Exit Interview: Shami Chakrabarti

After 12 years in the job, Shami Chakrabarti is stepping down as director of Liberty. She talks to Politics.co.uk about Theresa May, British democracy and what home secretaries are like in private.

Shami Chakrabati was the right woman in the right place at the right time. On September 10th 2001 she joined Liberty as in-house counsel. Within 24 hours, the world had changed forever. Once the shock and global outpourings of sympathy had faded away, it was clear the West's political framework had been mangled out of recognition. From that point on, the default government position was towards greater security at the expense of liberty.

Chakrabati was thrown into the spotlight. For the next 14 years – two as counsel, 12 as director – every government attack on civil liberties seemed to involve her in the opposite corner. Some, like 90-day detention and ID cards, she won. Some she lost. But on innumerable TV shows, radio debates and panel discussions, she effectively became the face of British liberty.

This morning, she announced she was stepping down.

Truth be told, she seems pretty happy about it. Speaking just ahead of the announcement, she sounds upbeat and excited. "There's always a reason to hang on," she says cheerily, "but it felt like the right moment. The organisation is in good shape. It's a new year."

Chakrabarti doesn't really sign up to my analysis of September 11th heralding a new age of authoritarian politics. For her, the trends go further back. "The authoritarian arms race started with Tony Blair and Michael Howard, well before Blair became prime minister," she says. "Both were lawyers. Both were in the home affairs brief – Howard as home secretary and Blair as shadow home secretary. Both inherited the leadership and took the home affairs brief with them, moving it into the front pages, acting tough on crime, immigration and terrorism. That's where the arms race started. It was accelerated by 9/11, but it didn't start there."

The Labour years were the most aggressively hostile to civil liberties. When the coalition came to power in 2010, there was a brief window in which civil liberties were exalted by ministers and some of the more draconian Labour laws were repealed. But it didn't last. Savage cuts to legal aid and changes to judicial review made it harder for the individual to stand up to the state. The investigatory powers bill currently going through parliament will give the security agencies extraordinary powers to snoop on people's online activities. And the Tory government remains intent on scrapping the Human Rights Act. Sometimes it feels like you take one step forward and two steps back. Overall, does she think we're in a better place than we were that morning of September 10th 2001?

"The balance sheet is really difficult," Chakrabarti says. "I'm human. Emotionally I want to say we're better now." She sounds completely unconvinced. Then she sighs. "What I will say is we're more informed and more generally critical. The public at large, not just lawyers and politicians, are interested in rights and freedoms."

Who was her worst home secretary, I ask, more out of hope than expectation. She's too diplomatic to answer. "Mostly they've been civil, on a personal level," she says. "They're usually prepared to at least take the meeting and have the argument – in private but also on national TV. That's been an enormous privilege. There are countries where people who do my job face censorship, arrest and worse. I get to criticise ministers in public, litigate them in court and then sometimes have a drink with them afterwards. We get complacent, but we're so lucky. We live in what is still one of the greatest democracies on earth."

The current home secretary, Theresa May, is a difficult figure to get a handle on. On the one hand, she seems a typical Tory authoritarian – cheering on attacks on the Human Rights Act and trying to drive through the investigatory powers bill. But scratch the surface and there is a more nuanced political personality underneath. You can see it with her refusal to allow water cannons on London streets or her reform of stop-and-search.

"On a personal level I've never had anything but civility from her and actually that counts for a lot," Chakrabarti says. "She's complex. She's not a bully, which some senior politicians can become."

But all the same, she'd like a bit more consistency from May's policy positions, rather than the baffling mixture of progressive far-sightedness and authoritarianism which is currently on offer. "I wish it wasn't so pick-and-mix," she says. "They give with one hand and cause division and mistrust with the other. She recognises the division caused by stop-and-search in some communities, but not by the Respect agenda or the Counter Terrorism Act. In politics in general, it would be nice to have something more coherent in human rights and security policy."

There might be a smidgen of mutual respect there. After all, Chakrabarti is one of the few women leading a prominent national political organisation. She's owned the role: near-ubiquitous on screen and always appearing confident, intelligent and knowledgeable. But it can't have been easy.

"I've had a fortunate time here and a fortunate life," she says. "There's still a real struggle for women in all forms of public life. Some of the attacks in recent years, whether from the powerful or anonymous people online, have been a little gendered, but I'm not complaining. I think I've pretty much given as good as I've got. But then, I've had the opportunity and solidarity to allow me to do that. I was a human rights activist, not a womens' rights activist. But I'd say the greatest global injustice is gender inequality."

Chakrabarti did better than simply 'giving as good as she got'. Her on-screen confidence and behind-the-scenes negotiations won the day against some of New Labour's most draconian proposals and kept the flame alive when it seemed as if no-one really cared about civil liberties anymore. Whoever replaces her, those are big shoes to fill.