Jonathan Sumption unveiled as the 2019 Reith Lecturer for BBC Radio 4
Judges can tell us what the law is, but I want to explore different and more fundamental questions.Jonathan Sumption
Across five lectures, titled Law and the Decline of Politics, Jonathan Sumption will examine what the rule of law is, and what it is not; the advance of law to fill the gap left by politics; the expanding concepts of human rights and its impact on democracy; and the limits of a written constitution.
He will argue that politicians have surrendered ground to the courts without always reflecting on the wider implications. Judges have found themselves making decisions in areas which, in his view, should be settled through the normal course of politics.
Lord Sumption became a Justice of The Supreme Court in January 2012, one of only five people ever to have been appointed directly from the bar to the highest court of the land. He began his career as a professional historian. After four years as a history fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, he was called to the Bar in 1975. His practice covered all aspects of Commercial, EU, Public and Constitutional Law.
An accomplished historian, Sumption is also the author of a number of books including four volumes of a history of the Hundred Years War. The third volume, Divided Houses, was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for 2009. A final volume is in progress.
Jonathan Sumption says: “Judges can tell us what the law is, but I want to explore different and more fundamental questions. In a democracy, what makes the law legitimate? Why should we respect it? Or expect others to do so? What can it contribute to enabling us to live together in society? Can law provide the solutions, when politics has failed? These are important questions, especially now. We should reflect on them more often than we do.”
Gwyneth Williams, Controller of Radio 4, says: “We are living through a period of substantial change both nationally and globally and, as new patterns emerge, many of our most familiar ideas and institutions are being challenged. Who better then than Jonathan Sumption to take a clear, hard look at the law and how it serves modern society. I am delighted to welcome him as our next Reith lecturer and look forward to broadcasting his series next year.”
The Reith Lectures were inaugurated 71 years ago in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation's first director-general.
John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.
The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell who spoke on 'Authority and the Individual'. Among his successors were Arnold Toynbee (The World and the West, 1952), Robert Oppenheimer (Science and the Common Understanding, 1953) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State, 1966). The Reith Lectures have also been delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks (The Persistence of Faith, 1990), Dr Steve Jones (The Language of the Genes, 1991), Michael Sandal (A New Citizenship, 2009), Martin Rees (Scientific Horizons, 2010) and Aung San Suu Kyi and Eliza Manningham-Buller (Securing Freedom, 2011). Most recently the Reith Lecturers have been Niall Ferguson (The Rule of Law and Its Enemies, 2012), Grayson Perry (Playing to the Gallery, 2013), Dr. Atul Gawande (The Future of Medicine, 2015), Stephen Hawking (Black Holes, 2016), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Mistaken Identities, 2016), Hilary Mantel (Resurrection: The Art And Craft, 2017) and Margaret MacMillan (The Mark of Cain, 2018).
The Reith Archive is available at bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith