Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Stand firm, Tory rebels, and remember The Eighty


TOMORROW MPs will vote on the government’s ‘Plan B’. Having falsely presented the Omicron variant as a deadly threat to public health Boris Johnson has, it would seem, shamelessly used its emergence to reintroduce a mask mandate and impose vaccine passports as a way to knock unfavourable stories about himself off the front pages. This is disgraceful, but it would scarcely be any better had he been sincere in introducing these totally unnecessary, and anyway ineffective, measures. Whilst at least 60 Conservative MPs have openly declared they will not support Johnson, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has announced that his party will side with the government. It appears the vote is nothing more than a formality.

If any of our politicians are still torn on whether they should vote with their party or their conscience, it is a fitting time to remember ‘The Eighty’, those French parliamentarians who, on July 10 1940, defiantly refused to vote in favour of full powers for Marshal Philippe Pétain. For the next four years Pétain led the authoritarian and morally bankrupt Vichy government wielding the judicial, administrative and executive control that this vote granted him. Additionally Pétain was given the right to name his successor and chose Pierre Laval, who wished for a German victory and notoriously requested the deportation of Jewish children, an option that even the Nazis had not demanded.

Some 650 politicians cast their vote that day, with 570 agreeing to hand full power to a man who had committed France to being a satellite state of Nazi Germany. Only 80 of the men in both chambers said ‘Non!’ to Pétain’s puppet government and to collaborating with the Nazi regime. Voting with their conscience, despite the great personal risk they faced, was an act of immense courage and integrity which was commemorated after the war and is still remembered today.

In continued acts of bravery many of The Eighty joined the Resistance after they were removed from politics with several caught by the Gestapo and deported east. Vincent Badie was sent to Dachau while Camille Bedin was arrested in October 1943 and deported to Flossenbürg concentration camp. Both men survived but another,  Augustin Malroux, perished at Bergen-Belsen. Malroux wrote a letter to his wife and children on the day of the vote telling them he was not afraid of refusing to endorse Pétain and that he would never betray everything that he believed in:

‘I was raised to love the Republic. Today they intend to crucify her. I will not be part of this murderous act . . . I am still a “protester”. I hope to stay one my whole life, honouring those who came before me and never making you ashamed of me.’

A statue of Malroux was unveiled in 1948 by his fellow rebel and three times Prime Minister of France Léon Blum, who himself spent two years at Buchenwald.

Remembering the men he had stood with, Blum said: ‘Every one of them knew they risked ending their days in a German or French prison . . . they knew it but they would not yield.’ 

At a time when liberty in the UK is hanging by a thread and the media engage in a relentless daily campaign of dehumanising the unvaccinated, for example here:

and here we desperately need people with the calibre of The Eighty. Our prospective rebels face none of the dreadful consequences of those who looked to their conscience in July 1940. At the most they will forgo a potential Cabinet position or face a barrage of Twitter abuse from Covid zealots.

It is a small price to pay to keep your humanity.

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Mary McGreechin
Mary McGreechin
Mary McGreechin is a medical historian and researcher from Glasgow.

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