Requiem for a party’s Fascist roots

This week, the secretary general of the Nationalist Party told us that the “PN needs to rediscover its centre-left roots” if it is to win the next election.

The PN consciously remodelled itself in the 1920s on Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista
The PN consciously remodelled itself in the 1920s on Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista

It’s funny how things which seemed so innocuous a couple of decades ago, suddenly emerge as focal points for earth-shattering outrage. 

Take the ‘Confederate Flag’ issue in the United States, for instance. You will no doubt instantly recognise this iconic image – a blue, star-studded saltire (that’s an ‘X-shaped cross’, if you’re not into heraldry) against a blood-red background – whether or not you know anything about its origins or initial significance.

To simplify matters slightly, this was the flag flown by the Confederate Army (i.e., the losing side in the American Civil War). Over 150 years later, it is still flown in several former southern US States. Does this mean that people in those states still believe in the right to own and trade in slaves? In some extreme cases, perhaps…. but there can be little doubt that the flag’s significance has changed somewhat since 1865.

Today, the ‘Confederate flag’ tends to be regarded more as a badge of identity for ‘Southern Pride’ than anything else. My first encounter with the image, for instance, was on the roof of ‘General Lee’: the iconic, bright orange Mustang driven by bootlegging brothers ‘Bo’ and ‘Luke’ in the 1980s TV show ‘Dukes of Hazzard’. 

There was never any controversy about it that I can remember at the time. The only issue ever discussed in relation to this particular show – and which, as I recall, resulted in multiple petitions to have it taken off air – was the brevity of Daisy Duke’s denim hot-pants. (Oddly enough, that is in fact about the only thing I can actually remember about ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ at all. Just goes to show how selective memory can really be…)

Today? Different ballgame altogether. If ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ debuted on TV in 2016 instead of 1978… would the producers allow such a divisive image to be in any way associated with a comedy series intended for all the family? Not a chance. The flag itself may not have changed in any way; but people’s attitudes towards it certainly have since the 1970s. 

That which may have seemed perfectly reasonable in mid-19th century America – i.e., to wage war against the abolition of slavery – is both unthinkable and indefensible in today’s society. And America is now in the painful process of revisiting its recent history to iron out these inconsistencies… a process which, by definition, involves re-opening the wounds of a civil war.

In a small way, you could argue this process is needed as much here as in the USA. To give but one example: this week, the secretary general of the Nationalist Party – which, by the way, traces its earliest origins to 1875, a mere decade after the Confederate Army’s unconditional surrender – told us that the “PN needs to rediscover its centre-left roots” if it is to win the next election.

Huh? What? The PN has ‘centre-left roots’? That is a strange claim to make, given that the idea of a ‘left-right’ political spectrum only actually gained currency during the 1930s (by which point the PN was already over half a century old)… and the idea of a political ‘centre’ would remain alien to global politics until well after World War Two.

But Dr Thake’s assertion is not only absurdly anachronistic: it is also painfully incorrect. The Nationalist Party’s roots were not “centre-left” by any stretch of the imagination. Nor were they centre-right. There was, in fact, nothing ‘centrist’ about this party at all. 

The PN actually started out as an “Anti-reformist” movement: and the reforms it opposed were intended (among other things) to dilute the power of the Catholic Church in Malta. It had the backing of the wealthy urban professional classes against a rival party (Strickland’s Constitutionals) that was pushing a moderate socialist agenda. It was, in brief, very firmly to the RIGHT of the spectrum… and to compound matters, it consciously played the part of a right-wing party all the way until 1977, almost exactly 100 years after Fortunato Mizzi founded the original version. 

Personally, I am not at all surprised by the ongoing efforts to re-write history in this regard. Just as I was disconcerted to learn that the image on that enjoyable TV series was ‘racist’, many people today may be shocked to realise that the intrinsic iconography of the Nationalist Party is quintessentially Fascist in nature. 

I capitalise the ‘F’ in that word deliberately, by the way. I don’t mean ‘fascist’ as a broad term for extreme authoritarian right-wing political thought… I use the word in its original sense: an allusion to Mussolini’s ‘Partito Nazionale Fascista’, upon which the PN consciously remodelled itself in the 1920s.

The Democratic Nationalist Party was in fact founded by Enrico Mizzi in 1921: the same year as Mussolini’s party. It was no coincidence that Mizzi chose to include the term ‘nazionale’ for the first time – his inspiration was Italian nationalism (whether he himself was an ‘irredentist’ or not). So it is hardly surprising that the PN’s official anthem, still sung during mass meetings, would be nothing but a poor rehash of the official anthem of Mussolini’s Fascist party, ‘La Giovinezza’.

All the rest of the PN’s early iconography is likewise dripping with proto-Fascist imagery of the baldest kind: the party logo is a shield set against a black background (black being the heraldic colour chosen by Mussolini, as evidenced by his ‘Blackshirts)’. But the connection runs deeper than that. The early causes embraced by former PN leaders such as Enrico Mizzi were likewise all rooted in classic right-wing ideology. 

The PN openly sided with General Franco’s fascist army in the Spanish Civil War, for instance. In broader economic terms, it promoted a status quo that was spectacularly favourable towards Malta’s rich and powerful… at the expense of the much larger illiterate masses, which remained flea-ridden and largely barefoot until well after WW2.

It takes a spectacular assumption of national ignorance, to expect to get away with a re-invention of history so utterly drastic, that it recasts Malta’s proto-fascist party as a misunderstood champion of the poor and dispossessed... when in reality, it was the clean opposite.

But, to be fair to Dr Thake, she may well be entitled to just assume we are all idiots. After all, it has just transpired that one fifth of the entire country doesn’t even know we have a Constitution. We now have large crowds of people who think that “eating a pork sandwich” constitutes some kind of heroic, revolutionary act. You can hardly expect that a nation founded on such extreme ignorance – and which has clearly failed to ever rise above its ignorant origins, after 50+ years of independence – would automatically know its political ‘right’ from ‘left’.

On another level, there may even be a grain of truth to Thake’s fanciful notions of Nationalist history. The PN clearly does not have ‘centre-left roots’ – but it did indeed make a very conscious lurch towards the left in the late 1970s: specifically, when Eddie Fenech Adami took the helm in 1977.

THAT was when the PN could realistically be described as ‘further left than right’. And this migration took place over 100 years after its foundation as a national institution.

Another way of interpreting Thake’s comment, then, is that this event – the election of Fenech Adami as leader – marks the ‘true’ birth of the party we know as the PN today. Historically, this is complete and utter hogwash; but seeing as most people alive today have no actual memory of the 1920s… you could almost argue that it’s true. 

What does this tell us about the actual identity of the Nationalist Party in the 21st century? Let’s see now. When it behoved the PN to flirt with the rich and embrace baldly fascist views, it was perfectly content to do so. When it realised it couldn’t win an election without changing ideology… it did not hesitate to throw its own political machine into reverse gear, and suddenly champion all the causes it had previously fought tooth and nail.

Nor was this the only sea-change: under Lawrence Gonzi, the party moved to the right once more. Not perhaps in any economic sense… but it backed the Church in its fight against divorce – a conservative (ergo, right-wing) view if there ever was one – it inflamed religious passions of the most medieval kind, it resuscitated and enacted archaic censorship laws… in a nutshell, it returned to the same ‘Religio Et patria’ motif that had characterised Fortunato Mizzi’s early, right-wing leanings.

And only now, when trying to rebuild its shattered electoral fortunes, does it contemplate yet another swing from one extremity of the pendulum to the other. Now, it wants to go back to the left. I mean, make up your minds, will you? You’re making me dizzy... 

In any case: the only conclusion to be drawn is that the PN will become absolutely anything it needs to become, in order to win an election. There is no consistency in its beliefs; there is no discernible common thread of political ideology taking us back to the 1870s. Oh, and sure, we can say the same thing about Labour, too – which gravitated towards the centre under Joseph Muscat, in order to pick up castaways who had abandoned the PN ship before 2013.  

But this doesn’t help us much. All it means is that Malta is simply held hostage by two parties which are motivated only by their own, short-term self-interest... and which, for all we know, may once again just metamorphose into their polar opposites at any given moment.  

The question to be asked by Nationalists today, then, is not: should the party return to its roots? Of course it shouldn’t. Like the Confederate Flag, the Nationalist Party has a ghastly, indefensible political past that no one in his senses would want to associate with today (though quite a few pork-eating patriots might argue differently). The question to ask is: what would the PN be like if it were founded in 2016, and not in 1875 (or 1921, or 1926, or 1977, etc)?

That – and not returning to a murky primordial Golden Age you don’t even know anything about – is how you really rediscover a political party’s lost electoral relevance. And guess what? I won’t even charge consultancy fees…