Since the election, there have been many commentators and protestors who have called on the Nationalist Party to go back to its roots. Funnily enough, though, the past leaders of the party would be aghast at how the PN’s roots are now being described.
That the party’s roots and driving motives would be misrepresented – at least according to its own self-image – would be no surprise and certainly not new. Several historians, with no sympathy for the PN, have done so. And many people, including some who now vote for it, have got their history canned by the party’s current or now defunct adversaries.
But to have people calling for the PN’s renewal by having it become a conservative party ‘again’? Or calls for a ‘Christian Democrat’ party where the job description sounds much more like US-style ‘compassionate conservatism’?
Sixteen years ago, I chaired a public discussion in which I had the former Nationalist grandee, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, sitting to my left, while another speaker, seated to my right, spoke about the PN and Labour, while casually referring to the PN as Malta’s conservative party.
Beside me, Mifsud Bonnici began to breathe audibly and heavily. A former president of the Republic, he maintained his customary façade of gravitas. But when his turn came to speak he couldn’t wait to get something off his chest: “The Nationalist Party is not a conservative party! Some of its core voters may be conservative but the party is not.”
He wasn’t going out on a limb. It tallied with the party’s self-description.
In 2001, the leader was still Eddie Fenech Adami, who liked to describe the PN’s political positioning using the classic Christian Democrat formula: “A party of the centre that looks towards the left.”
In other words, a party that takes seriously the questions of personal and group emancipation raised by the left. That considered economic democracy to be as vital as political democracy.
Unlike right-wing liberalism, it refused to see society as made up, fundamentally, only of the State and individuals. There were also the various community and organisational associations we associate with civil society.
Unlike social conservatism, it refused to endorse communities as they are. The status quo could be repressive and require fundamental reform. The past was not golden. Conservatism’s philosophy of history – the more things change, the more they remain the same – is false. Real progress is possible. And a real Christian democrat should work for it.
However, unlike socialism, Fenech Adami’s brand of Christian Democracy refused to subordinate individual and community to the State. Pluralism had to include institutional pluralism, where different non-State institutions were involved in social dialogue (what we’d now call the process of strategic planning).
Political parties change. The PN certainly has, over the near century and a half of its existence
A party of the centre that looks towards the left: today we’d call it a party of the radical centre. That term wasn’t around in 1986 when the PN, after years of internal discussion, beginning with broad public consultation and ending with the approval of its executive committee, published its Fehmiet Bażiċi (officially translated as Basic Policy, ‘Basic Principles’ having been deliberately rejected).
But, though ‘radical centre’ isn’t used in the document, there is no mistaking that it is what the PN saw itself as embodying in Maltese politics.
Did anyone say ‘conservative’? From the first pages, Fehmiet Bażiċi says it needs to say something about itself since it has often been misrepresented. And what it says is this:
That it believes in a long revolution. That its 19th-century origins as an ‘anti-Reform’ party are to be explained because those colonial reforms didn’t go far enough.
That its self-identification with ‘Christian Democracy’ didn’t mean it was a clerical party – indeed, its first leaders were sometimes accused of being anti-clerical.
(Mgr Fortunato Mizzi once described his father, Enrico, to me as fond of addressing his seminarian son as, “You priests…” Mgr Mizzi told me: “My father was a bit of a political liberal.”)
Fehmiet Bażiċi goes on to say it believed in finding a political formulation, in particular circumstances, in line with the Catholic Church’s social teaching (that is, on social justice, a civil economy and respect for fundamental rights), not its moral doctrines.
Indeed, it is in the very chapter on the family that the document makes explicit the separation between Church and State, and affirms the principle that a Christian Democrat government might see fit to permit at law, in the interests of public order, something that may be prohibited by Catholic morality. (The first draft contained, as an example, the legalisation of divorce, although the final draft deleted it.)
All this is a far cry from what is today, in Malta, being touted as ‘Christian democracy’, where the emphasis is on ‘Christian’ as though that is a sectarian label.
The original meaning of the term, however, going all the way back to the 19th century, laid the emphasis on ‘democracy’ (given that many Catholics at the time were actually conservative monarchists and against liberal democracy, that is, the democratic order that most of us think goes without saying today).
There is more. Fenech Adami’s PN affirmed its Christian Democrat credentials, as well as its long roots in the party’s history mainly because it was often misrepresented. However, there was another reason.
The party had a different strand, represented by Giorgio Borg Olivier. Italianate in many fundamental ways (right down to owning up to his superstitions, where, for example, he was wary of the number 17 rather than 13), he was British in his political outlook, finding himself most at sympathy with British liberalism and well-read in its classical thinkers.
(The late philsopher, Peter Serracino Inglott, who had several conversations with Borg Olivier on the subject, found that his knowledge wasn’t superficial and that he had mulled over the subject.)
Borg Olivier, who often described himself as a Christian and a democrat, but not a Christian Democrat, wanted the PN to represent a centrist liberalism. In some ways to the right of the Christian Democrats in his party; in other respects to the left.
He was not known as an ideologue. His political experience as leader – one long experience of keeping coalitions together, first to govern (1950-55), then to gain Malta’s independence – had taught him to keep his political opinions to himself as much as possible, to retain flexibility of manoeuvre.
However, when still deputy leader, in 1947, he made one passionate speech during a crucial electoral meeting, when the PN’s very existence was in the balance.
A new party – the Democratic Action Party – had just been founded by a former PN politician, Giuseppe Hyzler, who believed the PN was as good as dead by the 1940s. (He had in fact rejected Enrico Mizzi’s offer of the leadership.)
In a Valletta meeting, witnessed by Peter Serracino Inglott as a boy, Borg Olivier gave an impassioned speech against the DAP. Why? Because it was conservative. And the PN was not.
Fr Peter told me that, on that day, Borg Olivier completely outshone Mizzi, who had to follow him.
Political parties change. The PN certainly has, over the near century and a half of its existence. But if you’re going to appeal to a party’s identity, it’s worth getting that identity right. Otherwise, you rule yourself out of serious consideration as a critic.
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