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How can civil liberties be protected?
Paul Heron reviews 'On Liberty' by Shami Chakrabati (Allen Lane)
Shami Chakrabati joined Liberty on 10 September 2001, the day before the 9/11 attack changed world relations. 'On Liberty' is her account of authoritarian anti-terrorism measures introduced by Blair's Labour government, and other governments worldwide.
She also criticises proposals for ID cards, anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), cuts to legal aid, and the creeping acceptance of torture. These, she explains, were introduced without fully considering human rights norms, democracy or the rule of law.
Liberty's work, and Chakrabati's role within it after 9/11 and 7/7, showed her taking on the warmongers. On Question Time she was often a clear, reasoned voice for human rights while some people, whipped up into a war frenzy, shouted her down.
The book comes to life when Chakrabati addresses a group of working class mums who supported anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) on estates. She explains that the anti-social behaviour in question is in fact serious criminal activity, and that ASBOs are often aimed at young people who have nothing to do because services have been decimated.
Sadly, this is one of few instances where Chakrabati shows how civil liberties and human rights touch working class peoples' lives, and she fails to link the breakdown of 'social order' to the wider effects of austerity.
Dealing with the potential effects of more security and less civil liberty she quotes Lord Hoffman on the Blair government's proposals after 9/11: "The real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory".
These words were particularly principled given that the state forces were preying on people's fears to drive through counter-reforms. However, Chakrabati puts too much faith in the judges' role.
Use of 'the law' can only be part of the struggle. Belief in the inherent fairness in the legal system is delusional. Socialist lawyers must use the law to fight for the interests of the working class and democratic rights. But even where judges - such as Lord Hoffman - uphold civil liberties we cannot simply rely on legal judgements as the sole saviour.
There is a class basis of law, and judges do not act in the working class' interest. Yes, we can secure victories in the courts, but this can often rely on the strength of class struggle at any given time.
The book ascribes a passive role to the working class, and relies on the great and the good to save us through legal processes.
Chakrabati does not put the 'war on terror' and legal aid reforms in their social and political context. Neoliberalism demands both a free market and a strong authoritarian state, and attacks on human rights and civil liberties are linked to the pursuit of those aims.
The capitalist class understands that in order to smash the post-war consensus, it needs to deal with any backlash from the working class. That is the drive behind attacks on civil liberties.
A real passion comes across in 'On Liberty' and Chakrabati makes effective arguments against the 'war on terror', ASBOs and the cuts in legal aid. But at £17.99 for 146 pages it's hardly a bargain. My advice: wait for the paperback.