The Fault Will Be Ours

Lord Sumption on politics, law, and the meaning and decline of democracy

A couple of months ago, Jonathan Sumption, former barrister extraordinaire, recently-retired UK Supreme Court judge, and well-regarded historian too, delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures for this year, speaking on Law and the Decline of Politics. Despite my delay in getting to them, I think they are worth writing about. Lord Sumption’s arguments challenge most if not all of us in one way or another. I expect that those used to the North American way of thinking about constitutional law will find them more uncongenial than many lawyers in the United Kingdom or in New Zealand, but Lord Sumption’s views do not neatly fit into any pre-defined category, and will have something that will force just about anyone to reflect. (I particularly recommend the lectures to any students who are about to start studying law; they are quite accessible, but will give you an excellent preview of many of the debates you will confront in the coming years, and expose you to a way of thinking that is not exactly prevalent in North American law schools.)

In a nutshell, Lord Sumption’s argument is that, as he put it in the first lecture, “Law’s Expanding Empire“,

law does not occupy a world of its own. It is part of a larger system of public decision making. The rest is politics. The politics of ministers and legislators of political parties, of media and pressure groups, and of the wider electorate. (2-3)

The question is, how does law relate to this larger system? What is the place of law vis-à-vis politics? Should it, in particular, be used to control political outcomes and bring them into alignment with some set of substantive values? Lord Sumption wants to caution us against the dangers he says lying in wait if we go down this path. But it is not because he takes an especially optimistic view of politics. In this post, I summarize the five lectures. (It will, I am afraid, be quite long.) I will comment separately.


Lord Sumption’s misgivings appear especially strongly in his first lecture. Law, he says, is an alternative to chaos. But just how much law (and how many lawyers) do we need? Lord Sumption observes that

Until the 19th century, most human interactions were governed by custom and convention. The law dealt with a narrow range of human problems. It regulated title to property, it enforced contracts, it protected people’s lives, their persons, their liberty and their property against arbitrary injury, but that was about all. Today, law penetrates every corner of human life. (3)

It need not be that way. The Rule of Law requires limitation of government power and the protection against interference with life, liberty, and property, as well access to the courts to enforce these limits and protections, but it does not necessarily follow that law needs to be pervasive. Rather, this is something that the voters have chosen, in an ongoing fit of general optimism about the prospects of collective action. Democracy “has inevitably led to rising demands of the State as a provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of security and as a regulator of economic activity”. (4)

Moreover, after a retreat over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, “a growing moral and social absolutism … looks to law to produce conformity”. Even when there is no real consensus in the community about what how a particular moral issue ought to be treated,

we resort to law to impose uniform solutions in areas where we once contemplated a diversity of judgment and behaviour. We are afraid to let people be guided by their own moral judgments in case they arrive at judgments which we do not agree with. (6)

It is as if moral judgment, which would have been individual in the past, has increasingly been collectivized. In a growing number of cases, moreover, this judgment has been delegated to the judiciary.

At the same time, there has been a push to take judgments about safety and security away from individuals and hand them over to public authorities, under judicial supervision. As more misfortunes appear preventable, the demands are made for them to be prevented; “we are no longer willing to accept the wheel of fortune as an ordinary incident of human existence”. (7) Yet this is achieved only by “restricting the liberty of the public at large in order to deprive them of the opportunity to harm themselves”. (7)

The result of it all, Lord Sumption says, is the comeback of the Hobbesian Leviathan: “[t]he 17th century may have abolished absolute monarchy but the 20th century created absolute democracy in its place”. (8) And unlike when government was an external, antagonistic force, democratic government “is us”. (8) We both fear and repose our fondest hopes in it.


In his second lecture, “In Praise of Politics“, Lord Sumption asks, “how do we control the potentially oppressive power of democratic majorities without undermining democracy itself?” (2) He focuses on the notion of legitimacy, which he defines as “a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we don’t like what they are doing”. (2) Any government, but especially a democratic one, must preserve its legitimacy. Democracy does this by accommodating differences between majorities and minorities, and securing compromises that mean that minorities do not become “permanently disaffected groups [with] no common bonds to transcend their differences with the majority”. (2) This can be done through representative government or through law.

Representative institutions, in contrast to winner-take-all direct democracy, exist in part to accommodate the interests and demands of minorities. They make compromise possible. Building on the thought of James Madison and Edmund Burke, Lord Sumption argues that “political elites have their uses. Professional politicians can fairly be expected to bring to their work a more reflective approach, a broader outlook and a lot more information than their electors”. (3) They are also better placed to further national “collective interests which extend over a longer time scale and a wider geographical range than are ever likely to be reflected in the public opinion of the moment”. (3)

Bypassing the processes of representative government, as was done with the Brexit referendum is dangerous. Compromise becomes impossible, as

52 per cent of voters feel entitled to speak for the whole nation and 48 per cent don’t matter at all. … It is the mentality which has created an unwarranted sense of entitlement among the sort of people who denounce those who disagree with them as enemies, traitors, saboteurs, even Nazis. This is the authentic language of totalitarianism. It is the lowest point to which a political community can sink, short of actual violence.

Lord Sumption warns, however, that disengagement from politics calls into question the ability of the political process to generate compromise and legitimacy. Political parties play an important role in securing the accommodation of various interests in policy-making, but as their membership has declined greatly, they are no longer representative of the broader citizenry, and the candidates whom they put forward are increasingly out of touch with the voters. All this “is, in the long
run, likely to lead to a far more partisan and authoritarian style of political leadership”. (5)

Law, the other barrier to oppressive majorities, has become more important as politics has lost its lustre. The politicians’ authority is waning, but the judges’ is undiminished; indeed it is growing:

Judges are intelligent, reflective and articulate people. They are intellectually honest, by and large. They are used to thinking seriously about problems which have no easy answer and contrary to familiar clichés, they know a great deal about the world. The whole judicial process is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning, social observation and ethical value judgment that seems, to many people, to introduce a higher morality into public decision-making. (5)

The judiciary is now more active than it used to be in policing the actions of other public authorities. It does so, in particular, by enforcing the principle of legality, which Lord Sumption suggests should rather be called “the principle of legitimacy”. The principle is appropriately applied to ensure that Parliament faces the consequences of measures that would amount to, notably, “retrospective legislation, oppression of individuals, obstructing access to a [c]ourt, [or] acts contrary to international law”. However, it can be taken further, and made into a barrier to Parliament acting, even advisedly, in ways the courts simply disagree with.

However much we may agree with the outcomes in particular cases, we should be wary of this empowerment of politically unaccountable institutions. It is not the courts’ function to generate compromise, and therefore legitimacy. The law’s strengths are also its weaknesses:

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous. But in public affairs these are not always virtues. Opacity, inconsistency and fudge maybe intellectually impure, which is why lawyers don’t like them, but they are often inseparable from the kind of compromises that we have to make as a society if we are going to live together in peace. (7)


Lord Sumption’s third lecture, “Human Rights and Wrongs” focuses on what he describes as “an unfriendly meeting” (1) between law and politics. The idea of fundamental rights is not new; in earlier times it was expressed through the concept of natural rights. The trouble with it, however, is that

[t]o say that rights are inherent in our humanity without law is really no more than rhetoric. It doesn’t get us anywhere unless there is some way of identifying which rights are inherent in our humanity and why, and that is essentially a matter of opinion. (2)

Indeed, “[r]ights … are the creation of law which is a product of social organisation and is therefore, necessarily, a matter of political choice”. (2) How is the choice to be made, how are the differences of opinion to be settled? Appealing to democracy is a problem since the point of rights is to protect people from what democratic majorities might do to them. But what else is there? Neither religion nor ideology work in a democratic society.

Still, there is wide agreement that there are some truly fundamental rights: those having to do with due process of law (though Lord Sumption does not use this label), and democratic rights, such as “freedom of thought and expression, assembly and association, and the right to participate in fair and regular elections”. (3)

Legislators can create further rights, including by subscribing to rights-creating treaties. But what Lord Sumption describes as “dynamic treaties”, such as the European Convention Human Rights (ECHR), as it has been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), whose content keeps being developed by supranational institutions after their implementation in law “escape[] parliamentary control”. (3) As Lord Sumption describes the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence, it “develops [the ECHR] by a process of extrapolation or analogy so as to reflect its own view of what additional rights a modern democracy ought to have”. (3) This goes beyond “applying an abstract statement of principle to concrete facts” that weren’t originally anticipated, or giving effect to “concepts … such as the notion of inhuman or degrading treatment [that] plainly do evolve over the time with changes in our collective values”. (4) Such developments are “a form of non-consensual legislation”. (4)

Good or bad, this judicial legislation is controversial; in any case, law should not be made judges, disempowering citizens. In particular, questions about the limitation of rights, the purposes for which it can be undertaken, and the degree to which it is necessary, “are all intensely political … . Yet, the [ECHR] reclassifies them as questions of law”, (6) to be settled by the courts rather than the political process.

We can think of democracy, Lord Sumption says, either as “a constitutional mechanism for arriving at collective decisions and accommodating dissent” or as “a system of values”, (7) of substantive requirements that a political system must fulfill. A political system that is democratic in one sense is not necessarily democratic in the other. Lord Sumption worries that “[d]emocracy, in its traditional sense” (that is, the first one) “is extremely vulnerable to the idea that one’s own values are so obviously urgent and right that the means by which one gets them adopted don’t matter”. (7) And he worries that many lawyers are tempted to attribute such urgency to liberal values. For his part, he rejects this view, which he finds

conceptually no different from the claim of communism, fascism, monarchism, Catholicism, Islamism and all the other great isms that have historically claimed a monopoly of legitimate political discourse on the ground that its advocates considered themselves to be obviously right. (7)


Lord Sumption’s fourth lecture, “Rights and the Ideal Constitution” takes on a constitutional system that has implemented a number of substantive, values-based constraints on democratic decision-making: that of the United States. Lord Sumption is skeptical of what he calls the “legal model” of the state, since “in the long run, political constraints on the part of majorities are likely to be a great deal more effective than legal ones”. (2) To be sure, the “legal model” promises constraint “based on a body of principle applied by judges” (3) immune from the sort of pressures and incentives to which politicians are subject. This model is based on mistrust of “elective institutions” and their ability “to form opinions about [rights] with the necessary restraint, intelligence or moral sensibility”. (3)

Against that, Lord Sumption argues, we need to count the value of legitimacy: “‘We, the people,’ is the emotional foundation of democracy in Britain as well as in the United States”. Democratic decision-making is also egalitarian. A constitution that enforces a set of substantive values, be they those of “liberalism, human rights, Islamic political theology or the
dictatorship of the proletariat” (4) is neither egalitarian nor legitimate in the eyes of those who do not share these values. It is, therefore, not the right kind of constitution: “the proper function of a constitution is to determine how we participate in the decision-making processes of the state and not to determine what the outcome should be”. (4) Instead of looking for “the right answers to … moral dilemmas”, a polity should content itself with “a political process in which every citizen can engage whose results, however imperfect, are likely to be acceptable to the widest possible range of interests and opinions”. (4)

Echoing the arguments made in the previous lecture in the context of the ECHR, Lord Sumption reiterates that in deciding rights claims based on vague constitutional language judges are deciding not so much “whether the right exists but whether it ought to exist. Yet, that is surely a question for lawmakers and not judges.” (5) Anyway, “on politically controversial issues, the decisions of judges almost always involve a large element of political value judgment”, and “are not necessarily wiser or morally superior to the judgments of the legislature”. (5) Lord Sumption also reiterates his earlier point that judicial resolution of essentially political disputes does not leave room for compromise and accommodation. By contrast, political compromise may succeed at resolving differences in the community, as it did over abortion in Britain (in contrast to the United States).

All that said, Lord Sumption cautions that it does not follow “that there are no rights which should be constitutionally protected in a democracy”. (6) Rather, “one must be very careful about which rights one regards as
so fundamental as to be beyond democratic choice”. (6) Again, life, liberty, property, due process, and democratic rights fit the bill. But they will not be enough to protect against the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately, “the Courts cannot parry the broader threat that legislative majorities may act oppressively unless they assume legislative powers for themselves”. (7) If any barrier can do that, it must be found in the political culture, not in the law.


Lord Sumption’s fifth and last lecture, “Shifting the Foundations“, addresses the proposals for introducing the “legal model” of the state to the United Kingdom. Lord Sumption suggests that, although presented as a solution to the ongoing crisis of political institutions, this idea, like all calls for institutional reform in response to crises real or supposed, has little to do with the problems it purports to address. There is something, Lord Sumption says, to the criticisms of the UK’s existing constitutional arrangements, said to be “obscure, old-fashioned, out of step with international practice and giv[ing] far too much power to Parliament”. (3) But there is also something to be said in defense of these arrangements.

Lord Sumption points out that “[t]he godparents of written constitutions have been revolution, invasion, civil war and decolonisation”. (3) Nothing of the sort has happened in the UK in centuries. As a result, there is no blank slate on which to write a new constitution. If this were nevertheless done, the result, even if

an artefact of perfect rationality, a thing of great intellectual beauty … would have no basis in our historical experience, and experience counts for a great deal in human affairs; more than rationality, more even than beauty. Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law. (3)

Besides, the flexible political constitution has been able “to adapt to major changes in our national life which would have overwhelmed much more formal arrangements”. (3)

The problem, and not just in the UK but elsewhere, Lord Sumption argues, is not with institutions but a political culture struggling with

long term decline in the membership … of all the major national political parties, falling turnout at elections, widespread contempt for professional politicians, the rise of powerful regional nationalisms offering a more immediate source of legitimacy. (4)

The reason for this malaise, Lord Sumption suggests, is that democracy cannot meet the unrealistic expectations for it that result “from the eternal optimism of mankind, … a misunderstanding of the role of politicians, and … an exaggerated view of their power to effect major change”, as well as “the auction of promises at every general election”. (5) This produces “a sense of impotent frustration [that] undermines public confidence in the whole political process”. (5) Those who are disappointed with the representative institutions (Lord Sumption specifically mentions environmentalists frustrated by inaction on climate change) are prepared to look to a strongman who will “get things done”. A further problem is that “[p]eople expect their representatives, not just to act for them, but to be like them”, yet “all political systems are aristocracies of knowledge. Democracy is only different in that the aristocracies are installed and removable by popular vote”. (5) This exacerbates “[r]esentment of political elites”, (6) which plays a large role in current politics.

For Lord Sumption, constitutional change is not the answer to these difficulties, although he is interested in electoral reform “if it boosted public engagement with politics and enabled them, once more, to accommodate differences of interest and opinion across our population”. (7) An entrenched constitution subject to judicial interpretation, by contrast, “will simply produce a partial shift of power from an elective and removable aristocracy of knowledge to a core of professional judges which is just as remote, less representative and neither elective nor removable”. (6)

Lord Sumption ends on a dark note:

we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators or braying mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic. The labels will still be there, but they will no longer describe the contents, the facade will still stand, but there will be nothing behind it, the rhetoric of democracy will be unchanged, but it will be meaningless – and the fault will be ours. (7)


As noted above, there is much to reflect on here. I am not suggesting that everything Lord Sumption says is right; indeed, it cannot be, because his arguments are not altogether consistent with one another. I will set out some reflections on Lord Sumption’s views in my next post. For now, suffice it to say that, if we are to avoid the dark future whose possibility Lord Sumption asks us to confront, we need to think seriously about the issues he cogently outlines.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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