‘Barra, Barra!’ is not an end in itself

All these years later, we tend to forget that Fenech Adami – when still relatively unknown and untested – formed part of an orchestrated manoeuvre to oust another incumbent PN leader, after another succession of stinging electoral defeats

There is something vaguely apt about the timing of the latest crisis to engulf Adrian Delia’s leadership of the PN: coinciding, as it did, with a fundraising event for Eddie Fenech Adami’s birthday.

Inevitably, this prompted comparisons between that former grandee of the Nationalist Party – the man who shaped the PN into the formidable, election-winning juggernaut most of us grew up knowing – and the party’s present leader: who seems to have reduced the PN to the lowest-ever ebb of its 125-year history.

In memes and online comments, many were moved to wonder how the once-glorious PN could possibly have gone from the sublimity we still associate with Eddie Fenech Adami, to the ridiculous situation it is clearly in under Adrian Delia today.

And I have to admit it is a perfectly appropriate question to ask.

But comparisons are odious for all sorts of reasons: not least, because they can always be tweaked to produce opposite results. There is another level at which Delia’s career almost mirrors that of Eddie Fenech Adami… at least, insofar as how those two politicians came to be leaders of the Nationalist Party in the first place.

All these years later, we tend to forget that Fenech Adami – when still relatively unknown and untested – formed part of an orchestrated manoeuvre to oust another incumbent PN leader, after another succession of stinging electoral defeats.

Admittedly, the circumstances are not interchangeable. Unlike Simon Busuttil in 2017 – who had lost the only election he ever contested as leader – George Borg Olivier clung onto his position despite losing both the 1971 and 1977 elections… at a time when there was universal consensus that he couldn’t possibly have won in 1981, either.

Nonetheless, Fenech Adami’s subsequent career has overshadowed the circumstances of his victory in 1977. No one seems to remember that he wasn’t the favourite in that contest by a long chalk: the main contenders being Guido de Marco, and the vastly more experienced Censu Tabone.

From this perspective, Fenech Adami’s ascendancy bears far more resemblance to Delia’s, than to either Busuttil or Lawrence Gonzi before him. Like Delia, Eddie was an outsider in his own leadership race; also like Delia, he was challenging a party establishment that had been entrenched for decades.

Both also unexpectedly defeated party veterans (Chris Said, in Delia’s case) for the post.

That, however, is more or less where the similarities end. For unlike Delia, Fenech Adami went on to successfully rebrand (if not entirely reinvent) the Nationalist Party: transforming it into a force that could easily stand toe-to-toe with Mintoff’s MLP, and win clear majorities in five out of six consecutive elections.

Again, however, comparisons can be deceiving. For on another level, Delia can quite easily be cast as a latter-day Borg Olivier: i.e., someone who can’t quite grasp the fact that his own political era is firmly over, and who eventually has to be shown the door (if not booted headlong out of the building).

This view, however, only reinforces the sheer anomaly of the PN’s current predicament – which, to be fair, is not entirely of Delia’s own making. Personally, I can’t exactly fault the logic of today’s PN ‘rebels’, who view Delia’s leadership as a guarantee of even greater defeats in future. But to carry on with the 1977 analogy: we can all see that there is an orchestrated manoeuvre to oust Delia, as there had been with Borg Oliver…

…but where is the replacement strategy? Where are the equivalents of Eddie, Guido and Censu, lining up to challenge Delia for the leadership? And where are the plans for the post-Delia era… when the PN will still have to rebrand/reinvent itself, under new leadership, if it hopes to ever pose a real threat to Robert Abela’s Labour?

Nowhere to be seen. The only force that seems to propel the anti-Delia movement is a fervent desire to see the back of this man forever. It is an echo of the same ‘Barra, barra!’ motif that had characterised the Simon Busuttil campaign (perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as it is coming from the same faction)… and, then as now, no thought whatsoever is being invested into two all-important questions: a) how to actually get rid of Delia, and; b) what to do with the Nationalist Party when he’s gone.

This brings me to another ironic aspect of the timing. All this comes after the same ‘Barra, barra!’ strategy had been used numerous times in quick succession... with spectacularly counterproductive results.

It was only last July that Delia won a vote of confidence in the PN executive council, after an almost identical attempt (by the same people) to oust him. Exactly how this could have come as a ‘surprise’ has befuddled me ever since. Effectively, the choice was between Delia and an empty chair; and while I am the first to underestimate Delia’s chances… I mean, come on. Even the late Spiridione Sant would have won, against no opposition at all…

Either way, the challenge served only to strengthen Delia’s hold on the leadership… a pattern we had all already seen before.

For the PN also seems to have forgotten all the lessons of its own past experience with Joseph Muscat. For over six years, its only strategy to unseat Muscat was to simply call for his resignation over absolutely everything under the sun. And granted, some of those resignation calls were certainly justified – especially after the events of last November – but then again, just look how that strategy actually panned out in the end.

Throughout his six-year stint as Prime Minister, all such attempts at character assassination seemed to have the effect of boosting his popularity in the polls. And besides: Muscat did eventually step down, on January 12… and by February 6, Labour had skyrocketed in the polls, while the PN’s popularity had nosedived to unprecedented new lows.

Once again, the PN had invested all its energies into demonising Muscat, and none into planning for the post-Muscat era: for all through the world as though Muscat’s departure – and not the PN’s own victory against him – was all along the only thing that ever mattered.

But the strategy backfired for other reasons, too. Now that Muscat is finally gone, all that political capital can be seen to have been wasted. None (or hardly any) of it can be effectively used against Robert Abela… a fact which also partly explains the results of our most recent survey.

Simply put, the PN cannot hope to defeat its opponents by simply denigrating them at every opportunity. It has to also come up with an alternative policy vision... to project an image of corresponding strength and stability… to properly position itself on the political spectrum… to offer practical solutions to ordinary people’s problems…

...in a nutshell, to do all the things Eddie Fenech Adami had so successfully done after becoming leader in 1977: back in the good old days, when the Nationalist Party still had a rough idea of what the word ‘politics’ actually meant.

Granted, the PN’s failure to do all this may indeed be Delia’s own responsibility, as party leader… but then again, his opponents within the PN haven’t come up with any real alternative to Delia, either. They still hope to unseat him merely on the strength of their own personal antipathy towards the man – as they’ve already unsuccessfully tried to do once, and as they also failed to do with Muscat – and not for any merit of their own.

It is almost as though the PN is trapped in a ‘Groundhog Day’ of its own making: destined to repeat the same mistakes of the past, over and over again. And incidentally, one other mistake it is repeating concerns the long-term survival hopes of the Nationalist Party as a whole.

Perhaps the most glaring flaw in the ‘Delia-must-go’ mantra is that it simply fails to address the underlying cause of Delia’s unpopularity in the first place. Delia is not the cause of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that has now opened up between the various factions; he is merely a symptom.

So whether he himself goes or stays, the pathology itself will still remain… and may even be exacerbated, depending on the precise circumstances of his eventual departure.

On this, at least, there is one thing we can all agree upon: Delia cannot possibly be the one to heal the party’s internal wounds (not when, in the eyes of his critics, he himself is responsible for many of them). But while his departure from the scene has undeniably become a necessity… it is not an end in itself.

To stand any chance of surviving in years and decades to come, the PN will still need to confront the demons of its recent past. And it cannot possibly hope to overcome them, just by shouting ‘Barra, Barra!’ from the rooftops until its voice gives out.