If the PN reinvented itself in the 1970s… why can’t it do the same today?

… the likeliest outcome of this ‘tug-of-war’, by far, is that the rope itself will very simply ‘snap, somewhere in the middle’…

Mario de Marco may have unwittingly opened a can of worms
Mario de Marco may have unwittingly opened a can of worms

I hate to say it – largely because I agree with most of what he said, at last week’s PN General Conference – but Mario de Marco may have unwittingly opened a can of worms, with his comment that: ‘The PN has always been a centre-left party’.

Now: for the sake of accuracy, what he REALLY said was: “Our politics aren’t right-wing, but they have their roots in Christian Democrat ideology. In the words of Alcide Amedeo Francesco De Gasperi, we must be a centrist party that looks towards the left. While we believe in giving everyone opportunities, we have always believed in those at the bottom, workers and politics of solidarity…”

And while it all seems harmless enough, on paper… those words may one day return to haunt the Nationalist Party, in the months and years to come.

Right, let’s start with the obvious. The above quote may be an accurate reflection of what Mario de Marco himself THINKS, about the history of his own party – and he is not alone. It seems: writing in the Times this week, Ranier Fsadni pointed towards the PN’s ‘Fehmiet Bazici’ (a document published in 1986) as ‘proof’ of the same claim.

By no means does it follow, however, that the vast multitudes of people out there, who identify as ‘Nationalists’, will actually agree with Mario de Marco on this point.

Indeed, a great many of them might struggle to understand what he was even on about… seeing as ‘Alcide Amedeo Francesco De Gasperi’ is hardly what you would call a ‘household name’, in contemporary Maltese politics. (Be honest, now: how many people below the age of 50 had ever even heard of ‘de Gasperi’, before? And of those who has: how many mistook it for a mispronunciation of ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’, in Italian…?)

But the problems run far deeper than that. Let’s stick with de Gasperi, for the moment. Mario de Marco quotes this post-war Italian prime minister, almost as though he were one of the PN’s own ‘Founding Fathers’… instead of the founder of Italy’s (now defunct) ‘Democrazia Cristiana’ party, in 1943.

Oddly enough, however, the Nationalist Party very recently celebrated its 135th anniversary: suggesting that it must predate both de Gasperi, and the emergence of ‘Democrazia Cristiana’, by anywhere up to 70 or 80 years.

Needless to add, the ‘Partito Anti-Riformista’ founded by Fortunato Mizzi in 1880 (which evolved into the ‘Partit Nazjonalista’ we know today) was very far from being the ‘centrist party, looking towards the left’, envisaged by Mario de Marco (even for the simple reason that ‘centrist politics’ didn’t really exist, anywhere in the world, at any point before World War II…)

Speaking of which: it is also a little difficult to reconstruct the PN’s 135-year history; and somehow fail to notice that (under Enrico Mizzi) it had openly supported Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, in the build-up to the Second World War.

And yes, yes; I am well aware that the PN’s affinity towards Fascism was of a more ‘cultural’, than ‘overtly political’ nature… but still. To describe the Nationalist Party as ‘having its roots in centre-left, Christian Democratic ideology’ – when the same party had adopted the Fascist anthem as its own, in the 1930s – well, it’s a bit of a stretch, wouldn’t you say?

But let’s not resuscitate long-dead political controversies, for no reason.  My point is that – far from being a quintessentially ‘centre-left’ party, since its inception – the Nationalist Party has actually gone through countless political transformations, in its long and chequered history.

It started out as a movement opposing the Colonial imposition of the English language (instead of its own preferred choice, Italian); it evolved into a fully-fledged ‘nationalistic’ party, demanding ‘Self-Government’ (and later, ‘Independence’) from Britain; and along the way, it allowed itself to be shaped and moulded, by the political context of every age it happened to go through…. over, and over again.

At which point, an uncomfortable truth begins to emerge from our historical reconstruction [Note: and a similar exercise would reveal equally glaring contradictions in the Labour Party’s history, too].

The reality, it seems, is that the PN’s current (real-or-perceived) identity as a ‘Christian Democratic party, along the lines proposed by Alcide Amedeo Francesco De Gasperi’, is NOT – as Mario de Marco argues – one of the PN’s ‘defining characteristics’, as a party.

On the contrary: it seems to be just another of the many ‘phases’ that the PN has passed through, since 1880; and as such – just like all the others - it cannot be expected to ‘last forever’.

This becomes exceptionally visible, when you consider the precise circumstances under which Eddie Fenech Adami reforged the PN’s identity, in the 1970s/1980s. That document Ranier Fsadni alluded to this week – ‘Fehmiet Bazici’ – actually marked the culmination of a decade-long transformation, that had started before Eddie Fenech Adami had even contested the pivotal 1977 PN leadership election.

And there was a rather pressing reason why Eddie Fenech Adami – flanked by numerous ‘co-conspirators’ – felt he had to unseat Borg Olivier, after almost three decades at the helm.

By 1976 – when Labour inflicted a bruising defeat on The Nationalist Party, for the last time – the PN was, quite simply, ‘going nowhere’. And Eddie Fenech Adami understood, at the time, that two things desperately needed to happen, for any of that to change.

1)    The PN needed to replace the ageing (but undeniably charismatic) Borg Olivier, with someone dynamic enough to actually confront Mintoff, head-on;

2)    It had to ‘reinvent’ itself – and fast! - to appeal to the type of voter who would otherwise simply ‘continue supporting Mintoff’, indefinitely.

In other words, Eddie had to sweep the ‘left-wing’ carpet from right under Mintoff’s feet, if the PN were to stand any chance of ever defeating Labour in an election. And he did so, by quite literally re-positioning the previous ‘right-wing’ PN, towards the left-of-centre.

This, by the way, is where de Gasperi comes into the picture. For unlike Eddie Fenech Adami (a self-avowed de Gasperi disciple, to begin with) George Borg Olivier did NOT subscribe to the tenets of Italy’s Democrazia Cristiana. [Note: I have this only on second-hand sources: but Borg Olivier is believed to have said, “I am a Christian;  I am a Democrat; but I am not a Chrisian Democrat”].

Now: I wasn’t around, when any of this happened (well: I WAS, actually… but only six years old). So I can’t tell you whether the political atmosphere of the late 1970s, was in any way ‘comparable’ to that of today.

The circumstances, however, certainly do seem to mirror each other quite closely. Then as now, the Nationalist Party was internally divided, along (mostly) ideological lines; then as now, there was a bruising behind-the-scenes battle, for the PN’s ‘soul’; and – also then as now – there was a growing perception that the Nationalist Party was facing an ‘existential threat’…

…in other words: that it had to ‘change, or die’.

… which brings us back to Mario de Marco’s (somewhat unilateral) statement, at last week’s PN General Conference. Even if we accept his definition of the PN, as a traditionally ‘centre-left party’ – and many Nationalists (including the likes of Edwin Vassallo) certainly do no such thing – it would still leave us with the awkward prospect, that…

… well, the PN only identifies with that ideology, because it helped it to win an election in 1987... and then again in 1992,1998,2003, and finally 2008.

From that point on, however: the PN’s ‘centre-left roots’ have clearly lost their magical ‘resonance’, with a population that has now rejected the same PN – by ever-increasing margins – in the last three elections, on the trot.

Now: to be fair to Mario de Marco, he did also say that (words to the effect of) ‘he would prefer remaining in opposition, rather than compromising on those principles’.

But let’s face it, folks: political parties cannot afford to ‘remain in opposition’, forever.  (Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much point in their existence, would there?)

And this is why I predicted, earlier, that those words will return to ‘haunt’ a party that is already internally divided, as we speak. The PN’s own history clearly shows that it has often been more-than willing, to discard its former principles in order to guarantee its own political survival…

… and with the old principles no longer delivering the string of historic election-victories, that they once used to: Mario de Marco has practically spelt out to us, in no uncertain terms, that the PN has to once again undergo an umpteenth ‘transformation’, in policy and ideology, if it is to survive.

So will it now do what Eddie Fenech Adami did, so successfully, back in 1977… and ‘reinvent’ itself along an entirely different political model? Or will it doggedly persist in an ideological direction that is, very clearly, ‘taking it nowhere’?

Naturally, I can’t see that far into the future, myself. But one thing seems certain, from where I’m sitting right now. Either way, the PN will lose a not-insignificant chunk of its own voter-base, in the bargain (namely, the ones who feel ‘left-out’, by the chosen ideology.)

And given that the two directions in which the party is currently being ‘pulled’ – i.e., the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the political spectrum – are, by definition, ‘mutually exclusive’…

… the likeliest outcome of this ‘tug-of-war’, by far, is that the rope itself will very simply ‘snap, somewhere in the middle’…