May Castaway 2009 : Shami Chakrabarti

Last year Oxford Brookes University appointed a new Vice Chancellor. Oxford Brookes is a young university so it is rather fitting that they chose the thirty nine year old Shami Chakrabarti. Shami is better known nationally for her role as director of ‘Liberty’, formerly known as ‘The National Council for Civil Liberties’. In 2009, it is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The human rights group was launched in February 1934 by a group of high profile figures of the day including HG Wells, Harold Laski, Vera Brittain and led by Ronald Kidd. The actor Colin Firth sent his birthday wishes to the organisation aimed at defending ‘the whole spirit of British freedom’, to champion the rights of ordinary people and hold the powerful to account. It is a formidable and daunting task and although Shami Chakrabarti may not look like a Boadacea, she has a brave heart and a determined spirit. In this anniversary year and as the new Chancellor of Brookes what antique work of art or antiquarian book will she take to the desert island? Or could it even be the Oxford Bus Company bus with her ‘My Ashmolean’ portrait on it?

  • Shami describes herself as ‘more into books and words than objects but her experience at Liberty has taught her the power of images. She says,

‘I was recently a guest on Desert Island Discs and the book I chose to take to the island was ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ by Harper Lee. I first read it when I was about twelve years old and it had a profound effect on me. Since then I have met so many campaigners for fair trials and human rights who have also been inspired by it. Because I chose this book and Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ a columnist in a national paper described me as ’The most dull woman in Britain’. Fortunately not everyone reacted in that way. I received a touching letter from a listener who offered to share her ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ story.

While working with children in Alabama, she helped with a stage adaptation of the book. During a rehearsal, an old lady came in and asked ‘What is going on here? What are you doing?’ The teacher in charge replied ’Well ma’am we have been reading the book in class and thought it would be good to stage it too. Why are you interested?’’

Her reply was ‘My name is Harper Lee and I wrote that story.’

Stunned, we told her ’How wonderful. We so admire your writing but do you mind us asking why you didn’t go on to write other books.’

Harper Lee’s explanation was ‘Because I had said everything I really wanted to say in my entire life in that one book!’

This lovely correspondent endeared herself even more to me because she enclosed a cheque to Liberty!

Stories have so much more power than articles and speeches. I love the scene in the film where Gregory Peck, playing Atticus Finch, tells his daughter ‘You have to know what it is like to walk around in someone else’s shoes.’ The idea, of treating other people as you would like to be treated yourself, is universal; it is in most religions and underpins human ethics. I think that book led me to choose to study law.

The first image that really impressed itself on my psyche, I saw in France about twenty years ago. While I was a law student, I worked for a while as a short order cook in a café in Central London. One of the waitresses was a French student and she was not enjoying the hard work. When she suggested I leave with her and stay at her mother’s house in the South of France, I jumped at the chance. I spent a delightful summer there including July 14th, Bastille Day. Every village had its open celebrations and it was then that I saw Delacroix’s ‘La Liberté Guidant le Peuple’. A woman personifying ‘Liberty’ leads the people forward over the bodies of the fallen, holding the tricoleur. The actual painting is in the Louvre but I bought a poster back with me and it hangs on the wall in my windowless ‘dungeon’ office.

While working in the ‘black tower’ that is the Home Office, I bought another poster to remind me why I wanted to become a lawyer. When at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I saw Brown v. the Board of Education’. It concerns the case that helped bring equal rights to education in the States. Along side that and my Delacroix poster I now have lots of drawings by my son who is a keen artist. They all remind me of the instant impact images can have. That is why on the few occasions we commission advertisements we are careful with the design. Recently we had one made for Liberty to celebrate our 75th Anniversary. We used another to oppose the extension of the period of detention without trial to 42 days. I think it really helped to win the case because the simple bar chart compares the time a suspect can be held in custody without charge in all advanced counties. The 42 next to 3 or 4 stood out starkly. ‘

We talked a little about the power of image and I asked her if she had seen the porcelain medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood which helped fund the anti slavery campaign long before Wilberforce.

Shami said there is one object at Oxford Brookes University that now has significance for her. Brookes is named after John Henry Brookes, the education campaigner and there is a bust of him in the University Campus

‘As a nineteen year old undergraduate, I heard Helena Kennedy give an inspiring talk about following your heart into the law. I decided she was my kind of lawyer and she was also the first Chancellor of Brookes. When I received a call from John Snow asking if I would like to become Chancellor I checked my diary to make sure it wasn’t All Fools Day! The image of a Chancellor is of a grey suited man possibly overseeing the credit crunch. Considering a Sun columnist once described me as ’The most dangerous woman in Britain‘, it was brave of the University to consider me because, surprisingly, it wasn’t a practical joke. But I think I prefer to regard myself as Brookes’ mascot! I am really happy to be here. Brookes is not only a fine academic institution, it also has its roots in the local community. It is not an ivory tower for its courses are so varied, they can take you onto the factory floor, the hospital ward and the classroom. I really enjoy my visits here because, once among the students, I almost feel like a teenager once again. ‘

It was time for Shami to choose just one of the things she mentioned. Would it be the book, the bust or the picture?

‘If I have to take just one, I think it will have to be the Delacroix. ‘Liberty’ the organisation has loomed so large in my life that looking at her on the desert island would evoke so many memories.‘

You can find out more about Liberty or become a member by going to their

Shami’s journey to the desert island

Shami was born and educated in London. A Barrister by background, she was called to the Bar in 1994 and worked as a lawyer in the Home Office from 1996 until 2001 for Governments of both persuasions. Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) since September 2003. Shami first joined Liberty as In-House Counsel on 10 September 2001. She became heavily involved in its engagement with the “War on Terror” and with the defence and promotion of human rights values in Parliament, the Courts and wider society. Since becoming Liberty’s Director she has written, spoken and broadcast widely on the importance of the post-WW2 human rights framework as an essential component of democratic society. She is Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, a Governor of the London School of Economics and the British Film Institute, and a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple.
She is thirty nine years old and lives with her husband and five year old son in London.