Keep us safe – we don’t mind how you do it

Judgement day: Lord Sumption (above) says UK police are acting like “glorified school prefects”. © PA

Is herd mentality creating police states? Governments have been allowed to tackle the pandemic with measures which stifle personal freedom. Many worry that these could become permanent.

The policeman who had stopped to have lunch in his patrol car in the Peak District almost choked on his sandwich. One moment, he was listening to a BBC radio update on the pandemic; the next, a former Supreme Court judge seemed to be attacking him personally.

The Derbyshire police, Lord Sumption declared, were acting like “glorified school prefects”: their behaviour was “frankly disgraceful”.

Sumption was criticising the force’s approach to policing the lockdown – including dying the water at a beauty spot black to deter people from meeting there. But he was also making a wider point: he believed that the government’s response to the pandemic was excessive, and involved a dangerous curtailment of civil liberties.

“When human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away,” he argued. “It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat […]. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.”

Sumption is not the only expert sounding an alarm bell. Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, warns that across the world there could be “a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures”.

There are certainly plenty of governments responding in an extreme fashion. In Thailand, the prime minister has assumed the authority to impose curfews and censor the news media, with journalists being sued for criticising the government’s handling of the crisis.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the closure of law courts – meaning that his own trial for corruption will be postponed. In Bolivia, elections scheduled for May have been postponed too, giving the controversial interim president, Jeanine Áñez, an extension of office.

And in Hungary, new legislation gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán far-reaching emergency powers which will last for as long as he says he needs them. As well as allowing him to suspend existing laws, it makes two permanent changes to the criminal code, one of them limiting freedom of expression.

Is herd mentality creating a police state?

Hungary sheep

Some say that you only have to look at Hungary to see where this is heading: authoritarian governments are taking advantage of the public’s anxiety to see what they can get away with. They are always quick to request extra powers in a crisis – claiming that they are protecting the weak and responding to popular demand – but they are slow to relinquish those powers when the crisis ends.

Others say that the term “herd mentality” is nonsense: we live in a sophisticated society where people make up their own minds. No doctor caring for Covid-19 patients would call the public reaction hysterical. Established democracies have plenty of safeguards to prevent emergency laws becoming permanent; politicians like Orbán can only flourish in countries without a proper democratic tradition.

You Decide

  1. What aspect of the lockdown do you find most difficult?
  2. Is it better for police chiefs to be elected by the public or appointed by the government?


  1. Do a painting of a beautiful (to you) place you would like to visit when the lockdown is over.
  2. Imagine that you are the prime minister and have been given unlimited powers. Write a five-minute speech explaining what you intend to do with them. Then ask your family to listen to it and ask you questions about it.

Some People Say...

“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.”

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), British philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
There are many historical examples of democratic rights being eroded in a crisis. The Emperor Augustus gave Rome stability after a bloody civil war and claimed to honour the Senate’s rulings, but ended up with absolute power and was even declared a god. The 19th-Century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the US could fall into “soft despotism” as anxious people looked to the government to spare them “the trouble of thinking and the pain of living”.
What do we not know?
Whether the pandemic will make people more keen on authoritarian governments or less. The countries which seem to have been most successful in controlling Covid-19 – China, South Korea, and Singapore – have used measures and surveillance systems which many would consider undemocratic. But living under a lockdown could also make people realise that personal liberty is not something to be taken for granted.

Word Watch

Supreme Court judge
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the UK; it has 12 judges representing England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Lord Sumption
Jonathan Sumption is a former Supreme Court judge, author, and medieval historian. The Guardian once described him as being a member of the “million-a-year club”, an exclusive group of barristers earning over £1 million a year (in 2003).
Reduction. It comes from an old word meaning a horse whose tail has been cut short.
Civil liberties
Basic rights and freedoms given to citizens of a country through the law. They include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of religious worship. Such rights and freedoms are part of a democratic society and are often denied to those living in a dictatorship.
Cruel and oppressive rulers.
A French word meaning someone appointed to compile a report for an organisation.
Demanding strict obedience.
Preventing people from doing what they want to.
A country in South East Asia whose neighbours include Malaysia and Cambodia.
A order stating a time during which certain rules apply. Typically, it refers to the time when people have to return to and stay in their homes.
To start legal proceedings against someone or something.
A country in South America. Its last president, Evo Morales, was forced to resign when a disputed election led to violent protests.
Temporary. In November, Jeanine Áñez was appointed president of Bolivia for six months. She said that she did not want to stay on after that, but has since changed her mind.
A country in central Europe. Viktor Orbán has been its prime minister since 2010.
Voluntarily cease to keep or claim; give up.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.