Retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption has been a doughty opponent of lockdown since last year.

He has given many interviews during that time.

His most recent one was to Freddie Sayers of UnHerd, an excellent site which explores the world of ideas, history and current affairs.

I found out about Lord Sumption’s interview via Guido Fawkes. On Friday, March 5, Guido posted an article about it as well as an ONS (Office for National Statistics) survey about over-80s breaking lockdown rules:

Guido’s post says (emphases in the original):

Buried in the latest ONS data dump of Covid research is a remarkable – if logical – statistic. Just 33% of over 80s have not met with anyone indoors since having their jab, with 43% admitting to meeting with people other than their carers or support bubble after receiving the first dose. After two jabs, this explicit rule-breaking rises to 48%. Despite the widespread rulebreaking, hospitalisation and death rates amongst the age group are tumbling…

Cheeky octogenarians are not alone – spritely 72-year-old Lord Sumption yesterday made a splash by telling UnHerd that “sometimes the most public-spirited thing that you can do with despotic laws like these is to ignore them” – even claiming that a quiet campaign of “civil disobedience” has already begun …

With regard to the vaccine, most in this age group support it enthusiastically, despite the fact that 41% of the survey’s participants experienced side effects after the first dose. Here are more ONS findings on that subject (emphases mine):

    • Of those who had experienced side effects and were still awaiting their second dose of a vaccine, 63% said the side effects would not affect their decision to get the second dose, and 35% were more likely to get the second dose.
    • Around 19 out of 20 over 80s (96%) would be very or somewhat likely to encourage others to get a COVID-19 vaccination.


Of over 80s who had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, 49% reported that they had met someone who they do not live with, outdoors, since receiving their vaccination; 54% had left home to go shopping, and 45% had left home to participate in outdoor leisure activities.

In contrast, one in five (20%) people who had received at least one dose of a vaccine reported that they had not left home for any reason since receiving their vaccination.

The survey findings add background to what Lord Sumption, 72, told Freddie Sayers of UnHerd.

The video is 51 minutes long and requires concentration:

Note his tie, which has a motif of American flags from the Colonial era with ‘We the People’ printed on it. He also sits with his arms crossed much of the time to hide a physical ailment.

It looks as if they met in his office. Sayers must have been thrilled to resume in-person interviews, as he has had to do them remotely over most of the past year.

Many of the comments beneath the video are from Britons disappointed that Lord Sumption implied that the vaccine will be the only way forward at this point in returning to a normal life. To be fair to him, he did describe it as ‘a regrettable step’ and that ‘people should be prepared to trust each other’, instead (31:00-31:14). Also:

I recognise that most of my fellow citizens want coercive measures.

Unfortunately, I agree with him. There is no way out right now. It is doubtful that the vaccine will be made mandatory by law, but most adults won’t be able to resume much of their prior lives without it. Many employers and businesses will require proof of vaccination. This is likely to also be true for package holidays and international travel.

Lord Sumption talked about how we arrived at this point. He said that the public were afraid of this pandemic and wanted protection from the government. The government protected the public and helped to reinforce the fear factor in their coronavirus briefings and other public statements. Hence, civil liberties went out the window. He said that once those are gone, it is very difficult to regain them, particularly as government ministers enjoy their new roles in controlling the population.

UnHerd has an article with notable quotes from the interview.

On the dangers of public fear, Lord Sumption said:

John Stuart Mill regarded public sentiment and public fear as the principal threat to a liberal democracy. The tendency would be for it to influence policies in a way that whittles away the island within which we are entitled to control our lives to next to nothing. That’s what he regarded as the big danger. It didn’t happen in his own lifetime; it has happened in many countries in the 20th century, and it’s happening in Britain now.

He pointed out that the civil liberties we have taken for granted as being well established are, in fact, highly fragile. They can vanish at any time. To this end, he explained that democratic forms of government are but recent developments in the time line of history:

Democracy is inherently fragile. We have an idea that it’s a very robust system. But democracies have existed for about 150 years. In this country, I think you could say that they existed from the second half of the of the 19th century — they are not the norm. Democracies were regarded in ancient times as inherently self-destructive ways of government. Because, said Aristotle, democracies naturally turn themselves into tyranny. Because the populace will always be a sucker for a demagogue who will turn himself into an absolute ruler

Now, it is quite remarkable that Aristotle’s gloomy predictions about the fate of democracies have been falsified by the experience of the West ever since the beginning of democracy. And I think one needs to ask why that is. In my view, the reason is this: Aristotle was basically right about the tendencies, but we have managed to avoid it by a shared political culture of restraint. And this culture of restraint, which because it depends on the collective mentality of our societies, is extremely fragile, quite easy to destroy and extremely difficult to recreate.

Allow me to add that this is why America’s Founding Fathers established a republic, not a democracy. They feared eventual despotism. The establishment of the Electoral College was also intended to be a safeguard against demagoguery.

Freddie Sayers asked Lord Sumption how we got to the point where we consented to the government taking away our civil liberties when they had been held sacrosanct for so long.

Lord Sumption said that our stability as a society and as a nation relies on the support most citizens have towards national institutions. Once a large enough percentage of people begin to question those, everything is gradually thrown into doubt. Socio-political fissures develop and something or someone comes in to replace what citizens as a whole once respected and valued.

Sayers asked him how he became so outspoken on the government’s coronavirus policies. He replied that no one else was stepping up to do so, therefore, he decided to speak up:

I would very much have preferred the kind of points that I have been consistently making for the last year to have been made by just about anybody else. Those colleagues or former colleagues who disapprove of what I’ve been doing have got a perfectly good point. But there are some issues which are so central to the dilemmas of our time, which are so important, where I think that you have to be prepared to stand up and be counted.

He reiterated his awareness that he is in a minority, however, that small minority from last year is now becoming a ‘significant’ minority.

He thinks the Coronavirus Act 2020 is an example of bad law. As such, he does not feel any moral obligation to obey it and advises each of us to do as we think best as individuals:

I feel sad that we have the kind of laws which public-spirited people may need to break. I have always taken a line on this, which is probably different from that of most of my former colleagues. I do not believe that there is a moral obligation to obey the lawYou have to have a high degree of respect, both for the object that the law is trying to achieve, and for the way that it’s been achieved. Some laws invite breach. I think this is one of them.

Politically, Lord Sumption describes himself as a ‘small-l Liberal’, which is classical liberalism — free market economy and small government — rather than what Americans define as ‘liberal’, meaning left-wing.  He served as a Justice of the Supreme Court under David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s Conservative governments.

He had this advice for Boris Johnson’s government:

My first proposal is that governments should not treat information as a tool for manipulating public behaviour. They should be calmer than the majority of their citizens; they should be completely objective. My second lesson would be that governments dealing with scientific issues should not allow themselves to be influenced by a single caucus of scientists. They should always test what they are being told in a way that, for instance, judges test expert opinion by producing a counter expert, and working out which set of views stacks up best.

In other words, the government should stop ginning up fear and listen to scientists other than those on SAGE.

In closing, while watching the video and based on nothing at all, I had a recurring thought that Lord Sumption is an opera lover.

Afterwards, I looked up his Wikipedia entry. Amazingly, I found this:

An opera lover, he serves as a director of the English National Opera and as a governor of the Royal Academy of Music.[46]

I do wish Boris and Co. would meet with Lord Sumption, listen carefully to what he has to say, then act on his advice.

In closing, curtailment of civil liberties can extend to protests. There are the correct kind of protests, such as those in June 2020. Then there are the wrong type of protests.

This one was obviously in the latter category, because the organiser received a £10,000 fine:

Currently, the only places in the UK where a group of people can gather to discuss anything outside the home are the two Houses of Parliament.

An MP pointed that out last week.

As he said, that is wrong on so many levels.