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Political ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘pigs’

When an inarticulate Maltese man is lost for argument he resorts to name-calling. You have only to read the blogs commenting on articles in The Times to recognise the truth of this.

When a parliamentarian of the experience of Adrian Vassallo finds himself called a political dinosaur (by “liberals”) because he is seen as ‘conservative’ in his views then, for lack of argument, he feels entitled to label those whose views he regards as ‘liberal’ as pigs. The time to take stock has arrived – if only to try to raise the tone of the debate.

A conservative is someone who dislikes change for change’s sake, a reluctance to jeopardise what works for what might, in theory, work better. He puts faith in the firm lessons of the past over airy promises for the future with a concern to preserve what is thought best in established society in general. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “Adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried”.

Conservatism, it is fair to say, tends towards the reactionary – typically, it is opposed to political and social reform. It counsels rest­raint when confronted with change and, for this reason, it often takes its lead from what it is opposed to.

I am proud to call myself a liberal. By this I mean, in the words of John F. Kennedy, “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of people”, in other words someone who is progressive and cares about civil liberties.

The symbiotic twin of liberalism is tolerance, the ability to allow individuals to make their own choices in life. The essence of this lies not in what opinions are held but in how they are held – instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, conscious that new evidence may lead me to abandon them.

I have to accept, however, that fundamentalist, bigoted and dogmatic views can be expressed by both liberals and conservatives and this is what gives rise to the characterisation of one by the other as ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘pigs’.

The essentially optimistic view of human potential by liberals means that its proponents are in general socially progressive and keen on social reform and improvement. The instinct of conservatives, in contrast, is to see people as essentially weak and selfish and, for this reason, to think that the principal object of a well-run society should be to maintain strict order and stability.

Those then are the broad philosophical differences between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ politics. They define ‘left’ and ‘right’ in party politics, distinguishing reformers from reactionaries, liberals from conservatives and socialists from capitalists.

In Malta, the position between conservative and liberal attitudes, between the Nationalist and Labour parties in the way I have just defined them, on economic or political issues, is not large. The divide arises, however, where matters of social justice are concerned.

While the difference between parties tribally, not politically, is immense, it is generally agreed in Malta, for example, that there should be a strong social safety-net. It is a common view that there are people in this country who need support and a civilised society should try to help them.

On wealth, taxes and the role of government, there is general agreement that it is the proper function of government to solve problems, to reduce poverty and, as much as possible, to ensure that all Maltese have an equal chance to succeed.

The Government has an important role to play in education, health and social services but also in the arts, culture and elsewhere. Views on foreign policy, immigration and the role of women in society are virtually identical.

Where the terrain becomes a battleground is over socio-moral issues. And this is not only between the two parties but also within the parties themselves. There is a liberal/conservative divide and it is this which gave rise to Vassallo’s ill-judged language (and, of course, the difficulties under which Tonio Borg found himself labouring at his commissioner hearings in Brussels).

The divide concerns such issues as gay marriage and homosexual rights, the traditional family, abortion (though no party in Malta favours its introduction under any circumstances), divorce (this issue was firmly settled 18 months ago, though not without a bruising and divisive battle), IVF treatment and, importantly, the role of Church and State in Maltese society.

This last is the elephant in the room. Until the separation of Church and State is more clearly delineated, Malta will continue to find itself divided between liberals and conservatives in our social attitudes, just at the very moment when Maltese society itself is running well ahead of most of its politicians on socio-moral issues.

The power of the State cannot be used to impose the moral teachings of any religion on its people.

Legislators cannot properly represent the heterogeneous society that Malta has become while being religiously sectarian. Parliament’s decisions about what behaviour should be lawful and beneficial to the common good are not necessarily the same as what is considered right on purely religious grounds. Until our legislators understand this, the clash of cultures between ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘pigs’ will continue.

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