Shami at Liberty

Shami Chakrabarti

Writers have always been at Liberty. Since our very beginnings, as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in 1934, they have played a significant role in our struggle to protect civil liberties and promote human rights in Britain. H. G Wells, Vera Brittain, E.M Forster, A. A Milne, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are just a few of the authors who supported us in the early years – and it’s probably not surprising that those with sufficient empathy and imagination to write, feel a special affinity with human rights' values and ideals.

A few years ago, a new generation of 42 writers wrote for Liberty and against 42-day pre-charge detention in the culmination of our long and hard "Charge or Release" campaign. That ended with a huge defeat for the last Government in the House of Lords.

Now we celebrate 80 years of ‘the fight that is never done’ and as part of this remembrance many of our author members  answered the question ‘What does Liberty mean to you?’.  The pieces we received are imaginative and varied; sometimes uplifting and sometimes more despairing – but all powerful and moving nonetheless.

Orwell’s observation on the power of language ‘to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable’ is something which Liberty has witnessed throughout its history.  However the trend was especially prevalent during the twelve years since fiendishly skillful speech writers on both sides of the Atlantic went to war with an abstract noun. For we more readily tolerate abomination in a war, that would never pass in peacetime and a "War on Terror" is one without limits of time or decency. 

A permanent emergency or "new normal" so easily becomes a nightmare without end. And our leaders lost sight of the moral and legal framework of rights and freedoms, paid for with the blood of previous generations who knew all about war. They also seemed to forget that we hold these precious liberties on trust for generations yet to come. So ‘Extraordinary rendition’ wasn't sweet singing but a chilling euphemism for kidnap and torture, and 'water boarding' never a seaside sport but interrogation by drowning in freedom's name. 

Governments have twisted words to cover up cruelty and obscure outrage, and the abuse of people so often begins with that of language. But equally, literature can sometimes change minds and behaviour for the better more convincingly than the most forceful of political polemic or even legislation. Human beings are story-telling creatures after all.

This is a pivotal moment in Liberty's history- a time of blanket surveillance and State-sponsored xenophobia. The powerful seek to divide and rule and so understandably undermine the universal human rights and rule of law values that bind humanity together.

 This collection of prose and poetry compels, persuades and ultimately triumphs in reflecting the restless spirit of Liberty. We take considerable comfort and courage from the good guys having pens too.


Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty since the autumn of 2003. Her first book "On Liberty" will be published by Penguin in the autumn of 2014. 

While government watches you, who watches the government?