LISTEN: Lord Sumption on the national ‘hysteria’ over coronavirus
The former Supreme Court judge warned that Britain was turning into a police state
In a BBC World at One interview, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption warned that coronavirus rules marked the UK’s “hysterical slide into a police state”, paving the way for a society to turn despotic. Have a listen above, full transcript below:
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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: 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: 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.
There is some hysteria whipped up by the media. But mainly on account of the unknown virulence of this disease, there is some justified caution. If the NHS copes with the predicted “onslaught” of patients in the next few weeks, many people might think the temporary loss of some liberties was worth enduring for the common good.
If, on the other hand, the NHS is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the epidemic, many people will say the lockdown measures weren’t stringent enough. Getting the balance right is a matter of medical judgment.
When the crisis is over, bitter recriminations about the economic damage will go on for a long time.
Thank you Lord Sumption I have been getting more and more discouraged by thinking I am on my own with my views on the “crisis”.Whilst I do not agree that the restrictions to freedom are due to demands from the people I do think the people are being grossly mislead by politicians,media,experts and so on.I do not believe the numbers of deaths from the virus are true.People are dying all the time and it’s nonsense to lump all the deaths together.I do not think it rational to sacrifice the economy,education,people’s financial security in the name of saving the NHS.The NHS should be in a position to save the people if it is not that is the fault of government and to blame the people treating them like serfs is outrageous.
Is it not fair to say that the hysteria is as a result of the lack of science as opposed to people not concerning themselves with the science? Scientists have cautioned they know little about the virus and so measures taken have been to flatten the curve to avoid pressure on NHS services. The public are not resigning their liberty’s because of the science. The public are resigning their liberty’s due to lack of science and to help the NHS. The pressure on politicians has not been as a result of public demand. The pressure on politicians came from the World Health Organisation to test, test, test, who pleaded for every nation to “pull all the stops” to fight coronavirus.
I agree with Bernard’s comment. At the time of listening to this interview, I think that the restrictions placed on us all for the sake of the NHS, will destroy us in more ways than catching the Corona Virus, and are already destroying people, and animals. I am trying to accept what we have been asked to do, but the latent anger and sadness grows each day as I hear of more suffering across the country and the world.
A major side effect of the Corona virus is control over populations.
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