Bad week for values

It was his speech, not mine and, no doubt, he said what he wanted to say. I can’t help feeling, however, that Tonio Borg’s farewell speech in Parliament could have done more to clarify what his critics in Malta and Brussels got wrong.

Laws one disagrees with may require one’s circumspect support to safeguard other values
- Ranier Fsadni

His exhortation to politicians to live up to their values was, of course, an implied retort to all the national critics who’ve said that, on his way to being approved as European commissioner, he compromised on his. But it did nothing to clarify the relationship between the ethics of conviction and the politics of responsibility, which he got right and they got wrong.

Perhaps he felt he had to be reconciliatory and polite. That meant, however, that, in one respect, his gracious acknowledgments of Malta’s values added to the national delusion that Malta has a special grasp of values and their role in politics.

An indication of what’s wrong was displayed in the mockery of Alfred Sant’s decision that he is to contest a seat in the European Parliament. The scoffers have insinuated that Sant, given his Euroscepticism and misguided effort to keep Malta out of the EU, should have no good reason (other than opportunism) to seek a seat in Brussels.

It’s true that Sant’s public position on the EU has hardened since 2008. Every pronouncement he’s made since the eurozone crisis broke out suggests he believes events have proven him right. Membership has been bad for Malta. It’s usurping increasingly more of our decision-making powers. It’s exposed us to greater financial risk.

But does that position mean his convictions are incompatible with seeking an EP seat? If anything, they make it more, not less, consistent for him to seek one. He wants to go where he thinks the real power lies. Why fight in Malta’s emasculated Parliament when the real decisions are taken elsewhere? Whether he is right or wrong is a separate question from whether he’s being consistent, which he certainly is.

One might ask whether he fits in the EP Socialist Group. Even here, though, he’d be able to reply that the most circumspect way of defending Malta’s interests would be to cooperate within a group capable of exercising real influence. Besides, he has other values in common with them.

The Sant case brings out three important general considerations.

First, that no matter how cardinal a conviction is, how one argues and fights for it depends on the circumstances. It is one thing to be a Eurosceptic before membership, another to be one afterwards. The obligations change.

Second, how one lives up to one’s convictions, in the circumstances, depends on, well, circumspection. That is, one’s best reading of the political game. One’s judgement of the most effective way forward.

Third, unless one is an obsessive single-issue politician, there are other political obligations to be kept. One’s judgement will need to keep in mind other convictions, which need to be kept in balance and lived up to.

The ethics and politics of abortion show these three considerations at work as well. It is one thing to be against abortion laws before legalisation, another matter when laws have been passed and are culturally entrenched.

Before legalisation, abortion may well sway one’s vote against a ‘pro-choice’ political party if it’s an electoral issue. After legalisation, there is nothing necessarily inconsistent in voting for a pro-choice party and against a ‘pro-life’ party if, for example, one believes that the pro-life party has no real chance of reversing the law and that the pro-choice party might actually, in practice, create conditions that reduce the number of abortions sought for socio-economic reasons. US voters are routinely placed in this situation.

Apart from this, pro-life convictions, fundamental though they are, need to be weighed along with other values.

Some cases may be dramatic. Two decades ago, the then Prime Minister of Belgium, Wilfried Martens, a Christian Democrat, was prepared to resign when Parliament passed an abortion law. Martens and his party had voted against and he did not wish to preside over abortion’s legalisation.

He then discovered that the then king was prepared to abdicate rather than sign the law. Martens decided the abdication could threaten the unity of Belgium (hardly an irrational fear). He devised a plan whereby the king would abdicate for a day. The plan required a guarantor of the king’s return. Martens decided he needed to remain Prime Minister.

Not every politician would have taken this decision. Some Belgian Christian Democrats never forgave Martens. Inevitably, situations that pit the ethics of conviction against the politics of responsibility will lead to controversial decisions because they depend on disputable judgements.

The Belgian situation was exceptional but the pitting of conviction against responsibility is not. It is routine.

Indeed, the tension was an important impetus for classic Christian Democratic thought, keen on being democratic as well as Christian and knowing that even laws one fundamentally disagrees with may require one’s circumspect support in order to safeguard other values like rule of law, the winning and keeping of political trust, and social cohesion.

Borg needs no lectures on the subject. But his critics apparently do. Without a better understanding of the interplay between ethics, political judgement and responsibility, we are destined to go down the US way: increasing strident polarisation, with its concomitant tendency to make conviction sound like irrational emotion.

It would be a disaster, ethically as well as politically.

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