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From The Socialist newspaper, 18 March 2015

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.

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In The Socialist 18 March 2015:

Socialist Party news and analysis

Fight for 10 an hour now!

Ukip: a party of the bosses, for the bosses

PM supports wealthy bigot

Them & Us

Elections 2015

Use your vote to hit the 1%

Councillors do have a choice over cuts

'I can be a voice for youth and the Somali community'

International socialist news and analysis

Fight gender, caste and class oppression!

Socialist Party workplace news

We need a fighting, democratic union

Northern Ireland: Workers strike back

Revealed: Tesco's plotting against Doncaster drivers

Essex: nine day fire control strike

Midlands NSSN: Building the rank and file fightback

Socialist elected to Unite executive council

Bus drivers ballot against pay robbery

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Socialist Party fortnight of action 21 March - 4 April

School students inspired by struggle

Going to Hull in a handbasket

A parting of the ways with Solidarity

Socialist Party general election appeal 2015

Campaigns news in brief

Socialist Party comments and reviews

How can civil liberties be protected?

Manchester: Labour cuts hit rough sleepers


Home   |   The Socialist 18 March 2015   |   Join the Socialist Party

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