‘A HYSTERICAL slide into a police state. A shameful police force intruding with scant regard to common sense or tradition. An irrational overreaction driven by fear. These are not the accusations of wild-eyed campaigners. They come from the lips of one of our most eminent jurists, Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court.’
This was how JONNY DYMOND introduced his interview with the former senior Law Lord on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, yesterday. For once, the BBC got it right.
Lord Sumption’s sound analysis and warning of our heedless surrender of liberty needs as wide a dissemination as possible. Politicians, police and public would do well to listen to his wise counsel. To this end, this we have produced a full transcript which you can read here:
LORD SUMPTION: ‘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.
‘And 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.’
JD: ‘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, if it responds. That is what it has been asked to do, almost demanded of it?
LS: ‘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 that 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 are 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 in only 12 per cent of deaths is it possible to say that 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.’
JD: ‘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?’
LS: ‘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.’
JD: ‘The restrictions in movement have also changed the relationship between the police and those whose … name, at least, 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?’
LS: ‘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 travel, 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.’
JD: ‘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?’
LS: ‘What I say to them is: I’m 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 commonsense conclusions.
‘We are all perfectly capable of doing that, and there’s no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean that 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.’
The interview with Lord Sumption, March 30, 2020, can also be listened to here at the 17.00 mark (1.17pm)