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Looking for Lord Strickland

Earlier this month, Joseph Muscat honoured the memory of Lord Gerald Strickland, Malta’s Prime Minister between 1924 and 1932 and founder of a line of newspapers – beginning with the modest evening four-pager Il-Progress in the 1920s – of which The Times and its Sunday sister publication are the justifiably proud heirs.

Gerald Strickland died on August 22, 1940, aged 79, in the second month of the “Italian siege” phase of the Axis’ effort to bomb the island into submission or, at least, out of action. Two days later – apparently an error – the Germans dropped the first bombs on central London. The RAF retaliated with a raid on Berlin and Hitler followed with the order to go ahead with the Blitz, thereby starting an escalating spiral of raids on British and German cities. Lord Strickland would not have been surprised.

Dr Muscat’s gesture elicited a variety of responses. The problem is, of course, that, short of polling the reactions of a sufficiently large random sample of the population to what people think of every political event, the only clue we have of what people think is by relying on letters to the editor, comments on the online version of the papers that report the event, opinion columns, what political parties and other entities as well as their members say, what friends, colleagues and acquaintances tell you, etc. As with any self-selecting sample, this is hardly satisfactory but, alas, it is all we have.

My hunch is that a good proportion of those that did hear of the Leader of the Opposition’s laying of a wreath at the foot of Lord Strickland’s monument at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, perceive it as a positive development. They probably see it as a step – albeit a small but not isolated one as far as this politician is concerned – away from the unthinking tribalism of our political life.

There are, on the other hand, those whose own unthinking tribalism prevents them from seeing anyone not of their own political tribe as the implacable foe. S/he is constructed as a perfidious antagonist who always was and always will be the irreducible enemy with whom any form of dialogue and understanding is impossible if not, indeed, undesirable.

The problem with these persons is that if and when change does take place around them, then it will simply escape their attention. Their mindset is such – a tribal cognitive mode, as it were – that if the “other-as-enemy” says or does what does not correspond to what one believes is what s/he normally says or does, then it is at best ignored or at worst interpreted as trickery, treachery or opportunism aimed at chasing votes and duping the weak minded. Their world is eternally divided into two: us (the good) and them (the bad).

There’s also a third category, that of the free spirits that imagine themselves to be hovering above the political fray in a celestial sphere reserved for those that are too intelligent and pure to stand on the same ground that we mere mortals have to stand on. In their eyes, whatever is said or done in the political sphere is, by definition, treacherous, opportunistic, devious and merely intended to catch votes. The problem with these guys and girls is that they too tend to miss signs of change. The world is, in their eyes, fundamentally unchanging and is divided into two: the unsullied wise (themselves) and the bad world down there inhabited by the tricksters and the tricked.

Dr Muscat’s tribute to Lord Strickland should not come as a surprise. To start with, it is consistent with his approach to other political parties since his election to the PL’s leadership. Judge them on the merits of what they say or do and not on the basis of prejudices or stereotypes. This is by no means an easy approach because political leaders must calculate the effect of their actions on all of the electorate, their own followers included. But it can be done.

As for those that have dismissed the PL’s leader’s bold decision to show his appreciation of Lord Strickland’s role in our national narrative, on grounds that he should have first of all apologised for the events of Monday, October 15, 1979, one can only remind them that he did. Two years ago, addressing the Tumas Foundation for Education in Journalism, he very candidly said that what took place on that Black Monday “did not weaken the politicians or the institutions that suffered the attacks, (…) but the perpetrators and the politicians who in people’s eyes represented them” (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20091016/local/black-monday-should-never-have-happened-labour-leader.277592).

On this same occasion, he confirmed what he had already declared immediately upon his election as PL leader, namely that he apologised to “all those that were hurt by the actions of individuals that used the PL after which they possibly dumped it”.

Some others expressed surprise that Dr Muscat paid tribute to what they referred to as an apologist of the British Empire. While there is no doubt that he supported the Empire and could not imagine a Malta outside of it, in the Maltese context Lord Strickland played a role that was also progressive. I’ll be discussing this in two weeks’ time on this page.

Dr Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com .

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