Joshua Rozenberg

Despotic laws can — even should — be ignored, says Jonathan Sumption

The retired Justice of the Supreme Court admits breaking lockdown regulations and seems willing to countenance civil disobedience

Jonathan Sumption. Credit: Alamy

Jonathan Sumption has developed ‘many strange habits over the years’, he tells us disarmingly, and one of these is to read the international press. ‘I read the French and German press most days, and sometimes the Italian and Spanish press as well.’

Some might think the retired Supreme Court justice was showing off. But these remarks were addressed to a group of German judges at the end of 2019. His message to them was that the British people might have been wrong to vote for Brexit — but they were not, as reported in the continental press, ‘at best naive and at worst mad’.

That’s good to know. But readers who buy this book hoping to learn about law at a time of crisis may wonder what his reflections on the UK’s attitude to the EU pre-departure have got to do with it. They might feel equally short-changed by a lecture he delivered five years ago on 19th-century legal history. But Sumption is, at heart, a historian and so it should come as no surprise to find that the first five of 12 essays collected in this volume have more to tell us about the past than the present.

‘I don’t accept that there is a moral obligation to comply with the law,’ Jonathan Sumption told me

Not that there’s anything wrong with digging out lectures you have delivered over the years — sometimes more than once — and lightly editing them before putting them between hard covers (though without an index). It’s something that retired judges often do and Sumption is a better writer than most of them. And he has updated a talk he delivered in 2013 about nationalism in the British Isles with some useful reflections on the prospects of a second independence referendum for Scotland: he argues that secession should be a decision for the UK as a whole.

We then have three chapters about the law.

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