I remember an old veteran of the Party who is no longer with us (by which I mean he’s dead, not that he switched to Labour) speaking to the guy next to him with that cold half irony half bitterness of the long in the tooth supporter of the losing side while one of the less brilliant speakers on stage was mouthing some vague wisdom.
“Int liberali jew konservattiv? Għax naħseb jien l-aħħar Nazzjonalist li għad baqa’!”
It’s natural for a party to search its own soul and examine its conscience after a poor electoral result. But it’s a very particular process when that party’s ambition is to meet the support of more than half the population. That is a lot of views that it must aggregate and it is not easy to answer the question ‘what are we for?’.
It is also natural to lack self-confidence when you’ve lost. When you’ve won, self-confidence trumps doubt and differences — that are as real as when you’ve lost but are ignored and overlooked.
There’s no western democracy where the socially conservative or the socially liberal vote alone gain the support of more than half the population. That level of consensus is just very unlikely and even if the planets align for a time to make that happen, it is simply impossible to sustain in the long term.
It is the same for the green vote, the economic libertarian, the law and order disciplinarian, the anti-migrant, the isolationist, the managed-economy socialist, or any other political program that is easily identifiable. From a menu of choices, voters pick, choose, drop and change and shuffle endless combinations of different political colours that make an ever changing and to some extent consistent series of cocktails from one election to the next.
No one expects elections to have a final answer on the formula to govern the country. Not in a normal democracy. Any parliament will have different streams of the left to right range with varying levels of support from one political season to the next. A policy is negotiated and debated transparently from the perspectives of the full facets of the political spectrum. Controversy or consensus provide an outcome which almost always nobody is entirely happy with but agrees is a step ahead.
This is no formula for eternal perpetuity. Fukuyama got that one wrong.
After some time of this small-ripple consensus electorates get frustrated and start doubting whether the ‘traditional’ parties of compromise, all this bargaining and negotiation, are really as progressive as they promise to be or are they rather paralysis dressed up as political dialogue. That is when voters try something new and shuffle everything up, going to an extreme or the other, left or right, or opt for some populist centre that stands for everything and nothing.
Nobody suggests this is a faultless process. It is the process that gave us Tangentopoli and P2 in Italy, the paralysed planned economy of France, the fascist tendencies in Hungary and to go some decades further back the extremes of fascism and communism during the last century.
Malta’s electoral system was designed to have this multi-coloured multi-faceted multi-party effect as well. It’s one of the ironies of history that when the British gave us the Single Transferable Vote they wanted to avoid scenarios that their own first-past-the-post system (or the new second-ballot system which in France is in effect giving the legislature wholesale to the president’s party) where a single political grouping can dominate the elected chamber.
The British designed the STV for Ireland. It was part of their imperial divide and conquer program to ensure that in voting for multiple candidates across parties, voters return multiple parties to parliament and there is therefore disunity on the Irish side when negotiating with the colonial master. It worked in Ireland. Still does. There rarely are less than 10 parties in parliament there.
The same system did not work quite so well for the British here. Very early politics aligned along two poles here (although one pro-British pole gradually gave way to its proto-communist substitute) and pretty much stayed that way. Many small parties tried, and failed, to penetrate the system, blaming, wrongly, the electoral system which they argue favours bigger parties when it actually is designed to do the opposite. It is really voters who never invested their trust into small parties.
And why is that?
If the Nationalists are made up of Catholics and Liberals and Libertarians and Socialists and Greens and Rural Conservatives, why is there not a party for each one of those political preferences?
The same argument could be made for Labour. There are Communists, Greens, Rural Conservatives, Socialists, Fascists and Fabians in the Labour Party. How do they stick together?
It is the winning days, when the question is not being asked so much, that the answer is paradoxically so obvious. A Labour government or a Nationalist government is a coalition that implements a cohesive program that brings together, chooses between and ranks the views and the desires of the various elements within it.
So far the Maltese electorate has preferred it that way.
Our political parties are effectively a long term coalition of the strands that make them up. Those strands compete for space on their party’s program, for access to office, for the ability to influence policy. Admittedly this process is not quite as sophisticated as described and overriding considerations often take precedence over this internal policy dance.
One consideration is charisma. An effective leader of a party does not want to be like that French revolutionary who sees a crowd running and realises he must chase it in order to lead it. The Italians have a verb which poorly translates to ‘to drag’: trascinare. A strong leader drags the multi-polar aspirations of the components of his party and brings them together into a cohesive whole.
Another consideration is national need or urgency. When a consensus develops to pursue an urgent mission — such as independence or EU membership — members of the party, and sub-groupings within it, agree to suspend their views and agenda in the service of the greater collective ambition and desire. This suspension is temporary and often exacts an eventual price or compromise paid in influence or credit in the constant bargaining for policy prioritisation.
The third and finally obvious consideration is doing what it takes to win elections. No one is in a political party to stay in perpetual opposition. Therefore the option to form a fringe group — communist, explicitly fascist, or even green — is taken up only by people who are interested in putting forward policy recommendations, but not interested in actually implementing any of these from government. For those joining the ranks of the PN or PL, whatever their own political frame of mind and preference, the over-riding ambition is to be in government and actually implement what one believes in, even if only in part.
This standing compromise is nothing but a permanent state of coalition building and re-shaping. Coalitions are by definition the formation of alliances where components compromise on their strongly-held views in order to reach a commonly shared higher goal.
At no point are these coalitions more tightly bound than when an election is approaching. Disagreements, a natural and intrinsic part of politics unless guns are involved, are suspended if not forgotten and a strong cohesive face is presented to the public which must choose not from a menu of 10 colours on the political spectrum but from two broad coalitions: broad churches as they say in the lingo.
At no point are these coalitions weaker than when an election has just passed and is lost. The charisma of leadership naturally diminishes and therefore there is no one and nothing to trascinare – to drag – the competing views within the party. The motivation of an election is as far as it can be in a democracy at the beginning of a term, so members feel this is the only time they can actually afford to speak their mind and where a little public disunity and some outdoor dirty laundry would not do irreparable harm to the party’s eventual chances. And finally the driver of a higher aim, once an election is lost, becomes a bit of an embarrassment as the aim has just been resoundingly rejected by the electorate. So that too is out of the window.
The Labour Party has experienced these crises repeatedly and devastatingly over the years between 1981 and 2013. In the wide gulf between Dom Mintoff and Joseph Muscat, Labour did not have a charismatic leader to drive it in any coherent direction. Until Alfred Sant, the loony dictatorship-of-the-proletariat state-control of the means of production resisted change. EU membership tore them apart. Cohesion came with Joseph Muscat and a disciplinarian fascism that is both electorally successful and ominously cankerous to the moral backbone of his party and by extension the country.
The PN lost elections too in this time. Every time it loses elections, those ideological elements who feel they could have made a greater contribution to an alternative and more victorious recent history of the party had they been allowed, openly say so.
There was nothing in Tonio Fenech’s article of today that he did not think six months ago. But six months ago, the combination of Simon Busuttil’s leadership, the shared mission to clean Castille from corruption, and the unifying ambition to win the election, meant that Tonio Fenech just as freely expressed his views within the party with rather more discretion.
He was not wrong then. He is not wrong now. Nor are those who disagreed with him then and now. The debate about the confessional and secular sides of the Partit Nazzjonalista are as old as its existence. Both sides of that debate have always jockeyed for relative influence. And they have both understood that in order for even part of the political aspirations of both and either side of that debate to ever have the time and access to be implemented from government, the coalition must stick together and both sides need to work together.
No one suggests it’s easy. The easier solution is to answer the question cleanly with your personal views, as Tonio Fenech did today, and say those are the views that ought to prevail within the party. It’s just as easy to do as many did today in response to his article to say he’s completely wrong and the opposite views are the right ones for the party.
That’s the easy way out to form a pressure group in our community and make sure your point of view is heard and hopefully influence the political class to take those views into account. But everyone of those lobby groups understands there are other lobby groups and those with the responsibility to decide must put everything in balance and produce a policy that pleases no one entirely but is in the national interest.
There has to be space for Tonio Fenech’s views in our society. The sobering pause that the Catholic argument contributes in a rapidly changing western democracy provides an enlightening, rational and often refreshing balance to some flavour of the month notions that are thrown at us without much proper thought. When an entire nation seems to suspend its appreciation of the real distinction between right and wrong, some old-fashioned wise words are just the medicine we need.
Ultimately the Catholic Church itself and those many who argue for it and in support of it do so everyday.
There has to be space for the Catholic view within the Nationalist Party. The Nationalist Party has the job to design the future of the country, a massive responsibility indeed which it cannot seriously fulfil if it exorcises (excuse the pun) Catholicism or Social Conservatism from within it. Where would we be if we forgot that ultimate Christian inspiration that the real mission of politics is the dignity of woman, child and man, each and everyone a whole image of the divine endowed with a universal potential politics exists to seek to help be fulfilled?
Incidentally it would have more than an identity crisis without its Catholic heritage and living, vibrant contribution from within it. It would not be able to win elections either. No semantic acrobatics here. The numbers just don’t add up.
The flipside to that is that if the Nationalist Party becomes a confessional party mouthing the Catholic agenda at the exclusion of alternative views, it is just as doomed to become a fringe sideshow on the political scene. The Nationalist Party depends on the exciting cosmopolitan, humanist, secular, modernist, tolerant, egalitarian, individualistic European philosophy: the individual — the abstract child of the Christian woman, child and man — which politics must serve.
For this is really the binding cement of this coalition — the common mission of liberal and conservative, of Catholic and secular, of environmentalists and ruralist, of libertarian and socialist — that politics exists for the improvement of the lives of the individual members of the community around us and ultimately the balance of the views to be sought and found is but the service of the needs of those members as individuals and as part of a greater whole.
For there can be no human dignity (Catholicism), if individuals are poor (Christian Socialism), if their environment is degraded and their health neglected (Green), if their right not to suffer (Social Liberalism) or their right to create and enjoy their own wealth (Economic Libertarian).
Tonio Fenech’s question today echoes in all our heads as we reflect and debate after the last election. What do we stand for? I’m reminded of Eddie Fenech Adami’s perennial answer to that question. Politics is service. That is what we’re for. This is not a creed of dead certainties. In political life we are faced with more questions than we often can answer. But this one question we can answer. We must do what makes people’s lives better. And we are not to shut doors to options and ideas that can help us do so.