Muscat’s decade: How Eddie’s Nationalists ended up shouting ‘Joseph! Joseph!’

A new book commemorating Joseph Muscat’s 10 years at Labour’s helm outlines the change he brought to his party, the country and the political landscape. Part-hagiography, part-critical analysis, the book also contains a lengthy interview with the Prime Minister. MaltaToday got a preview

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat

Joseph Muscat was elected leader of the Labour Party on the promise of creating a “new political season” and a “generation of winners”.

On both counts he managed to fulfil what he set out to do and 10 years later, a new book attempts to outline Muscat’s brand of politics through the eyes of friends and critics.

Released by SKS, the Labour Party’s publishing arm, the book includes two lengthy interviews with Muscat and his wife Michelle.

The answers Muscat gives – which the publisher says are unedited – to interviewer Andrew Azzopardi, lend credence to some of the analysis provided by other contributors.

Muscat’s upbringing in a mixed political family – he describes his maternal grandmother as an ultra-conservative of the “casa-chiesa” type and his paternal nanna as a Mintoffian who recounted the stories of the turbulent 1960s – provides an explanation for the man’s ability to balance between poles.

“They were two completely different characters, who used to get along well together… they loved each other,” Muscat tells his interviewer.

This ability to mediate tension defines the Muscatian philosophy and is translated by US-based Maltese academic John Baldacchino as “hybrid politics”.

Muscat and his entourage of advisors (from left: Mario Cutajar, James Piscopo, Kurt Farrugia, Louis Grech and Abdul Zmirli) during the December 2016 hijacking of a Libyan airplane
Muscat and his entourage of advisors (from left: Mario Cutajar, James Piscopo, Kurt Farrugia, Louis Grech and Abdul Zmirli) during the December 2016 hijacking of a Libyan airplane

The political gambler

In a provocative analysis, Baldacchino defines Muscat as “a political gambler”.

The academic identifies the tensions the Labour leader managed to reconcile since 2008, to change his party and the country.

“His achievements as a leader of the PL, the political transformation he achieved since 2013, are without any precedent in the story of modern-day politics in Malta,” Baldacchino writes. But he also asks whether this is just a phase in the PL’s long history, or the foundations of a new centrist direction for the socialist party of Dom Mintoff.

Muscat’s decision to change the party’s name soon after becoming leader – from Malta Labour Party to Partit Laburista – was intended to close the “MLP chapter”, without denying the party’s historical roots, Baldacchino argues.

This happened at the same time that Muscat publicly apologised on a number of occasions for the violence of the 1980s, while reaching out to Labourites, who felt estranged by the division created by the Sant-Mintoff feud between 1996 and 1998.

Dom Mintoff gives Muscat his ‘blessing’
Dom Mintoff gives Muscat his ‘blessing’

Eddie’s Nationalists

But Muscat was not only happy with luring back the party grassroots, Baldacchino says. “He wanted to attract Eddie’s Nationalists. These formed a constituency that nobody ever believed would one day go from shouting ‘Eddie! Eddie!’ to ‘Joseph! Joseph!’.”

And he continues to highlight the tensions Muscat managed to reconcile in a delicate balancing act that widened the party’s appeal.

Muscat placed the party at the centre of European politics, even if he assiduously opposed EU membership; he drew Nationalists to his pro-business, middle class-friendly politics while being accused of favouritism with Labourites.

Muscat’s self-declared rightist views on the economy, swept the carpet from beneath the Nationalist Party, Baldacchino says. His unreserved championing of the free market, turned the previous ideological split on the government’s role in the economy into who could be the better manager.

In his interview, Muscat defines this as part of his “leftist strategy” to create wealth that can be re-distributed.

He admits, more has to be done to help the elderly. “This is a sector where we have not yet progressed far enough,” Muscat says. It is one of the critical aspects raised in the book by leftist philosopher Michael Grech, who provides a snapshot of the social failings of Muscat’s party.

Joseph Muscat during his 2008 campaign
Joseph Muscat during his 2008 campaign

Business and equality

Muscat is undeterred in his vision of a party that embraces the free market and business. “I believed and still do that people are sensible. When you tell them, ‘I will increase pensions and the minimum wage’, they will ask you ‘who is going to pay for these?’ This is why we wanted to convince everyone that we are capable of creating wealth. This explains our emphasis on business.”

Muscat insists his PL is one that went back to its historical roots. The party was born to champion equality, Muscat argues, defining the politico-religious battle of the 1960s as one for equality and not against the church.

The Labour government’s drive to introduce progressive legislation that ensured full equality for the LGBTI community, and Muscat’s gradual change in position on gay marriage and child adoption by same-sex couples, are underscored by gay rights advocate Gabi Calleja.

She recounts the disappointment on hearing Muscat, in one of his first interviews on Xarabank shortly after becoming PL leader, agree with civil unions but not marriage for same-sex couples.

Muscat eventually shifted his views in what Education Minister Evarist Bartolo describes as the Prime Minister’s ability to listen, understand and identify with the problems and suffering of people.

The book commemorates 10 years since Joseph Muscat took the Labour leadership
The book commemorates 10 years since Joseph Muscat took the Labour leadership

The book includes contributions from other people, including former Labour MP Maria Camilleri and the head of government communications Kurt Farrugia.

They recount their personal experiences of having worked closely with Muscat, lifting the lid on the PL’s leader modus operandi. They are less critical in their analysis but there is a common thread found in almost all contributions that define Muscat as someone who tries to get the best out of people, even those who may be critical of his actions.

Muscat describes himself as “the type not to turn his back on anyone”, a trait that probably traces its roots in his politically mixed family background.

READ ALSO: In new book on Muscat’s decade as PL leader, PM talks about Egrant saga

The book

‘Joseph, 10 Snin Mexxej’ is published by SKS and goes on sale today from leading bookshops for the price of €15.

It contains contributions by professor of philosophy John Baldacchino and Michael Grech, activists Gabi Calleja and former MP Deborah Schembri, Labour insiders Kurt Farrugia and Nigel Vella, economist Alfred Mifsud, and veteran politicians Evarist Bartolo, Maria Camilleri and Joe Micallef Stafrace.

The book includes “uncut” interviews with Joseph Muscat by academic and broadcaster Andrew Azzopardi, and Michelle Muscat by Claire Xuereb Grech.