful dissent and the defence of our hard-won fundamental liberties.
Words, first spoken, then delivered by script, print and now digital media, remain the principal means by which humans may contemplate, negotiate, mediate, adjudicate and agitate for a different world without constant need of violence. And human rights are the only truly universal language other than war. In the words of the preamble to the Universal Declaration:
'...it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law...'
So far - so rational and legal. But this is only half the story. We are creatures of faith and reason, emotion and logic and so non-coercive persuasion cannot be the preserve of law, politics and diplomacy alone. As a recovering lawyer, I have always known the power of great story-telling whether of the factual or non-factual variety of truth-telling in moving people, sometimes more profoundly, than mainstream politics or even the law.
And great writers have always been a part of Liberty's story. Founded in 1934 in response to the violent suppression of hunger marchers and in the shadow of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, our early membership was as rich with writers as with lawyers and political activists. E.M Forster, Vera Brittain, H.G Wells and A.A Milne to name but a few. And that tradition continues today with a host of great contemporary writers who have graced our campaigns with their words and values in the most challenging times for human rights.
"Words aren't purely benign."
But as with all powerful tools, words aren't purely benign. As Liberty's Director, I learned early on that there are certain adjectives that I should seek to avoid for fear of public groans on a massive scale. One is "Orwellian"; another "Kafkaesque." I look forward to a new adjective named after a woman writer and seek your nominations for this timely tribute. But Orwell's genius in 1984 notwithstanding, my idea of the truly "Orwellian" has never been about the precise numbers of CCTV cameras on our streets or even the breathtaking internet surveillance capacities being debated in Britain and across the world in a climate of fear.
It is true that politics and the law have lagged behind rapidly evolving technology and social media. A terrified state wants to know who you communicate with and how, when, where, how often and for how long. It wants to know this about every man, woman and child, both in the UK and well beyond. Laudable and understandable justifications inform these impulses; there is of course no doubt that crime and terror can be - and are - planned and perpetrated online. But the flip side is that family homes can be terrible crime scenes too. Consider the extent to which young people in particular, now live their most intimate lives online. To scoop up everyone's data on the off chance that at some indefinite point in the future some of us will fall under suspicion, or for the purpose of a "trawling expedition" to find potential suspects, is the twenty-first-century equivalent of planting cameras and microphones in ever family home.
"If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself."
That is of course Orwell but in recent years, I have taken a great deal of inspiration from young adult fiction on similar themes. As always, it is often the dystopian novel set in a future or far-away landscape that is hardest hitting in its insights into our own lives and times.
Here is Malorie Blackman's Noble Conflict:
'Much has been made of the closed-circuit cameras, the monitors, the audio alert alarms we in the High Council have decreed should be placed throughout Capital City. Like all current and future technology, phones, datalinks, the datanet and other communication routes may be used for good or ill. It is the duty of the High Council to protect the people of the Alliance, even from themselves. Surely this is the foundation of benign governance.
'This does not mean that every conversation and every message will be scrutinized and interpreted, but they will be recorded and our Guardians and Security officials will be afforded the opportunity to analyse that data as and when necessary.
'Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear...
'....Long live the Alliance.'
"For good or ill, language is powerful"
But ultimately "Orwellian" to me evokes his 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language', and the way in which the abuse of language can lead to the contortion of truth and ultimately the abuse of people themselves. The self-styled Islamic State can dehumanise the Parisian victims of its recent barbarism as long as they are "crusaders" or "pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice" rather than the easy innocent civilian targets that they plainly were. And when will our leaders truly learn from the misjudged misnamed "War on Terror" and the language trap that both dignifies the enemy and undermines our own democratic doctrine? Phrases such as "detainee", "water-boarding" and "extraordinary rendition" became more palatable euphemisms for "prisoner outside the law", "drowning", "kidnap and torture" in freedom's name.
So for good or ill, language is powerful and to share or democratise that power we all need to own it and explore it with the skill of scholars and the confidence of kings. This was my mother's gift to me and the beginning of my whole sometimes heart-stopping, sometimes heart-breaking, but ultimately empowering and unmissable journey in reading and life. True enough, it was my father who argued with me but it was my mother who read and taught me to read. Of all the precious personal, political and professional life skills, reading has been the most important. First as the child of migrants, then as a student, lawyer and activist and now as a mother myself and imperfect but aspirational human being, no other gift just keeps on giving as a means of knowledge, power, insight, empathy, entertainment and solace. Always the reading.
In my middle years as recovering lawyer, or perhaps only one in remission, I have taken particular pleasure in returning to the broad and varied reading of my youth, yes of course; for the acquisition of knowledge and opinion but just as often for insight into our turbulent inner and outer worlds and for comfort and strength.
Here for example are two of my favorite writers on grief:
First Ali Smith from the Baileys Prize-winning How to be Both:
'This conversation is happening last year, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died.'
And Julian Barnes from the beautiful and profound Levels of Life:
'We did not make the clouds come in the first place, and have no power to disperse them. All that has happened is that from somewhere - or nowhere - an unexpected breeze has sprung up, and we are in movement again.'
Indeed and in my experience, reading can bring the breeze of hope on an individual level, and on the collective, a wind of change.
So what a privilege to give this talk for The Reading Agency and to dedicate it to my mother Shyamali Chakrabarti who read by my bed from the beginning and taught me to read before I went to school. She died prematurely in 2011 but not before reading to my now thirteen year-old book-worm son. I suppose that when I wrote my own book it was inspired, but too late to be read by her. I dedicated it to her grandson who calls it "a short book with large font Mum". That is good enough for me- not least because it's most important pages (those containing the much-maligned but rarely read - especially by detractors - Human Rights Act), are capable of empowering all who acquire the slim volume. Or at least readers will know what they have to lose.
"It was reading that led me to the law"
Long ago, it was reading that led me to the law. But not, at least at first, through the reading of law and politics, but the reading of great fictional heroes of the court room. Heroes who used the law as a sword of societal as well as individual justice. There have been many, but now, for at least two generations; none greater than Harper Lee's Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird fame:
"... there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal - there is one human institution that makes the pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system - that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty."
Go Set a Watchman
So imagine my excitement at the publishing event of this year when Harper Lee's long-forgotten prequel/sequel manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was unleashed. Imagine my anguish as our childhood heroine Scout/Jean Louise grows up and Atticus grows old and falls from grace.
The Atticus of Watchman has either grown cynical or afraid at the pace of progressive change and race equality, or his human rights values were always locked in a court room like some people's religion remains in church. The older advocate breaks his daughter's heart and no doubt those of thousands of readers as well:
'Her voice was heavy with sarcasm: "We've agreed that they're backward, that they're illiterate, that they're dirty and comical and shiftless and no good, they're infants and they're stupid, some of them, but we haven't agreed on one thing and we never will. You deny that they're human.
"You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won't find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn't make them subhuman.
"You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people. Your ends may well be right - I think I believe in the same ends - but you cannot use people as your pawns, Atticus. You cannot. Hitler and that crowd in Russia've done some lovely things for their lands and they've slaughtered tens of millions of people doing 'em...."
Atticus smiled. "Hitler, eh?"
"You're no better. You're no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. You just try to tell 'em, 'Look, be good. Behave yourselves. If you're good and mind us, you can get a lot out of life, but if you don't mind us, we will give you nothing and take away what we've already given to you.'
"I know it's got to be slow, Atticus, I know that full well. But I know it's got to be. I wonder what would happen if the South had a 'Be kind to the Niggers Week'? If just for one week the South would show them some simple, impartial courtesy. I wonder what would happen. Do you think it'd give 'em airs or the beginnings of self-respect? Have you ever been snubbed Atticus? Do you know how it feels? No, don't tell me they're children and don't feel it: I was a child and felt it, so grown children must feel, too. A real good snub, Atticus, makes you feel like you're too nasty to associate with people. How they're as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they're human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week's decency.
"There's no point in saying any of this because I know you won't give an inch and you never will. You've cheated me in a way that's inexpressible, but don't let that worry you, because the joke is entirely on me. You're the only person I think I ever fully trusted and now I'm done for."
"I've killed you, Scout. I had to."
"Don't you give me any more double-talk! You're a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I'll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for."
"Well, I love you."
"Don't you dare say that to me! Love me, huh! Atticus, I'm getting out of this place fast, I don't know where I'm going but I'm going. I never want to see another Finch or hear of one as long as I live!"
"As you please."
"You double-dealing, ring-tailed old son of a bitch! You just sit there and say 'As you please' when you've knocked me down and stomped on me and spat on me, you just sit on me and spat on me, you just sit there and say 'As you please' when everything I ever loved in this world's - you just sit there and say 'As you please' - you love me! You son of a bitch!"
"That'll do, Jean Louise."
That'll do, his general call to order in the days when she believed. So he kills me and gives it a twist... how can he taunt me so? How can he treat me so? God in heaven, take me away from here...God in heaven, take me away...'
"Readers and people are not to be protected from emotions any more than ideas"
Broken hearts and disillusionment all round or from a different perspective; a coming of age in a post South African apartheid world with a black American president in the White House and where the powerful - including heroes and even parents - sometimes disappoint. So if Mockingbird was potent political parable, to me, Watchman is a subtler end of innocence story; rich in its complexity; not least for adding feminist values to the race equality ideals of its legendary predecessor. Calpurnia- the maid and omnipresent backbeat of the first book - comes more to the fore in the second:
"That is the way I was raised, by a black woman and a white man"
I cried when I first read Jean Louise's confrontation with Atticus. But readers and people are not to be protected from emotions any more than from ideas- both requiring confrontation and challenge.
Creative writing and empathy
I finished writing "On Liberty" over a year before the UK General Election of May this year. The paperback came out this autumn as the great and good of British politics, law and civil society continued to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
I am sad that so many of my earlier predictions proved correct. A new Conservative Government - though one with a slim majority of only twelve seats in the House of Commons - has indeed stated its intention to scrap our Human Rights Act. Even the possibility of Britain's withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, alongside the in-out referendum on the European Union, is now firmly on the table, and the two issues are now commonly and deliberately confused.
The deeper, broader attack on universal human rights values has found tragic and graphic demonstration in the shameful spectacle of desperate refugees being left to drown, not in some faraway ocean, but close to home in the Mediterranean Sea, where so many British families have happily splashed in the decades of the democratic package-holiday age. From Auden's 'Refugee Blues' to Zephaniah's 'Refugee Boy', our modern politics has never quite delivered the empathy to these most vulnerable of people that great creative writing has.
Here's Auden in 1939:
"Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread";
"He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me."
And Zephaniah in 2001:
"...I'm not wanted here. Look, I have to go to court to stay here. In the papers they call us names. This country may be good for some things but if this country was so good, why do they not believe me?"
"Books can be a place of self-expression for the overlooked"
But books aren't just a place where established writers can re-ignite our empathy with the overlooked, they can be a place of self-expression for those people themselves.
Meltem Avcil is a brilliant 21 year-old woman. She is also a Kurdish refugee in the UK. When she was only 13 she was detained in the now notorious Yarls Wood detention centre with her mother and watched 24 hours a day by male guards.
At the end of that ordeal and on being granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK, she became one of the most articulate voices in the campaign for refugee rights in our country. But in her contribution to the wonderful new Virago essay collection I call myself a Feminist, she chose not to retell her own story but to offer broader observations on the state of young womanhood in both the Middle East of her birth and contemporary Britain.
Meanwhile, young people who are as British as me choose not to engage in local or national politics, but instead to leave their families and communities and identify with and die for the so-called Islamic State, whose hideous propaganda parades terrified hostages dressed in the same orange jumpsuits now long-associated with the abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
"Debates, however shocking and painful, must be had"
Months before the recent Paris atrocity, senior British politicians rushed to Paris to say "Je suis Charlie" in passionate defence of the free expression of murdered journalists only to return to London with promises of crack-downs on debate on mosques and universities as part of their "domestic extremism" agenda.
The relevant consultation paper talks of refusing to engage with and denying platforms to extremist people who fail to share our "British values", thus denying the universal values that we share with all democrats and the vital importance of winning the battle of hearts and minds with open engagement and fierce debate. And if clunky bureaucracy and populist politics weren't bad enough, on some campuses the students (like some sisters before them), are "doing it for themselves". My overloaded in-box is as weary from invitations to "no platform" the disagreeable, objectionable and just plain wrong people with whom I disagree, as with (apparently not ironic) invitations to Magna Carta celebrations from those who destroyed legal aid and would scrap our Human Rights Act.
To be clear, just as libraries should be free and open and books must be saved from the fire every time, debates however shocking, difficult and painful, must be had. There is no such thing as "no platform" in the internet age, merely closed and narrow platforms where hate goes unedited and unchallenged by humanity and reason.
To quote a great American journalist Ed Murrow working under the pressures of McCarthyism in the 1950s:
"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men - not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment unpopular.."
"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty."
If only our leaders would listen. They use human rights abuses as reason for military intervention over there but threaten human rights protection here at home. We stand in solidarity with the people of France and other democracies whilst threatening to pull out of the Human Rights Conventions that bind us together. Access to justice by way of free or affordable legal advice and representation has all but been obliterated, secret courts have been instituted and judicial review curtailed.
They weep hot tears for peaceful dissenters elsewhere in the world whilst instituting draconian anti-trade union laws here in the UK. Union elections should require super-majorities to be lawful. Picket organisers must wear arm-bands and report to the police. And we the people; the whole people - not just one minority or group this time, must face a level of intrusive surveillance unprecedented in the democratic world because when you're looking for a needle, build an ever greater haystack. And when you're defending attacks on democratic values from the outside; undermine them instead from within.
"What ultimately helps is history and solidarity"
There is a danger in my work, or who knows, perhaps in my personality, occasionally to descend into the grim. What ultimately helps is history and solidarity; the knowledge that none of us are alone in our concerns in the present moment or in a longer story of humanity that can teach us so much. But a great deal of history is dominated by the rich and the powerful and frankly, by men. How rare to find, for example, a biography of a woman who wasn't a queen or courtesan, let alone an account of a great activist and woman of letters like Rachel Holmes' Eleanor Marx: A Life; one of my favorite reads of last year.
How refreshing when political history reads like family drama and whodunnit. How inspiring when we learn of unsung heroes like this trade unionist, internationalist and feminist - founder of the GMB and May Day protests and translator of Flaubert and Ibsen into English. How uplifting to remember (as I too have learned of it through Liberty's campaigns over the years), the power of solidarity and hope.
Books give knowledge, power, insight, empathy, entertainment and solace. Do as I do and give them as presents. Forget the wine, flowers and chocolates this Christmas. Books can last longer; can be passed on.
Eleanor Marx: A Life
Holmes' account of the first ever May Day demonstration is a read to lift the mind and heart of any despairing soul in difficult times:
'Eleanor made a speech that first May Day of 1890 that encompassed her determined socialist internationalism, her commitment to British trade unionism and the need for a parliamentary labour party to represent working people:
"We have not come to do the work of political parties, but have come here in the cause of labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights. I can remember when we came in handfuls of a few dozen to Hyde Park to demand an Eight Hours Bill, but the dozens have grown to hundreds, and the hundreds to thousands, until we have this magnificent demonstration... Those of us who have gone through all the worry of the Dock Strike, and especially the Gas Workers' Strike and have seen the men, women and children stand round us, have had enough of strikes, and we are determined to secure an eight-hours day by legal enactment; unless we do so, it will be taken from us at the first opportunity. We will only have ourselves to blame if we do not achieve the victory which this great day could so easily give us...
"This is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle; it is not enough to come here to demonstrate in favour of an eight hours' day. We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us."
At this concluding point Eleanor paused, then rolled out Shelley's great thunderous invocation to working-class Englishmen and women in 'The Masque of Anarchy':
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.''
Thank you for listening. Thank you for reading.
Read more about Shami's lecture in the Guardian or the Bookseller
Catch up with what people said about the lecture on social media in our #ReadingAgencyLecture Storify