‘Leadership cults’ are the last thing the PN needs

Now is not the time for ‘glorious leaders’; now is the time for a serious, level-headed, business-like approach to politics…

Eddie Fenech Adami, carried shoulder high at a 1980s mass meeting
Eddie Fenech Adami, carried shoulder high at a 1980s mass meeting

It is ironic that so many Nationalists want to address their party’s current problems by simply turning the clock back to its former (long lost) days of glory.

This seems to be the new mantra among Nationalists who are determined to remove Adrian Delia, even at the cost of destroying the entire party. A new Facebook group has just been set up, entitled ‘PN mill-gdid rebbieh’ [‘PN a winner once more’], and specifically demanding: “a leader who can once again unite the party, and return it to winning ways.’

The accompanying picture is an iconic shot of Eddie Fenech Adami, carried shoulder high at a 1980s mass meeting (I’m guessing from the 1987 campaign, but could also be 1981). It is admittedly a very powerful, emotive photograph, which instantly evokes that time when the Nationalist Party really did represent a progressive, forward-looking approach to politics.

But it is also more than 30 years old… and back then, the political context was not only different, but entirely antithetical to the situation as it stands today.

In 1987, Malta was in the grip of an unstable administration which had overstayed its welcome by almost six years. There was a sense of desperation – a palpable fear of a repeat of the 1981 result – which was compounded by a series of increasingly intolerable events: the murder of Raymond Caruana, the Tal-Barrani incident, rampant corruption, violations of property rights, the all-but complete capture of institutions by the State… the list is practically endless.

And granted: that may be a one-sided assessment of the 1980s political situation, from the perspective of someone who had bought wholesale into the ‘Eddie myth’ at the time. Labourites would no doubt have assessed things differently, and probably still do.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Malta was – or at least, felt like it was – on the brink of major social and political turmoil. Meanwhile, certain facts are undeniable. Fenech Adami’s Birkirkara home and Valletta office had been ransacked and pillaged; his mother famously had to flee for safety over the rooftops; his children needed protection just to go to school.

This, too, contributed to the aura of Eddie Fenech Adami as an archetypal leader who inspires instant awe and respect. When politics literally resembles warfare – bombs, gunfire and all – political leaders also take on the guise of ‘freedom fighters/revolutionary heroes’. In a word, they instantly become the stuff of legend.

But that was back in 1987… and we are now in 2019. Despite increasingly shrill cries of ‘State capture’ by the same coterie of die-hard fanatics… the simple truth is that there is no real comparable level of fear or anxiety on the ground in Malta today.

Efforts to draw parallels between the 1980s and today have to be seen for what they really are: a desperate, last-ditch strategy to reclaim that lost aura of ‘being on the right side of history’. Truth be told, however, that illusion died a long time ago… long before Eddie himself called it a day in 2003 (only to return as self-appointed President a few years later).

All those calling for a return to the 1980s seem to have forgotten what the PN went on to become throughout the 1990s and beyond: when Eddie Fenech Adami’s grand promises of reform fizzled to nothing, once the PN duly established itself an almost unassailable party-in-government for 25 long years.

These, too, are undeniable facts. Police arrest and detention procedures remained unchanged until as late as 2008… and even then, only under intense pressure from the Council of Europe. Likewise, Nationalist governments did not introduce any of the checks and balances now demanded – but only now – by various EU and CoE institutions.

The reform of our much-maligned judicial appointment system had to wait until a Labour government in 2015; as did the removal of antiquated censorship laws, and the abolition of criminal libel.

The stark reality is that Eddie Fenech Adami steered this country into the European Union, without undertaking some of the most basic reforms necessitated by membership. Most of the flak we are getting for our institutional blemishes today, can in fact be lain directly at his own door.

Effectively, then, the same nostalgic yearning for ‘a leader like Eddie Fenech Adami’ has to be placed in its proper context. Yes, Eddie was an inspirational, combative and formidable Opposition leader back in the 1980s. But no, he wasn’t the ‘great leader’ people make him out to be… and he certainly wasn’t very ‘forward-looking’, either.

Beyond reforming the economy in the only way it could realistically be reformed, following decades of protectionism… as prime minister, Eddie Fenech Adami did everything in his power to preserve the status quo: down to appointing his own successor, Lawrence Gonzi, precisely on the basis that he could be trusted to maintain the ‘Eddie Fenech Adami’ vision, even in the post-Eddie era.

This will no doubt be an unpopular opinion, among acolytes of the ‘cult of Eddie’… but I feel it has to be said all the time. Eddie Fenech Adami is also partly responsible for the PN’s current predicament: for at least two reasons that I can see.

One, he used the sheer force of his own personality (and later, the promise of EU accession) to keep those disparate factions all equally on board… without pausing to consider what would happen when he was no longer around to inspire their trust… and when there was no longer any EU to join,  either.

Two, by attempting to set his own stamp on the party, even after stepping down as leader in 2003, he charted the PN on a collision-course with all the forces now engulfing it…. including Adrian Delia’s failed efforts to ‘take back’ a party he (rightly) claimed to have been ‘hijacked’.
Nonetheless, the real problem with this nostalgic, backward-looking approach is that it fails to take stock of the situation on the ground today, 30 years after that photo was taken.

It is no coincidence that the PN’s propaganda machine has consistently failed to imbue all post-Eddie leaders with the same mythical aura as Eddie himself. Closing an eye at the brief (but pyrrhic) success of the ‘GonziPN’ slogan in 2008 – which was more attributable to the scariness of Alfred Sant, than any of Gonzi’s own qualities – all such attempts to lionise Lawrence Gonzi, Simon Busuttil and Adrian Delia can be seen to have backfired severely.

By the same token, the PN’s stuttering efforts to demonise Joseph Muscat, along the lines of Mintoff/KMB, are also part of the same strategy to ‘bring back the 1980s’. There is irony here, too – ironies within ironies, in fact – because Joseph Muscat has clearly modelled his own personal and political brand, not on Dom Mintoff at all, but… surprise, surprise… on none other than Eddie Fenech Adami himself.

If voters continue flocking to Muscat’s Labour Party, it is largely because Muscat – like Eddie before him – has come to be viewed as a ‘safe pair of hands’:  all the more so now, that the PN is busy ripping itself to shreds.

Put all that altogether, and it becomes easy to see why the Nationalist Party has not only failed to attract its lost voters back… but alienated them further still, resulting in a string of electoral defeats by ever-increasing margins.

There is a perfectly natural reason for this: political leaders are also the product of the times and climes they arise in. If the 1970s and 80s called for a visionary, awe-inspiring leader (to counter another, equally awe-inspiring leader named Dom Mintoff)… today’s reality calls for something very different.

Even the idea that ‘a great leader’ can somehow hammer that party back into a single, coherent, unified whole… sorry, but that is all ancient history now. The PN seems to have forgotten that it was never more than an umbrella party to begin with… that, if it ever mustered a national majority at all (and it managed for almost six straight elections on the trot), it was because external forces had always driven those disparate groups to take shelter under its aegis.

Those conditions are markedly absent from the equation today. And they cannot be artificially created in some secret underground laboratory in the bowels of the Stamperija, either.

Meanwhile, just to add another irony to the growing list: if the PN truly wants to re-invent itself as a successful party – and it still can, by the way: as usual, people are being too defeatist – it should be striking out in the clean opposite direction. Instead of re-evoking nostalgic memories of Eddie Fenech Adami, from days long gone… it should be exorcising the long-term harmful effects of Eddie’s three-decade stranglehold on that party.

That includes banishing this childish reliance on Gaddafi-like ‘leadership cults’ that may have made a lot of sense in Eddie Fenech Adami’s day… but which simply have no place in today’s paradigm at all.

Now is not the time for ‘glorious leaders’; now is the time for a serious, level-headed, business-like approach to politics… a corporate team effort, of the kind that creates lasting, successful enterprises, precisely because their success does not hinge on the continued dominance of individual human beings (who, in case no one’s  noticed, are not exactly ‘eternal’).

Above all, now is certainly not the time for an archaic and purely megalomaniac (not to mention delusional) belief in the godlike abilities of ‘superhuman statesmen’ who no longer even exist… if they ever really existed at all.

But to see that, you have to look forwards, not backwards. And the last time the PN even tried looking forwards was… well, roughly when that photo was taken, 30 years ago or more. ‘Nuff said.

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