If you know something will be harmful to someone, should you try to prevent that harm occurring? Or, if the harm has occurred, should you try and ameliorate it?
I think the answer to both, for most people, would be yes.
I thought about this issue because of two events: one five days ago and one almost forty years ago.
The older one first. November 18th marks the fortieth anniversary of Jonestown, the mass-murder/suicide committed by the followers of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple cult in Guyana. Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to investigate the cult at the behest of relatives, some of whom travelled with him. He offered repatriation back to the US for any People’s Temple members who wanted to leave and promised to write a Congressional Report on his findings. For his efforts he became only the second US Congressman in history to be assassinated in office, and his killing directly led to the tragic murder/suicide of nine hundred and eighteen people including nearly three-hundred children.
There had been warning signs (they were what prompted Congressman Ryan’s intervention) but the question still remains: could more have been done? I think not. With hindsight, maybe the US Government would have worked with their Guyanan counterparts, but we can only speculate. The best intervention at the time seems to be the one Leo Ryan pursued, the worst could have led to a Waco type siege.
What about the event five days ago? Hurricane Michael developed remarkably quickly forming as a depression in October 2nd and making landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane just over a week later, decimating the Florida pan-handle.
General evacuation orders were issued, but, as always happens, a few people held out and refused to leave. Should the people who stayed be abandoned to their fate? Should the authorities give up on them? Of course not, everything should be done to help as many people as possible, even if the decision they initially made was obviously detrimental. In those circumstances, where the threat is easily perceived and the response promises a reasonable degree of success, failure to act is a dereliction of duty. I firmly believe that governments have a duty to help much in line with the hippocratic oath of the medical profession:
“I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course…”
This if often shortened to the phrase: primum non nocere – first do no harm.
Doctors, like politicians, are privy to specialist information with access to experts and incredible amounts of evidence. Much more so than the average person in the street. I suspect it is why ¾ of the UK Parliament supported Remain in the Brexit referendum in 2016. They knew then that Brexit would cause immense harm to an economy and society that, over the last forty years, has become indelibly entwined with our European neighbours.
This Saturday I will be marching with hundreds of thousands for a new People’s Vote on the Brexit deal (or as it increasingly looks no deal). I do this not because I support a People’s Vote as my primary solution, I don’t, it is very much my backstop.
My preferred solution would be for Parliament to exercise its duty and obligation and stop Brexit. Stop it now. Follow the part of the hypocritic oath that states:
“Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course…”
After two years negotiation we face the prospect of isolation in a world centered on free-trade. We face the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. As commentator after commentator has pointed out, the best agreement we can have with the EU is the current one we enjoy.
If Parliament abandons Brexit, will the people be angry? Will they throw out the Members of Parliament who do not follow the “will of the people”? The courageous ones who will not allow poison to be inflicted? Maybe. Will there be riots or civic unrest? Possibly.
Will these things happen anyway as the full impact of Brexit are felt? Certainly. If the prospect of no deal is as bad as the experts suggest I cannot see the people supporting MPs who inflicted it on the country, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, especially when we all know the posh-boys of the Leave campaign will take no responsibility for the mess they have created. As former British Prime Minister, John Major, said in a recent Guardian article:
“Those who persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer will never be forgiven.”
I would argue that those who voted to go through with “the will of the people”, knowing the brutality of the impact, will suffer the same fate.
It is hard to put your career on the line for the public good, it takes courage. Our Members of Parliament must recognize that they are representatives NOT delegates. The referendum was advisory. If they believe a policy is wrong they have a moral duty to vote against it or reverse it, particularly a mistake as serious as Brexit. Now, with timing that can only be described as macabre, the EU summit to respond to a potential “No Deal” Brexit will fall on the anniversary weekend of Jonestown.
The madness can stop. The madness must stop. Parliament can stop it, but only if it’s privileged members vote to stop it. That would be a vote on behalf of the people. A vote to take back control. A vote to stop the harm.