Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Is Britain still a country for privileged old Lords like Jonathan Sumption, who believe that there is no place for equality in a pandemic ?

Born into a life of privilege, Jonathan, who is 72 years old was the son of Hilda and Anthony, a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and then a barrister and a part-time judge. At the age of 11, he was packed off to the fee paying public school for boys, Eton College  and then studied History at Magdalen College, Oxford. In the 1970s he served as an adviser to the Conservative MP and Cabinet Minister Sir Keith Joseph. Together, in 1979, they wrote their book, 'Equality', in which they sought to show that 'no convincing arguments for an equal society have ever been advanced' and that 'no such society has ever been successfully created'.

Young Jonathan, having qualified in the law, then pursued a successful legal practice in commercial law. The 'Guardian' newspaper once described him as being a member of the 'Million-a-year Club', the elite group of barristers earning over a million pounds a year. In a letter to The Guardian in 2001, he compared his 'puny £1.6 million a year' to the vastly larger amounts that comparable individuals in business, sports and entertainment were paid. In 2012 he earned £7.8 million for his defence of Roman Abramovich in the 2012 case Berezovsky v Abramovich, which is believed to be the highest fee ever earned in British legal history. 

His success in his judicial career was rewarded in 2012 when, at the age 63, he was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court and as such was accorded the style of 'Lord' for life. He said he thought it was wrong to get more women, too quickly, into the Supreme Court and that an attempt to rapidly achieve gender equality through quotas or positive discrimination could end up discouraging men from applying and so "have appalling consequences for justice".

Lord Jonathan, who had to follow the rules and retire from the Surpreme Court when he was 70, appeared last week on the BBC One show, 'The Big Questions on Sunday'. The Discussion centred around the question : "Was the Covid inspired lockdown punishing too many for the greater good ?”  In response he said that he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value” and he believed his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were “worth more because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead”. To this Deborah James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer and hosts the BBC’s 'You, Me and the Big C podcast', said: “With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable”. He then interrupted her saying : “I didn’t say your life was 'not' valuable, I said it was 'less' valuable". https://twitter.com/bowelbabe/status/1350778543513460737

His was an expression of belief reminiscent of George Orwell's dictat from the ruling pigs in his great 1945 satire, 'Animal Farm'.

Deborah continued : “Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living. I’m fully aware and I’ve seen first-hand and said "Goodbye" to best friends in terms of the collateral Covid is causing, but at the same time I’m incredibly grateful to be somebody who is kept alive because of the NHS”.

Lord Jonathan was also challenged by Catherine Foot from the 'Centre for Ageing Better', who said she “shuddered” at his suggestion that all lives were not equal. She said that the crisis necessitated drawing “ethical red lines”, one of which is that “every human is equal”. His remarks were then widely condemned online, with the human rights barrister Adam Wagner describing them as 'inhumane, almost grotesque'.

Genevieve Edwards, the Chief Executive of the charity 'Bowel Cancer UK' said : “To describe someone’s life as ‘less valuable’ because they have advanced bowel cancer is callous nonsense. It’s also incredibly upsetting to people who have experienced disruption to their diagnosis and treatment because of pressures on the NHS, and insulting to the staff doing their absolute best for every patient they see. What’s important is to protect the NHS and each and every life that depends on it, not pit one person against another”.

During the programme, Lord Jonathan argued that only the “old and vulnerable” should isolate. He was challenged on this point by the host Nicky Campbell, who questioned whether his solution wasn’t “utterly simplistic” as vulnerability includes a broad spectrum of people, and people of all ages interact in society. 

Not done yet, he also claimed that Government action had “virtually no impact” on mortality rates and was roundly rebuffed by Calum Semple, a Professor of 'Child Health and Outbreak Medicine' at Liverpool University, who described it as “plain wrong” and underlined that “the value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70”.

Lord Jonathan later back pedaled and claimed that his comments had been misinterpreted, saying : “I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer. I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected. That harm can be to their mental health or through cooping undergraduates up at university or through the loss of jobs. I was saying this should not be inflicted on the young to protect old people like me. If Miss James has misinterpreted that, then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on videolinks it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”

For the record, Lord Jonathan has been an outspoken critic of the Government’s handling of the pandemic not arguing that it has done 'too little' to curb the pandemic, but that it has done 'too much' and that the measures taken to curb the virus have been an attack on personal liberties. Delivering the Cambridge Freshfield's Annual Law Lecture in October, he said the emergency measures taken by the Government in the Spring of 2020 were : “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”.

On January 18th Lord he was taken to task by Piers Morgan on 'Good Morning Britain'. 

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