Published:

A new ConHome monthly series offering a very short introduction to some of those who are making or who have made an intellectual contribution to conservatism.

2) Jonathan Sumption, Lord Sumption

Age: 72

Education: Eton, Magdalen College Oxford

C.V:

  • Academic historian at Magdalen College, Oxford
  • Commercial barrister
  • Judge

Relevant works:

Lots, but for the purposes of this piece:

  • Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics
  • Law in a Time of Crisis

Outlook:

The historian Robert Conquest once posited that: “Generally speaking, everybody is reactionary on subjects he knows about.” This has sometimes been reworked as “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” Reading Lord Sumption’s recent works, the law seems an apt one.

Sumption himself might not welcome the label ‘conservative’. He seems to identify, in the chapter of Law in a Time of Crisis covering Covid-19, as a libertarian. But a small-c conservative ethos suffuses much of his writing. He takes a deeply sceptical take both towards dramatic expansions of state power and the encroachment of the courts on the political constitution, and defends traditional schools of legislative interpretation over those favoured by judges disposed to a more freewheeling approach.

In some areas, he strikes a much bolder stance than the politicians. He openly argues, for example, that human rights legislation could be better handled at the national level than via a binding international treaty that is itself an active source of new laws. In this he offers a more coherent approach to the problems arising from the Human Rights Act than does the Government, which continues to pretend, or even believe, that these are merely artifacts of the Human Rights Act rather than our membership of the Convention itself.

He also endorses AV Dicey’s position that the potential secession of one part of the United Kingdom is the proper business of the whole kingdom, a view held by many unionists but one that active politicians, for obvious reasons, must be circumspect about advancing openly.

What puts Conquest’s law in mind is that Sumption seems to grow least conservative precisely where he, an academic and lawyer but never an active politician, has least direct experience: the perceived virtues of proportional representation, the havoc John Bercow wrought from the Speaker’s chair, and the apparently overweening power wielded by local activists in the major parties, and the dire consequences thereof. His descriptions of these phenomena may strike many with closer experience of them as wide of the mark – they certainly did to this reader.

Impact:

Notwithstanding where one stands on the morality of coronavirus restrictions, Sumption offers what seems to a layman a well-argued critique of the way the Government played fast and loose with important legislation to impose them, which would provide a worthwhile starting point for any legislators looking to conduct a post-crisis review. Likewise, supporters of the Government’s constitutional reform efforts will find much of use and interest here, even if they do not (as I certainly did not) agree with all of it.

Where to start?

Both Trials of the State and Law in a Time of Crisis are collections of essays or speeches, which can be profitably read individually. The former book can be read completely in an afternoon and is thus the obvious starting point, but the latter is just as digestible, it simply covers more ground.