Lord Sumption’s Reith Lectures had me struggling to stay awake

BBC Radio 4’s annual flagship lecture series refuses to dumb itself down, but could do with a little more vitality. 

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Midway through the 2019 Reith Lectures. Must stay focused. This year’s speaker is the former Supreme Court justice, QC Lord Sumption: author of four volumes on the Hundred Years War, leading advocate whose cases include the Pinochet extradition, and dead-ringer for Jon Pertwee circa Planet of the Daleks. It has been noted that there’s nothing Sumption can’t talk about, and this is very probably the case. But at the same time I would venture the opinion that there is nothing he can talk about usefully, if one can’t stay fully awake to hear it.

This week’s lecture (8 June, 10.15pm) was about extending the interpretation of human rights law. While not exactly a hoot, it had moments to recommend it. Primarily, when an audience member piped up to ask a question about Shamima Begum and described himself, with Aristotelian abrasiveness, as “your basic man in the street”. Or when Sumption (modestly) ceded that the Suicide Act of 1961 was more of a moral and political question than a legal one, and on such an issue “my own opinion had no greater weight by virtue of my judicial office than of any other citizen” (I think this was the thrust of his argument). But generally, it was hard to shake the anaesthetising sensation (as with his previous lecture on law taking over the space previously occupied by politics) that this wasn’t really an acute mind ranging over the deepest legal questions, but a visiting bishop correcting certain misconceptions concerning the Trinity.

I do applaud the Reith lectures for refusing to dumb themselves down and settle on subjects such as “the changing face of celebrity” – but still. In an interview last year Sumption talked about the importance of freeing oneself, as an advocate, from the tyranny of notes. But as he none the less punctiliously waded through his (“if a national measure interferes with a protected right, the courts ask whether the interference has a legitimate purpose…”). I began to picture the host and introducer Anita Anand (never wholly relaxed as a presenter) daydreaming, alongside Lady Sumption, of the June trees outside. The cow parsley in the parks, the scampi in a basket at the pub (much) later. Staring through the mote-filled air, into the abyss. 

The Reith Lectures
BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind