Jonathan Sumption has always been more than a lawyer. For many years it was the brilliant QC and then the Supreme Court Justice who somehow found time to write a definitive, multi-volume history of the Hundred Years’ War – a true Renaissance man. Over the past 12 months, he has emerged as a very different kind of public figure: the prison skeptic who takes no prisoners. She recently gained notoriety in the tabloids by telling Deborah James, who has stage 4 bowel cancer, that her life was “less valuable” than other people with a longer life expectancy. Sumption claims that his words were taken out of context, although as a historian you must know that we cannot always choose the context in which our words are read. It’s certainly a case study in how quickly one type of reputation can morph into another.
This collection of essays, based on the speeches Sumption has delivered for over a decade, attempts to unite the different sides of his intellectual personality. Although the law is its unifying theme, it begins with reflections on history and ends with a searing attack on the government’s draconian response to Covid-19. As a historian, he is more polite and attractive. A believer in the power of history to broaden our minds and restrict our arrogance – he says the world would be in better shape today if Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States 100 years ago, had been a historian rather than a political scientist – Sumption also administers to celebrate his amateur knighthood among professionals. How, his friends ask him, did you manage to write all those books while complying with all that law? Not being academic, is your answer. Professionals are too busy being academics to have adequate time to reflect.
The historical theme of Sumption, if it has one, is that the most ambitious schemes often have the most unfortunate consequences, while stable institutions invariably come from more modest beginnings. In a brilliant essay on the overselling of the Magna Carta, he spells out the claims of that document to be a grand declaration of principles, rather than an arduous negotiation of a nasty crowd of selfish opportunists: “a group of conservative millionaires north of England ”, as he calls them. He insists that the Magna Carta is more interesting for what “people mistakenly think it says” than for what it actually says.
Sumption is also a clever denial of unthinkable plans crafted with the best of intentions. He opposes moves to introduce more transparency into the world of state secrets, not because he doesn’t want to know what’s going on – as a historian, he yearns to have access to the room where it happened – but because he believes humans will. They always find ways to hide what they don’t want known. Telling politicians that their decision making will go public only prompts them to make those decisions in places where no one is looking. Transparency does not generate openness; generates paranoia.
This sense of historical perspective gives you an independent point of view to discuss some current political controversies. He writes about Scottish independence and the fate of the union with a pleasant sense of irony and very little agitation, given what might be at stake. He is drawn to the fact that the UK, unlike most European states, had “emotionless origins”. It was built on economic advantage and political commitment, not religious zeal or high principles. The problem with promoting union today is knowing how to defend something that has so little emotional weight behind it. Sumption is not a fan of Scottish nationalism, which he considers a recent invention. But he knows that history does not always belong to reason. Sometimes it goes the way of the people who make the most noise.
It is even more impartial when it comes to Brexit. Although he’s a holdover, which is a bit surprising given his other political positions, Sumption fully understands what motivated the other side. He is scathing about the idea that the referendum was won by racists selling propaganda and lies. It was a discussion of the value of sovereignty over the appeal of practicality, and while Sumption prefers pragmatism to principle, you feel like you’re not too upset to see that principles sometimes win the game. His argument for the UK to be part of the EU is simply that “Britain will be dominated by the European Union, whether we belong to it or not”, so we could also have a say in its decisions. He also believes that the future belongs to internationalism, not because of what it represents, but simply because of what we all face. Problems such as climate change, which require international cooperation, mean that at some point “we are going to have to develop international structures for collective decision-making in a way that national constituencies consider legitimate.” Since we have no other choice, we better move on.
However, all this reasonableness means that what really stands out is when Sumption loses his cool. One issue on which he cannot contain himself is the demolition of statues and the attempt to retouch the past, which he considers “irrational and absurd”. “What happened, happened. It will not stop happening, no matter how angry we are about it.” But people who tear down statues are not trying to change the past, simply to change the way we commemorate it in the present. Sumption, who spends much of this book defending the deep, complex, and intractable domain of history, seems to decide that on this subject he is vulnerable to a bit of contemporary turmoil. Why so sensitive all of a sudden? It reminds me of Oxbridge students of a certain generation who always complain about the “safe spaces” and growing intolerance in universities. Students should be forced to listen to opinions that make them uncomfortable, they insist. However, they seem unable to listen to opinions that bother them. If they hate safe spaces so much, by their own logic they should be forced to tolerate them.
But where Sumption really overdoes it is when it comes to Covid-19. He describes the government’s attitude toward law enforcement over the past year as “my definition of a police state.” He describes the criticisms faced by skeptics of the confinement like him as “the authentic ingredients of a totalitarian society.” There is not much sense of historical perspective here. He also argues that, with the healthy and the young suffering, “the uneven impact of government measures is eroding any sense of national solidarity.” Some? Some, perhaps, but I still see a surprising amount of national solidarity from where I stand.
Worse still, Sumption seems to have completely lost the sense of the historian’s counterfactual. If we had not blocked, and if many more had died, the pressure on the government to act would have increased and the threat to the values of Sumption (freedom of choice, personal assessment of risk) would have been even greater. Desperate over the fact that public opinion seems determined to prioritize safety. But since that is who we are – and for that reason, comparisons with past pandemics have very little relevance to what is possible now – democratic governments had relatively little leeway. On this subject he sounds much more like a sclerotic judge than an urban historian. But whatever he is, he is not a politician.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism