Tim Black thinks John Stuart Mill (were he still alive) would be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for mis-appropriating the title of his famous book:
Given the eponymous nod to John Stuart Mill, Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty promises to be a tribute to individual freedom. It promises to be a stirring defence of liberty written by someone who, as the head of the 80-year-old civil-rights campaign group Liberty, has been knee-deep, holding back the tide of aggressive, illiberal legislation. It promises to be an unbowed affirmation of freedom at a time when it has rarely been more devalued.
But the reality of Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, an awkward amalgam of the semi-personal and the mainstream political, never even comes close to realising the promise. Instead, it turns out to be a desperately dull encomium to the human-rights industry, a verveless trudge down Good Cause lane, with every battle against New Labour anti-terror legislation, each scuffle with the ASBO-happy authorities, eventually turning into a victory for the indispensable European Court of Human Rights. Hooray for Strasbourg! If John Stuart Mill wasn’t so liberal (and dead), he’d be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for calumny.
But first, the prose. Whatever vital impulse there was behind writing this book must have expired long before it reached the page. There’s no life here, no spirit. It as if Chakrabarti has barely thought about the words she’s using. Even when she’s describing the frustrations of her ‘university-educated’ mum, held back ‘by a lack of affordable childcare’, she sounds as if she’s dashing off a policy document, not portraying a loved one. Admittedly, she does prove capable of a geekish whimsy at points — ‘You might say that I am a Jedi Knight who began on the dark side of the force’, she writes of her career beginnings at the UK Home Office. But On Liberty is mainly composed of dead phrases and, worse still, argument-averse legalese. ‘This type of administrative detention by the UK secretary of state’, she writes of the internment of foreign terror suspects at Belmarsh, ‘is not incompatible with the right to personal liberty and the right against arbitrary detention under Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention, as long as it is necessary to the stated purpose, provided for in legislation and subject to scrutiny and appeals in the appropriate courts and tribunals’. Magical stuff.