Sumption is strong on evidence and logic, but is perhaps weaker on politics. He easily picks apart the fashion for apologising for the sins of the past, which he describes as “morally worthless”, but is there anybody who believes that the apologies are sincere? They’re surely a gesture designed to give a modern political message.
This collection of essays, based on speeches Sumption has given over more than a decade, tries to pull the different sides of his intellectual persona together. Though law is their unifying theme, he begins with reflections on history and ends with a blistering attack on the government’s draconian response to Covid-19. It is as a historian that he is at his most urbane and appealing. A believer in the power of history to broaden our minds and constrain our hubris – he says that the world would be in better shape today if Woodrow Wilson, US president 100 years ago, had been a historian rather than a political scientist... This sense of historical perspective gives him a detached vantage point for discussing some current political controversies. He writes about Scottish independence and the fate of the union with a nice sense of irony and remarkably little agitation, given what might be at stake. He is drawn to the fact that the UK, unlike most European states, had “unemotional origins”. It was built on economic advantage and political compromise, not religious zeal or high principle. The problem with promoting the union today is knowing how to defend something that has so little emotional heft behind it. Sumption is no fan of Scottish nationalism, which he considers a recent contrivance. But he knows that history does not always belong to the reasonable. Sometimes it goes the way of the people who make the most noise.
His essays on Brexit are a brilliant explanation of public sentiment and why it expressed itself in the way it did. His insistence that “we cannot have liberty without democracy, or democracy without politics, or politics without politicians” is as good a summary of that vital point as I have read. Particularly as he begins it with the words: “Whatever we may think of our politicians.”