The ties that bind us

Alexis Tsipras without a tie, Simon Busuttil taking off his jacket, Joseph Muscat with his pastel blue ties and Dom Mintoff sporting those infamous belts with bizarrely huge metal buckles – Cottonera kitsch, of course.

Tsipras - no tie please
Tsipras - no tie please
Mintoff - buckle bully
Mintoff - buckle bully

As everyone must by now have noticed, the new Greek Prime Minister, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras and his male Cabinet Ministers never wear a tie. This is not just a coincidence, of course, but a political statement.

The message is that the new Greek government is not part of the establishment and is not bound by the conventions of other Western governments: it is reacting against the herd instinct by showing that
it does not necessarily follow
where others lead. It is also a sign of disrespect to those who would want Greece to do their bidding.

Rather than continually repeating that his government has a
different approach to the country’s problems and will not follow the conventional wisdom of bowing to the great European project, come hell or high water, not wearing a tie says it all for Tsipras. Whether this message will lead Greece to the promised land is another matter.

I reckon that somehow or other the Greeks will make it as the ties that bind Europe together matter more than Tsipras’s ‘no tie’ image. Even so, one should not dismiss this tie-less statement as irrelevant.

As I write, the news is that
the European Central Bank has decided to increase its emergency funding to Greek commercial banks, raising the ceiling for emergency liquidity from €65bn to €68.3bn, when the Greek central bank had requested an extension of some €5bn. The move came a day before Athens was expected to request a six-month extension on a European loan agreement without any strings attached.

One must not forget that only last Monday, Greece rejected a plan to extend its current €240bn bailout deal that expires in 10 days, describing it as absurd.

If a new deal is not agreed in principle this week, Greece could have difficulty servicing its debts... leading to more capital being pulled out of Greek banks and to an eventual so-called messy ‘grexit’, with Greece leaving the eurozone.

Despite the evident lack of a formal tie in his attire, Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, said his country’s request for a loan extension will be worded in such a way as to be acceptable to all parties... whether wearing a tie or not!

Previously a Greek government source reacting to the (tie wearing) German finance minister’s dismissal of a loan extension as unacceptable, accused Germany of “arrogance” in its approach to the debt negotiations.

So the gesture that the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, had made when he met Tsipras and publicly presented him with a tie as a gift was not a cheap jibe without any significance, either. It was an invitation for the Greek PM to join the club and conform!

Using attire and other seemingly irrelevant ploys as a means of sending political messages is no original Greek strategy. Other ploys sometimes flop, as happened recently in the UK with Labour’s pink bus.

The pink bus – which Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, described as “magenta” – aims to reach the nine million women who did not vote in the UK’s last general election. But the choice of colour was criticised by campaigners against gender stereotyping, more so with most voters feeling that by travelling around Britain in a pink bus to try and attract female voters, the Labour Party was ‘patronising women’.

Surely a case where bowing to convention backfired!

Turning to the local scene, have you noticed how Simon Busuttil has taken lately to removing his jacket as part of the ritual when addressing the party faithful? Funny? Not really! Another political statement, of course, this time saying that the PN has a lot of hard work ahead of it.

Many had noticed – and laughed at – Joseph Muscat when it was obvious that he had ditched the red ties that were so popular with his predecessors who led Labour before him and opted for a pastel blue tie. The message was that Muscat was no socialist left-winger and moderation was the name of the new Labour game. Muscat’s pale blue tie was no laughing matter and even if his political adversaries thought it was funny, the subtle message sank in.

Of course, Dom Mintoff was a past master of making political statements with the way he behaved and the way he dressed. Most of it was inverted snobbery, no doubt. His attire was sometimes grotesque, purposely I say. The message: beware of the bully who stands no nonsense.

And Mintoff’s notorious way of hosting guests at
his ‘Gharix’
at Delimara
– using his infamous crockery
with no piece matching the other – spoke volumes whatever anybody says, or used
to say, this was not a reflection of Mintoff’s ignorance of the rules
of etiquette. It was in fact, the opposite: he knew his etiquette but wanted to send the message across that conventional niceties were of no consequence.

On the other hand, George Borg Olivier was a stickler for etiquette and the right way of doing things. His formal attire on the night when Malta became independent in 1964 says it all. He would not dream of going to Parliament without a jacket and for a long time he insisted that all the Nationalist MPs should follow suit – excuse the unintended pun.

I remember the day Louis Galea decided to defy Borg Olivier’s instructions on what to wear in Parliament. It was a summer day,
of course, and Louis simply donned a shirt – just as the Labour MPs and Ministers had been doing for quite some time. A handful of others – myself included – quickly followed Galea’s example. This was not simply a case of reacting to the unbearable summer temperature in the chamber of the House that then had no air conditioning system. It was also a political statement: out with the old and in with the new – let’s all embrace the brave new world.

So there you have it: Alexis Tsipras without a tie, Simon Busuttil taking off his jacket, Joseph Muscat with his pastel blue ties and Dom Mintoff sporting those infamous belts with bizarrely huge metal buckles – Cottonera kitsch, of course.

They are all sending a political message, a message that is understood and subtly registered, even by those who think they are ignoring it.

In the end, however, it is the ties that bind us that matter most.

This opinion was published on MaltaToday on Sunday 22 February 2014

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