By and large, we can as a nation pride ourselves on the way we have, thus far, faced up to the coronavirus crisis. Our elected leaders have won warm acclaim - and rightly so - for their calm, mature and efficient response to a situation nobody could have envisioned six months ago.
But consider a situation where, pre-virus, the government was to suddenly announce the closure of all public services, the confinement of the civilian population to our own homes, the cessation of business, restrictions on travel, the closure of schools and shops and places of entertainment. The reaction would be of disbelief, at first, and then outrage and protest and media criticism and angry marches to assert our personal and civil rights. And yet, the entire country has willingly, and without the slightest threat of coercion, agreed to an unprecedented curtailment of individual rights in the national interest.
So far, so good. But as yet, nobody knows for sure how long this is going to last. Once, just once, Simon Harris allowed himself to ponder aloud as to how long the public would endure the strictures which we currently accept without complaint. At what stage will cooped up families, unemployed workers, shop owners, decide that enough is enough, and that throwing off the shackles is a risk worth taking, whatever the outcome.
This fine balance, this interplay between acquiescence to restrictive regulations and a collective sense of acting in the common good, was the subject of a short but interesting debate on BBC radio during the week. Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court in England, was asked for his views on where the common good trumps the rights of the individual and, more pertinently, what the imposed lockdown of the nation tells us about the rule of law and the powers of government.
Lord Sumption is no flag waving liberal, he is an establishment figure who would be seen as a pillar of orthodoxy, a defender of the status quo. And yet he saw fit in the interview to question the readiness of the British public to accept harsh, austere regulations, albeit for the most public spirited reasons, and reflected on how such ready compliance could, in other circumstances, prove ruinous.
The real problem, Sumption told the BBC, is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. The threat is generally a real one, but too often it is exaggerated to the extent that hysteria takes hold and there follows a slide into dictatorship.
What happens, he says, is that the pressure on politicians comes from the public. The public wants action. They don’t pause to ask whether the actions will work. They don’t ask whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway.
“Citizens ask more, they demand that the State takes on new powers,” Sumption said. “And that is how societies become despotisms,” adding, for good measure, that all of that is made easier when there is no scrutiny of government and no parliament in session.
Needless to say, the judge’s views have been widely denounced as being unpatriotic and borderline seditious. He has been castigated for equating a benign initiative to save lives and protect the public with a step towards tyranny. His opinions have won little support in public discourse. And yet, and yet, is there even a kernel of warning in what he says?