Malta after Mintoff

The national outpour of grief following Dom Mintoff’s death on Monday was both predictable and understandable.

Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek.
Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek.

Nonetheless, it also illustrated how far our country still remains from any sense of 'national reconciliation' after the tensions of polemics of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Even the simple fact that reactions were so fiercely polarized along diametrically opposed lines, attests to the intense division that his very name still has the power to provoke. And on both sides, the sentiments were invariably taken to extremes.

In some cases, the sheer visceral hatred that was expressed almost beggars belief - it is as though a conscious effort is being made to provoke the very violence that such people once held Mintoff himself responsible for... though quite frankly, the less about this disgraceful immaturity the better.

But even among Mintoff's far more numerous admirers, the sheer intensity of the emotions occasionally betrayed a slightly naïve, almost childlike fascination with the man... suggesting that, in the many years since he was faded from active political life, Mintoff's memory has been transposed (as is so often the case with unbridled hero worship) onto an almost mythological plane.

Add to this the eulogies which so often lionised the man without so much as acknowledging the existence of character flaws, and one is left with the uncomfortable impression of a country still besotted by ideals as opposed to reality... still hankering, perhaps, after a promised political "golden age" which never quite materialised.

In a sense, Malta's ongoing fascination with Mintoff is also an expression of political alienation from reality. It seems strange, for instance, that the multitudes who have wept very real tears at Mintoff's passing, would so utterly forget how they themselves had called him a traitor only 20 years ago.

At the same time, there is something undeniably alluring (from a Labour perspective, at any rate) about the image of Mintoff as the last of a now extinct breed of strongman politician: the like of which can never reappear, because the world that once produced such 'ubermensch' no longer exists.

But this in turn tells us much more about the paucity of today's political rhetoric, than it does about Mintoff himself. All this points towards a direct conflict between the real-politik of Mintoff's age, and our own political reality today- a reality in which so much of the core decision making processes are now outside local government's hands, that there is simply no further point in the concept of a 'super-politician' at all... as there may have been 40 years ago.

Across the divide, similar reinventions of Mintoff have been arguably more remarkable still. On one hand, the 'positive' reappraisals expressed by people like former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami - who now tells us that Mintoff's 'good outweighed his bad' (an opinion he surprisingly kept to himself in the 1980s) - suggest a long overdue willingness to finally bury the hatchet... which is all in all a positive contribution, even if it comes rather late in the day.

At the same time, however, this sort of reinvention of political opinion also points towards a very real reluctance to address the issue of Malta's political divide that originally resulted in such adversity in the first place.

After all, why do politicians only speak in reconciliatory terms when their antagonists are safely dead? Why not when they are alive... and the reconciliation may actually bear real fruit?

There is a very simple (though rather depressing) answer to this question: it is because such antagonism serves a real political purpose, which is far more valuable to political parties than reconciliation.

Mintoff himself understood this only too well, as did Eddie. There was no rapprochement between the two while both kept their respective political positions of power: any such rapprochement would have automatically cancelled out any political advantage one may have had over the other, thus weakening them both.

The same is just as  true of today's political leaders: consider how the tone and substance of Lawrence Gonzi's commendable words of praise for Mintoff yesterday, contrast with his endless spats with Joseph Muscat. There is clearly no political mileage to be gained from speaking evil of the dead. But of the living? The dynamics there are clearly different, and it would take a root-and-branch reform of the entire system to even begin scaling back the unbridled hostility that continues to dominate Maltese politics today, as it did 40 years ago.

Mintoff's death may not, in itself, change any of this in the foreseeable future. But it does represent an opportunity to reflect. Evidently, such a wide divergence of views suggests that neither extreme can realistically be correct in itself: Mintoff cannot possibly have been both exclusively a hero, and at the same time exclusively a villain.

Viewed in the context of an ongoing political divide that has changed only little since his own hey-day, this in turn points in a very clear direction.

Our country's political problem, such that it is, lies not only in the dead politicians we bury today.

On the contrary, it lies in ourselves.

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