Retired judge Lord Sumption’s reported remarks about cheerfully breaking lockdown rules were a rare display of disobedience

Just when I was beginning to give up on the judiciary, along comes Lord Sumption saying something surprisingly sensible. During a discussion on lockdown and the law, this retired Supreme Court judge is reported to have cheerfully admitted to breaking lockdown rules. Hurrah!

Sumption went on to point out just how draconian many of the lockdown measures have been. Over an extended period of time, millions of us found ourselves placed under house arrest.

Warming to his theme, Sumption proceeded to point out how the human rights lobby, normally the first to flag up any apparent incidence of arbitrary government, has been ‘extraordinarily silent’. Having spent years lecturing the rest of us on why we need a European Convention on Human Rights to protect our freedoms, confronted with a real-life instance of mass incarceration, nothing. Learned QCs who might normally leap at the chance to fight any sort of injustice – for a fat fee, of course – instead talk about the need to balance liberty with effective executive action.

To me, the hypocrisy of human rights lawyers is only to be expected. It is the reaction of the rest of us that makes me want to despair. Why have we been so deferential? Confronted by measures that are not only draconian, but often obviously of limited efficacy in combating the spread of the virus, why have we simply done as we are told?

My own hunch is that it has much to do with novelty. Whether it is wearing a face mask, or working from home, or simply sitting outside to socialise, at first it all seemed, if not a lark, then an interesting shared experience. It certainly was not intolerable.

Some, we should not forget, especially in the early stages of the lockdown, undoubtedly felt real fear. Under the impression that a killer virus was in our midst, spreading exponentially, many felt instinctively obedient of authority – even if the things that the authorities were demanding we do ("Get off that park bench!") were clearly ridiculous. Today, even though we have a far better understanding of who is at risk, some are still scared enough to meekly obey any edict.

At the same time, for many, the lockdown has not actually been all that inconvenient. If you don’t have kids and are able to “work” from home, you have lots of extra ‘me time’. If you work in the public sector, you are likely to have been kept on full pay. Millions in the private sector have been furloughed on 80 per cent of their salaries. For some, the past few months have felt a little like an extended bank holiday break.

Perhaps, too, deference to lockdown restrictions has come from a feeling that it is only temporary. Not many people felt aggrieved when asked to help “squash the sombrero”. When that then morphed into helping “stop the second wave”, well, it might seem churlish to complain.

Sumption suggested that an early generation would not have tolerated all these restrictions on their liberty. But I imagine that people went through a similar process of acceptance when, in the early stages of the Second World War when everyone was required to carry an identity card. However much folk might not have liked it, it must have seemed like a small step to help uncover all those Germany spies.

Of course, it turns out that folk were anything but prepared to accept this particular limit on their liberty once it became clear that this ‘temporary’ measure was in place after the threat had passed. Folk simply refused to carry cards or cooperate with police constables who asked to see them – and the government had to scrap them.

We are a long way from that moment with face masks. Or are we?

Opinion polls show 60-70 per cent of the public want face masks to be made compulsory. But when I walk around my neighbourhood, I can’t help noticing that only a small minority seem to be wearing any face masks at all.

Are most of us hypocrites? Are we all going to ‘mask up’ before this Friday when facemasks are made compulsory in shops? And how are we all going to feel after sweating it out behind a face mask throughout August?

Lord Sumption, I suspect, is not unusual in breaking lockdown rules. He is only unusual in admitting as much to himself and to everyone else.

If our national character has changed as Sumption seems to suggest perhaps it owes something to social media? Might a decade or so of Instagram and co have widened the gap between what people do, and what they say they do?

Perhaps. Social media platforms encourage millions of us to think in terms of messages sent and how we are perceived. This encourages us to want to be seen to be doing the right thing – whether its wearing a mask or taking the knee – almost irrespective of the actual merits of doing so. The pressure to conform to perceived social norms is only intensified, and if everyone else is going along with it, who am I to complain?

Being want to be seen to be doing the right thing is certainly something that obsesses government officials. There is a reason they have spent millions of pounds during this crisis on polling and focus groups. Indeed, throughout they have appeared to put a premium on wanting to send the right signals over and above being effective.

Sumption sounded disappointed that the country does not share his concerns about the loss of liberty. I suspect his lordship is simply ahead of the rest of us. What a pity there aren’t more judges like him.

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