I tweeted several paragraphs from this excellent article before realising the way I used to do this was better and turned to my blog. The article lifted my spirits because Lord Sumption, pillar of the legal Establishment, is articulating all the concerns I had begun to fear marked me – not as a perfectly reasonable classical liberal – but some kind of sociopathic crank. That is after all, according to the opinion polls, what most Brits seem to think of those still speaking of Liberty in present circumstances.
Lord Sumption quotes Professor Neil Ferguson, who in speaking of the Sage Committee's reaction to China's response to the COVID-19 virus, cheerily remarked;
It’s a communist, one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could … If China had not done it, the year would have been very different.
With these words, Ferguson – whose botched, bodged and ballsed-up computer projections, none of which remotely matched the prophetic accuracy of a tabloid astrologer, were used to justify tyranny throughout the Western world – reveals himself as a monster. Not least because he evidently sees nothing sinister in them himself. I had feared since I first read them elsewhere that most fellow Brits would not be concerned by them. I had begun not just to fear that our liberties were in danger but that I had been deluded in believing we ever had them.
Lord Sumption addresses that in his article. My executive summary of the British Constitution is just two words long: "Parliament rules". Unlike our American cousins, we have no legal constraints on state power. The name of our "Supreme Court" is just lasting proof that Tony Blair is a poor lawyer. The Judicial Committee of the House of Lords (its name before Blair changed it) was less snappy but less deceptive.
Much of our history consisted of Parliament trying to constrain the power of the monarch and our constitution reflects that. Parliament succeeded, and since then – as our democracy is absolute – it has not been law but convention that kept Britons free. As Lord Sumption puts it:
What makes us a free society is that, although the state has vast powers, there are conventional limits on what it can do with them. The limits are conventional because they do not depend on our laws but on our attitudes. There are islands of human life which are our own, a personal space into which the state should not intrude without some altogether exceptional justification.
The craven, cowardly surrender of the heirs of John Hampden to state tyranny shows how fragile those attitudes were.
I don't subscribe to any COVID-19 conspiracy theory. This microscopic threat (all of which, I read somewhere, could be contained in a Coca-Cola can) is real. What is also real is the celebratory glee with which evil forces have used the fear of it to make us submit to power. The jaunty tone of Professor Ferguson's quote is blindingly revelatory of his attitude, and that of the Western Establishment as a whole. Boris Johnson would have us believe he's on the classically-liberal wing of the Conservative Party; a staunch defender of Liberty. Lord Sumption's comment on that is as searing as a mild-mannered Law Lord is ever likely to make;
The Prime Minister claims to believe in liberty and to find the current measures distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, and I am afraid that I do not believe him. He is too much of a populist to go against public sentiment. He lacks the moral and political stature to lead opinion rather than follow it.
Two evils are abroad in the world today – COVID-19 and a far older one; the lust for unconstrained power. One would fit easily in a Coke can. There's a real danger that the other may never be contained again.