A century ago one of the best-selling authors in the world was the son of a Scottish Free Church Presbyterian minister. This man had an extraordinary life. In his 65 years he fit in being a barrister, soldier, spymaster, historian, poet, journalist (including, dear readers, a stint as editor of The Spectator), elected MP who supported free trade and women’s suffrage, and author. Indeed, he wrote some 90 books, only 30 of which were fiction. Oh, and he was reputed to be Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite fiction writer. The man to whom I refer was John Buchan, who was made the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935 when he was appointed governor general of Canada. Buchan was the last non-Canadian to be appointed governor general and died in office in 1940, firm friends with the Canadian PM of the day (on the other side of the political divide as it happened), with two of his four children spending the bulk of their lives in Canada, not Britain. So add governor general to his list of jobs and wonder, like me, what you’ve done with your life.
I like some of Buchan’s biographies, especially that of Augustus, but the man is really only widely remembered as a writer of thrillers, or as these books were called back then ‘shockers’. Readers will know Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915), which, twenty years later, Alfred Hitchcock turned into an even better movie, one Orson Welles considered a masterpiece. The book’s hero was Richard Hannay and Buchan went on to write many more Hannay books. I’ve been re-reading some of them and in one, not quite a century old, Buchan has a character talk of ‘the moral imbecile…humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric’.
Buchan was speaking of the mindset of a revolutionary but I happened to be reading him last week as former top British judge Jonathan Sumption was being pilloried by vast swathes of the virtue-signalling twitterati as well as the entire edifice of the BBC. It struck me how closely Buchan’s description of the revolutionary mindset fit that of many of those who are today opposed to any expression of scepticism with regard to Covid lockdowns, mandatory mask wearing, or who express any opposition to the greatest assault on our civil liberties ever made by a heavy-handed government in the name of a virus with a lethality that is only a fraction of that of the Spanish Flu.
Former UK Supreme Court Justice Sumption is one of the most outspoken members of Britain’s little coterie of lockdown sceptics and certainly the most eminent. Last week, Sumption debated lockdowns on the BBC. It will shock no one to learn that the producers did what they could to stack the deck against him but leaving that to one side, consider what Sumption said that caused such a furore; that ‘the older you are, the less the value of your life because there’s less of it left’. Sumption was then challenged by a woman with Stage IV cancer who accused him of claiming her life was not valuable. Sumption replied ‘I didn’t say it wasn’t valuable, I said it was less valuable’.
The next morning Sumption elaborated on his views on a different program, noting that he had been making a point about the value placed on lives by health economists and policymakers, not expressing a judgement about a person’s intrinsic value. ‘It doesn’t mean that people are morally worth less; it doesn’t mean that they are worth less in the eyes of God’. But to no avail. Sumption was savaged by the usual suspects. The attacks became so unhinged that Brendan O’Neill, editor of sp!ked, commented that we had entered a new era of demonology. His point was that the moralising of those defending the status quo had become so absolute that they demanded that free speech, scepticism and everything else be thrown out of the window to suppress and attack the expression of any unorthodox opinions by the ‘agents of the kingdom of evil’. But here’s the thing. Sumption was completely correct. In a world of limited resources, health economists weigh people’s future prospects all the time in allocating such things as organ transplants or taxpayer subsidies of incredibly expensive drugs. There’s even a jargon for it – ‘quality adjusted life years’.
The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme won’t pay for drugs over a certain cost because the money could be better spent helping so many others to buy less expensive drugs. In a world of unlimited resources this wouldn’t apply but we don’t live in that sort of world. We live in a world where even one’s time on earth is limited, so yes, from the policy-makers’ point of view (to say nothing of a parent’s) a young life is in a very real sense worth more than an old life – and I say that as one who fits in the latter camp (however difficult that might be to tell at a glance). And yet all of these lockdowns have been at the expense of the young for the benefit of the old. Those under 30 are no more likely to die of Covid than of flu yet school closings are ruining the life opportunities of the young, especially poor children. The economic costs of lockdowns will hit the young more than the old — think debt repayment — while those without seniority are the first to be laid off. Indeed, many older citizens will come out of lockdowns wealthier than they went in, thanks to asset inflation, which you can’t say of the young.
If you treat someone who makes those points as beyond the pale, as someone who needs to be not debated but silenced and cast out from polite society, then that strikes me as putting yourself smack, dab in the same class as Buchan’s revolutionary – ‘utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric’. A ‘humourless moral imbecile’, in other words. A bit harsh? I don’t think so. All these moral absolutists — ‘not on my watch’, ‘you want to kill the old’, ‘we can’t allow any views that run against government health advice’, etc. — are fired by the fervour, self-righteousness and sanctimony of self-assured Puritans who believe they have a pipeline to God and that their moral antennae quiver at just the right godly frequency. Anyone who contests or disputes their views must be silenced and cast asunder.
John Buchan, the son of a Free Church preacher man, never fell into the camp of sanctimonious cancel culture. He despised it. I have little doubt he, and Richard Hannay for that matter, would be manning the barricades with Sumption. God, I worry about the state of free speech today and loathe the speech-suppressing battalions all around us.
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