Transcript of 2021 interview with Lord Sumption who explains the problem with surrendering our ancient freedoms to the state.
Q: If we hold politicians responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our liberty, so that nothing can go wrong. They will do this, not for our protection against risk, but for their own protection against criticism. Do you feel that with the vote this week, MPs will be voting for our protection and society or is there an element of voting for their own protection ?
A: We don’t know what a free vote would produce. I suspect that it will produce an extension of the regulations. People are frightened. They’re frightened partly because the government has frightened them; but that’s the present situation. And they want action; without caring all that much whether the action works, or whether it produces collateral consequences, that maybe much worse than the disease. We also have, an opposition which has declined to work as an opposition. Basically, what the Labour Party has done, is to take government policies and double them.
Q: I think it’s an interesting point about the opposition actually because one thing that I think the critics of lock down have long made is that there’s been very little ‘official’ opposition, so to speak, against the measures , as you say, the opposition has more or less voted through The opposition has more or less voted through what the government has said which seems slightly extraordinary given the magnitude of the measures. Other opposition has tended to come perhaps to a small degree from the media and to a large degree from people like yourselves who’ve been willing to speak out and I suspect perhaps at some personal cost. How do you feel about this the fact that it has been so hard to get voices heard against these measures?
A: Well, in a sense, that’s the reason why I have been speaking out. I would have much preferred somebody other than a prominent ex-judge to be making these points. There are lots of people who agree with them, who will not put their head above the parapet. I know that because, from the very moment when I started making these points, I began to get emails from politicians who, members from the house of commons and the house of lords, who agreed with what I had to say but who said that they themselves didn’t dare to speak out.
Q: Some backbench MPs have of course spoken out but I think at the last vote 16 or 17. It has been larger at earlier times. But what do you think it is that’s stopping, not just MPs, but perhaps even the wider scientific community, I think many have got views expressed to Lucy I know that they feel unable to put their names to in the press. I think there is a culture where people aren’t able to say what they truly think.
A: Well, in the case of the scientists theres no doubt that some of them have been subject to an extraordinarily unpleasant campaign of personal abuse, which in at least one case that I know of, has extended to their families. That I think is absolutely disgraceful.
The fact is that the police were extraordinarily brutal in breaking up the Sarah Everard demonstration, Clapham Common last week. But no more brutal than they had been on the 26th of September when they broke up with considerable violence, a demonstration which had been perfectly peaceful in Trafalgar Square against the lockdown. Some 20 people were hospitalised on that occasion and quite a signification number of were arrested. Now, there was no violence on that occasion either. The police claimed that people were not ‘distancing’ enough. I have to say that if the only way that you can enforce social distancing is by beating people over the head with truncheons, it’s not worth it.
And whenever the government says ‘we will be guided by the science’ they are essentially betraying their essential function. They are looking at only one side of a complex problem instead of the whole of it and in the course of doing so they are visiting immense destruction on our society. That is something which is, to my mind, a betrayal of the function for which any government exists which is to look, not just at the science, but at the whole picture.
Q: What would you suggest that could be done What must be done to have more equilibrium. Is there a simple solution?
A: There are a number of factors. One is, that the Government should stop using the provision of information as a way of manipulating opinion and behaviour. They have consistently tried to pretend that this is virus which is indiscriminate when it is perfectly well established, and has been from the outset, that It primarily effects people with identifiable vulnerabilities often attributed but not invariably attributed to advanced age. That’s one essential point.
It is very dangerous for governments to take scientific advice, or advice on any subject for that matter, from a closed group of people whose involvement in the decisions commits them to a particular point of view. There is a problem about this which is well understood by political psychologists: if you are involved in making a drastic decision, it’s pretty well impossible for you to change your mind because, as the problems mount up, it’s very difficult for people to admit that all the hardship that they inflicted in the past was a waste, because it was a mistake.
What this means is that if you take advice from a closed group of scientists, you are simply going to get them repeating the same thing — you never have a fresh look at the evidence. And I think that governments should take advice on the basis that they listen to alternative views and weigh them up. This is not a subject on which scientists are all agreed. The scientists at sage may all be agreed but the scientific world contains very many entirely reputable experts who think that the current way of approaching COVID-19 is a scientific and a health disaster.
Remember that before the lockdown was ordered, every country in the world which had published a pandemic plan had rejected the idea of lockdowns, had rejected the idea of coercion, and had rejected the idea of indiscriminate measures instead of having targeted measured directed at the most vulnerable. Now that was the view of the scientific community. What caused them to change this ? The answer it was Politics.
It was politics because what happened was that public pressure grew up in March last year. That if Italy, if France and Spain were locking people down then why weren’t our government doing the same. So that pretty well simultaneously in a period of about 4 to 5 weeks, every European country jettisons the very careful plans that most of them had prepared over the previous decade for exactly this event and there wasn’t the time, there wasn’t the research available to decide what the consequences of doing that were; they did it for political reasons.
There is no trace of the sage minutes of sage having recommended a lockdown before the 23rd of March when the Prime Minister announced it.
Q: I wonder where do you think that public pressure comes from. Where’s it come from and how can it go away?
A: I don’t think that the government is entirely responsible for generating the fear. I think the craving for security, if necessary at the expense of liberty, is a tendency which human societies have had for a very long time. And certainly democracies have shown an increasing tendency, to go for security at all costs, for many years, so this isn’t entirely new. But it’s not irresistible and politicians with stature and courage can stand up to it. They can reason with people. The situation in this country is very different. We have had politicians who lack the moral and political stature to stand up for the public interest in the face of, often unreasoning, public pressure.
On the contrary, they have done their best to fan the fears. And there’s no doubt that there’s been a deliberate policy. The behavioural scientists on SAGE wrote a very interesting paper. In March, very shortly before the lockdown was announced, And what they said was that, the essential thing is that “we mustn’t allow people to get the idea that they are less vulnerable than others”. For example, some people might think, that the young and healthy are not at very great risk. Now that statement is true, they’re not at very great risk. But, said this particular sage paper, we must dispel that idea — we must make them feel afraid because otherwise we’re not going to get the compliance.
We have phrases like “This terrible virus” — it’s a terrible virus for people with underlying and identifiable vulnerabilities. It’s not a terrible virus for the great majority. We have had statements designed to suggest that the virus is totally indiscriminate in its effect — this is completely untrue. There’s no doubt that people have been influenced by it and it’s not the only factor but its undoubtedly one significant factor in the degree of public support that it has had.
The other factor of course, is the unwillingness of people to look beyond the immediate issue. The immediate issue is obviously health and deaths. But the bigger issue, further down the road, is what happens to society when we stop educating our children, What happens to our society when we endure a 10% reduction in our GDP, the worse in 300 years. The answer is, that what happens, is that young people, themselves almost entirely unaffected by the health risks. Young people, are being thrown onto a job market where there are no openings. We are seeing a world in which people with great talent, with degrees in engineering, or trained musicians, are stacking shelves in supermarkets and driving delivery vans and they’re doing that because there are no job opportunities.
This is the world that we have created. I mean, democracies are clearly constitutionally and legally entitled to engage in mass-coercion against their fellow citizens and this is what has happened. But, I think the difficulty is, that democracies which behave like that, rapidly cease to be political communities in any meaningful sense. And that is the stage at which they cease to be democracies. Democracy can only exist within a political community. And you destroy political communities by engaging in mass-coercion. There are very few historic exceptions to that.
Q: What should we do ? What should we do as a society? And what would you like government to do?
A: I think it’s politically unrealistic to expect the government to backtrack now, they’ve invested too much of themselves in it. So, although the ideal would be to revert to a voluntary system, which was what the authorities all recommended before last March. I don’t think that that is going to happen. And I have to say that I’m extremely pessimistic about this. An interesting parallel is the continuation of wartime food rationing after the last war. People were in favour of that because they were in favour of social control. They’ve had a lot of it during the war they thought this was an answer. In the 1950 and 51 general elections the Labour Party lost its majority entirely because people with 5 years more experience of social control, got fed up with it. Sooner or later that will happen in this country.
Q: You think it could be that kind of time scale?
A: I think it may be even longer.