On 27 October 2020 Lord Sumption delivered the 2020 Cambridge Freshfields Lecture entitled “Government by decree – Covid-19 and the Constitution”.
The disputes over Brexit last year saw an attempt to make the executive, not Parliament, the prime source of authority in the Constitution. The coronavirus crisis has provoked another attempt to marginalise Parliament, this time with the willing acquiescence of the House of Commons. Is this to be our future?
Lord Sumption is an author, historian and lawyer of note. He was appointed directly from the practising Bar to the Supreme Court, and served as a Supreme Court Justice from 2012-18. In 2019, he delivered the BBC Reith Lectures, “Law and the Decline of Politics”, and is now a regular commentator in the media. He continues to sit as a Non-Permanent Judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. Alongside his career as a lawyer, he has also produced a substantial and highly-regarded narrative history of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (with volume V still to come).
Full transcript of the video follows.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the British state has exercised coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted. It has taken effective legal control, enforced by the police, over the personal lives of the entire population: where they could go, whom they could meet, what they could do even within their own homes. For three months it placed everybody under a form of house arrest, qualified only by their right to do a limited number of things approved by ministers. All of this has been authorised by ministerial decree with minimal Parliamentary involvement. It has been the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country. We have never sought to do such a thing before, even in wartime and even when faced with health crises far more serious than this one.
It is customary for those who doubt the legality or constitutional propriety of the government’s acts to start with a hand-wringing declaration that they do so with a heavy heart, not doubting for a moment the need for the measures taken. I shall not follow that tradition. I do not doubt the seriousness of the epidemic,