| Jonathan Sumption |
(lawyer, judge, author, historian)
|Born||9 December 1948|
In March 2020, Lord Sumption strongly criticised government policy as contributing to Coronavirus hysteria, and said measures taken by Derbyshire Police to restrict public movement risk plunging Britain into a “police state”:
- "Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.
- "This is what a police state is like. It's a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers' wishes."
On 30 March 2020, Peter Hitchens wrote on his Mail On Sunday blog:
"Here is a recording of the astonishing interview of Lord Sumption, a former member of the UK/Supreme Court and last year's Reith Lecturer, on BBC Radio 4's World at One today, Monday 30th March 2020. It is by far the most high-powered criticism, made in public by a senior figure of considerable reputation and merit, of government policy on the coronavirus. I shall be providing a transcript as soon as I can, but in the meanwhile I ask you to disseminate it as widely as possible, as I fear that other media may not do so in these strange times."
#WATO full transcript
"The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it's not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It's usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That's what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don't pause to ask whether the action will work. They don't ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.
"Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease."
Q. (Jonny Dymond) At a time like this as you acknowledge, citizens do look to the state for protection, for assistance, we shouldn't be surprised then if the state takes on new powers, that is what it has been asked to do, almost demanded of it.
A. (Lord Sumption) Yes that is absolutely true. We should not be surprised. But we have to recognise that this is how societies become despotisms. And we also have to recognise this is a process which leads naturally to exaggeration. The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other significant medical conditions especially if they're old. There are exceptional cases in which young people have been struck down, which have had a lot of publicity, but the numbers are pretty small. The Italian evidence for instance suggests that only 12% of deaths is it possible to say coronavirus was the main cause of death. So yes this is serious and yes it's understandable that people cry out to the government. But the real question is: Is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister?
Q. The executive, the government, is all of a sudden really rather powerful and really rather unscrutinised. Parliament is in recess, it's due to come back in late April, we're not quite sure whether it will or not, the Prime Minister is closeted away, communicating via his phone, there is not a lot in the way of scrutiny is there?
A. No. Certainly there's not a lot in the way of institutional scrutiny. The Press has engaged in a fair amount of scrutiny, there has been some good and challenging journalism, but mostly the Press has, I think, echoed and indeed amplified the general panic.
Q. The restrictions in movement have also changed the relationship between the police and those whose, in name, they serve. The police are naming and shaming citizens for travelling at what they see as the wrong time or driving to the wrong place. Does that set alarm bells ringing for you, as a former senior member of the judiciary?
A. Well, I have to say, it does. I mean, the tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform. They are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government's command. Yet in some parts of the country the police have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country which are not contrary to the regulations, simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to. The police have no power to enforce ministers' preferences, but only legal regulations which don't go anything like as far as the government's guidance. I have to say that the behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people into using their undoubted right to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the Fells so that people don't want to go there, is frankly disgraceful.
This is what a police state is like. It's a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers' wishes. I have to say that most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensible and moderate fashion. Derbyshire Police have shamed our policing traditions. There is a natural tendency of course, and a strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects. I think it's really sad that the Derbyshire Police have failed to resist that.
Q. There will be people listening who admire your legal wisdom but will also say, well, he's not an epidemiologist, he doesn't know how disease spreads, he doesn't understand the risks to the health service if this thing gets out of control. What do you say to them?
A. What I say to them is I am not a scientist but it is the right and duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said and to analyse it for themselves and to draw common sense conclusions. We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there's no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it's rather important, in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them.
Praise on Twitter
Lisa O'Carroll: "Lord Sumption was heavily critical of police carrying out 'ministerial' desires rather than law. Said people had a right to exercise and Derbyshire police overstepped their powers while other forces had behaved reasonably."
Sarah Ludford: "Response from @DerbysPolice to Sumption criticism of their naming & shaming is: ‘we acted in accordance with govt *instructions*.’ There is no such thing: there is the law (in Regs under statutes) & govt advice. Worrying that still confusing the two; @PoliceChiefs please sort out.
Joanna Williams: "Thank God for Lord Sumption #WATO 'this is what a police state looks like....our response to COVID-19 shows all the classic hallmarks of hysteria....We all have critical faculties and in a time of national panic it is important we maintain them.'"
Lord Sumption's cases include appearances in the Hutton Inquiry on the UK Government's behalf, in the Three Rivers case, his representation of former Cabinet Minister Stephen Byers and the UK Department for Transport in the Railtrack private shareholders' action against the British Government in 2005, for defending the Government in an Appeal hearing brought by Binyam Mohamed, and
Berezovsky v Abramovitch
- Full article: Berezovsky v Abramovitch
- Full article: Berezovsky v Abramovitch
Jonathan Sumption successfully defended Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in a private lawsuit brought by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. During this case, Sumption met Katherine Horton, who accused him of "stalking" her.
- "Coronavirus: Lord Sumption brands Derbyshire Police 'disgraceful'"
- "Covid-19: ex-supreme court judge lambasts 'disgraceful' policing"
- "These people have no idea what they're doing: Ex-Supreme Court judge LORD JONATHAN SUMPTION gives a devastating verdict on our political leaders' handling of the crisis"
- "World at One 30/03/2020"
- "BBC Radio 4's astonishing interview of Lord Sumption"
- "Derbyshire police overstepped their powers"
- "Response from @DerbysPolice to Sumption"
- "Thank God for Lord Sumption"
- Dodd (2003).
- Law Lords Department (2000).
- Irvine (2011).
- Leigh (2010).
- Croft (2012).
- "STOP 007 "Dr Katherine Horton"