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Good lord, that appears like a dissenting view

New Zealand – or more particularly, the Free Speech Union [FSU] – is playing to host to a rather distinguished guest this week.

Lord Jonathan Sumption, a British author, medieval historian, and former senior judge of the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court, is undertaking a series of FSU speaking events courtesy – all of which are sold out, except for one in Wellington on Wednesday.

Yesterday, Sumption appeared on TVNZ’s Q+A for an interview that canvassed the importance of free speech, as well as his view of various countries’ response to covid-19.

As noted during his to-and-fro with Jack Tame, Sumption wasn’t a huge fan of the UK’s response from as early as the end of March 2020, and clearly isn’t especially enamoured with our response either, calling both “excessive” because they didn’t take into consideration the “enormous collateral cost” of lockdowns and related measures.

“The economic and financial costs are terrifying, the impact particularly on the old and the young has been really serious, the impact on the education of school-aged children has been very grave, the impact … on other diseases like ischemic heart disease, dementia, cancer has been negative.”

According to Sumption, it was pretty clear from early on which groups were at the greatest risk of poor – or even fatal – outcomes from the virus, and opined that “targeting the entire population, including people whose risk of getting seriously ill or dying was very small, was a big mistake. The young were the people who were least at risk but who suffered the most from this,” something he described as “a very serious misjudgement”.

As well as the aforementioned “collateral cost”, Sumption appeared to be of the view that taking a one-size-fits-all approach to managing the virus involved going “down a coercion route”, with government messaging calibrated to create widespread fear in order “to induce conformity with the rules”.

The problem with such “coercive conformity” is that it’s “fundamentally pernicious and inconsistent with basic democratic principles”.

Furthermore, he argued, “every despotic regime that has ever arisen has done it through fear. Fear is the great enemy of democracy. Fear will induce people, voluntarily, to accept restrictions that, in a more balanced frame of mind, they would not accept … Sweden was the model here – they treated people like grownups and not like children who needed to be ordered around and told what to do.”

No doubt many readers will take issue with Sumption’s views on this. But whether you do or not, it’s worth checking out the full interview [available on tvnz.co.nz] rather than relying on this brief summary.

Believe it or not, being exposed to opposing opinions is actually more healthy than harmful – as the good Lord noted, we appear to be “in for a period of growing authoritarianism and growing bullying of one sector of fellow citizens against another”, in part due to “a growing intolerance of dissent, a growing intolerance of opinions” that we don’t share”.

You might even be inspired to head to his event in the capital, at which he’ll be talking with Sir Bill English on the topic “A crisis of law and politics: the fight to defend a tolerant culture”. See fsu.nz/upcoming_events for more details, including how to livestream it if attending in person isn’t possible.

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