THERE aren’t many charity bosses who get recognised in public. But when Shami Chakrabarti rounds the corner of the Holyroodhouse cafe courtyard, opposite the Scottish Parliament, passers-by whisper sidelong to one another, clocking that it’s the Liberty director in the flesh.

The small figure in a black sheepskin coat is instantly recognisable from all those TV appearances harrying home secretaries, the trademark urchin cut and the youthful face making her look perennially the upstart at 46. She describes herself as the “human logo” for Liberty and aptly so.

As we walk together across the flagstones to her pot of green tea, pre-ordered (we don’t have much time), I ask what she’s been doing up in Scotland. “Oh you know, couple of meetings,” she says non-committally, then turns to me with a conspiratorial smile: “Making trouble.”

I can well believe it; it’s what she does. Chakrabarti has been the director of Liberty, the National Council for Civil Liberties, for 12 years, having previously been a government lawyer. She has turned this pressure group with 30 staff into one of the most potent campaigning forces in British politics. She and Liberty have taken on the government and won time and again – over 90-day and then 45-day detention without trial; internment in Belmarsh prison; stop and search without suspicion (that one went to the European Court of Human Rights) ... the list goes on. The organisation is currently using the Human Rights Act to get justice for victims of abuse serving in the military. Liberty has reminded voters eating their dinner in front of Channel 4 News that their rights and freedoms have to be continually safeguarded.

The announcement in January that Chakrabarti was stepping down as Liberty director prompted front-page newspaper stories full of glowing accolades that must have felt to her a bit like reading her own obituary.

“I was surprised at the response,” she admits, “but I take it as a sign of interest, concern and solidarity with human rights values in the UK.”

Chakrabarti has said she will remain in her Liberty post until the organisation has chosen her successor. But the big question is, what will Shami do next? She looks uncomfortable at this. “I’m not saying what I’m doing next. I have some ideas.”

So there is nothing fixed? She pauses. “Well, d’you know, I think it’s better not to answer that question, a) because I’ve agreed with my colleagues that this is a Liberty moment and not a Shami moment, and b) because I don’t want to say things and then change my mind. I don’t want to say things that turn out not to be quite right. I do have some ideas and plans but no, I’m not ready to talk about them.”

Are there other issues she would like to focus on besides the human rights agenda?

“Yes, there are lots of issues I am interested in but I am not going to tell you any more. I don’t think it will be too long before I can announce.” Well, I tried.

Chakrabarti is sometimes parodied for appearing intensely serious on camera. In person, she is certainly unfrivolous and smiles sparingly, but her sincerity is disarming; charming, in fact. She does not dissemble or obfuscate, or, like so many practised public figures, sidestep tricky questions and fill the gap with superficial bonhomie. She listens intently to every question and answers it as directly as she can.

I wonder aloud if with so many professional demands upon her, she is good at relaxing. “Yeah, I can relax,” she responds, saying this with such seriousness that I have to suppress a smile. “I like when I have time to go to the cinema and the theatre. I have lots of friends; friends I have had for a very long time and therefore aren’t in the law or in politics or the media, but of course I have friends who I have made in this job too.”

Friends from school, then. “Yeah, if that’s a sort of test question,” [it wasn’t], “definitely, and that’s great – people who have been on your life journey with you.”

I mention that I read somewhere that if she hadn’t been a lawyer, she might have been a screenwriter, and she parries this as if I have challenged her on a point of human rights law.

“Look, I am a human rights person; those are my values and they never change. But there are some people, if they had nine lives they would do the same in each of those – I’m not that person. If there was a sci fi movie and Shami had nine lives, she would probably do something different in each of them.”

I was really just wondering what movies she likes.

“Oh, there are many films I love,” she says with enthusiasm. “Babette’s Feast is stunning; Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? I always found that a beautiful piece of cinema and two great screen legends no longer with us in Taylor and Burton, very American subject matter but cinematically quite French; Deer Hunter perhaps; maybe Bladerunner. Broad tastes, definitely, and popular cinema and culture, not just high-brow stuff.”

She must be used to people assuming that she only likes arthouse cinema – it would fit with the prejudice she encounters about being a liberal, Londoncentric human rights campaigner.

I mention that she has also said she has become more fun over the years. She looks startled and laughs. “Did I say that? That’s a very arrogant thing to say.”

Why on earth is it arrogant?

“Other people should be the judge of whether you’re a fun person to know or not, you should not self-define as that.”

Reflecting on the point, she agrees that she is more at ease with herself and the world. “It doesn’t mean I’m still not outraged by injustice and want to do something about it, but I think I’m more at peace with myself and that’s just life experience. Bad things happen, people disappoint and other people positively surprise. My experience is that most people are better than not. Maybe that’s my temperament or the specs that I’m wearing but that is my honest belief and that has been my experience.”

That is not to say that Chakrabarti has avoided prejudice. Brought up in northwest London, she experienced racism in the playground and remembers football fans singing racist chants at her parents on the Tube; as a baby in her pram, she was present when her father, a bookkeeper, was badly beaten up on Hampstead Heath by skinheads.

In fact, she says, she has experienced racism and sexism periodically throughout her life and still gets “plenty of it” on social media. She became concerned at one point that her 13-year-old son would get upset reading abuse directed at her online. It clearly bothers her, though she says she does not believe it is healthy to hold on to anger and reasons that “these people don’t know me, they are doing this under the safety of anonymity and of course a lot of women experience that”.

Having fellow feeling with others is her coping strategy. “Solidarity – that’s the answer. To reach out and support other people who experience it. What is life all about? Look at me pontificating. For me it’s intimacy with your friends and family and loved ones and it’s solidarity with the world full of strangers. So if you like, it’s your own kids and other people’s kids; it’s your own family and other people’s families. And that’s how I see life really.”

It is an expansive, forgiving, optimistic philosophy that puts her at odds with the prevailing mood of right-wing individualism that is hostile to foreigners and the human rights agenda.

Chakrabarti was a precocious child by her own reckoning and started to develop her convictions about human rights in discussion with her father. “I think I was the sort of kid who always really, really sucked up the thoughts of older people in general,” she says. Her mother has passed away but she still has her father and younger brother; these days, though, she finds she is just as likely to take wisdom from people who are younger than her, including her 13-year-old son, born during her 19-year marriage to a fellow lawyer (they divorced in 2014). She never names her son to preserve his privacy but refers to him as The Bean (due to the bean-like shape he made as a newborn curled up in the foetal position).

One of her successes at Liberty has been to make people more aware of the fact that rights once acquired are not permanent; that progress towards equality for groups in society like women and the LGBTI community can regress. This can be a difficult point to grasp in the United Kingdom where progress towards a recognition of what we now call human rights has evolved over hundreds of years. The country has experienced no shock reversals as happened in, for example, Germany; here, for the majority who are not oppressed, our human rights feel unassailable. Chakrabarti’s mission has been to educate us that this is not the case.

We discuss they way politicians like to list tolerance and moderation as British values as if they were innate, and how this fosters the assumption that we could never have an extremist regime in Downing Street.

“It’s complacency, it is complacency,” she agrees. “On the one hand, I don’t want to pretend this is a police state because it is not. I have friends who do my work in different places around the globe, who face arrest, detention, censorship and sometimes worse. I have debated six home secretaries on national TV and sometimes had dinner and a drink afterwards, and normally they’ve been pretty civil – not always, but normally. What an enormous privilege. But at the same time, we’ve enjoyed those rights and freedoms for so long that we get complacent and that’s incredibly dangerous.”

The potential is there, she believes, for the British state to be tyrannical. “We need to be building more checks and balances, not undermining those that we have.”

The Conservatives’ avowed intention to scrap the Human Rights Act is her greatest concern of the moment, one that prompted her to publish a book, On Liberty, 18 months ago. She is heartened that Scotland's First Minister has vowed to defend the Act, not only for Scots but for all UK citizens.

“Human rights is the counter-extremism narrative,” she says, looking me steadily in the eye with that forceful conviction that has won over so many sceptics. “Human rights is the only universal language on this planet but ... for ... war,” she says, jabbing her finger on the table to emphasise every word, “and that’s why the framework was established after the Second World War, so that people wouldn’t have to keep descending into barbarism and war. So the same prime ministers and senior politicians who want to take on Isis, keep banging on about scrapping the Human Rights Act and pulling out of the Convention on Human Rights.” She looks exasperated at the failure of ministers to recognise the contradiction at the heart of their approach.

But then again, politicians have to represent a broader span of views on a wide range of issues – they don’t have the luxury of representing one issue, I note. Can she imagine herself as a politician?

“You’re having another go, aren’t you,” she states warily.

Well, I am interested in whether she is going into politics.

“Umm ... I’m a democrat,” she says, speaking slowly and picking her words carefully, “and I’m a feminist, and so how could you rule it out? So I think it’s a really good thing to do and I want to encourage young women in particular from across the spectrum to do it. Whether it’s ... whether it would be ... I don’t know, we’ll see. I think that’s my best answer.”

Well that’s interesting. Could it be that Chakrarbarti is considering standing for election and if so, for whom? She does say that she feels gender injustice is probably the greatest injustice on the planet. Could that put her in the frame for the Women’s Equality Party, set up by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer last year and due to field candidates in the 2020 election? Or one of the established parties?

Whatever course she takes it seems unlikely that this passionate, articulate campaigner has finished with the Question Time audience quite yet.