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The house that Eddie built

Photo: Jon Borg

Photo: Jon Borg

During his 1st May speech, the Prime Minister made a very interesting analogy, where he compared Malta with a house that looked great from the outside but which, until Labour took over, was rotting from the inside. The point of his speech suggests that this house is a sign of continuity. It needs to be kept in good stead, with good foundations, and always ready to deliver.

However this begs several questions: Are we speaking of the same house that George Borg Olivier built after Independence? Didn’t Dom Mintoff extend or change (some would say demolish) George’s house? Or are we now speaking of an altogether different abode for Maltese politics?

Evidently this is neither Dom’s nor George’s house. It is partly built on their foundations, yet very much changed by another PM. In fact I happen to think that Joseph’s house is that which Eddie Fenech Adami built; which also means that this house needs far more than a lick of paint and some underpinning.

Whatever Labour’s detractors may say, they know very well that in the current Labour Party there are some characters that would go back to the Mintoff era, and who came back after Alfred Sant moved sideways, but the Labour Party as it is now—the PL, which is not the MLP—is a very different political animal.

Whatever Labour’s detractors may say, they know very well that in the current Labour Party there are some characters that would go back to the Mintoff era, and who came back after Alfred Sant moved sideways, but the Labour Party as it is now—the PL, which is not the MLP—is a very different political animal.

Those who remember the MLP know this very well in view of Alfred Sant’s radical changes; changes that were so enduring that no one would have been able to carry on further changes to the now PL without them.

While the PL now enjoys the results of Sant’s reforms, Labour could not inherit much from Sant’s brief time in government. Today many realise that Sant’s governance was quite unique.

Having worked with Mintoff, Sant knew the pitfalls of populism. Having lived and worked in Europe, his sharp insider’s view of the EU might have well impeded him from appreciating the full extent of the Maltese ambitions for EU membership. Having studied on the East Coast of the United States, he could never escape the unique acuities of an American education. Indeed, it’s safe to say that a house that Sant would have built, would have been very different from anything we have now.

Joseph’s house is, in effect, the house that Eddie built. Like Fenech Adami, Joseph Muscat needed a much wider constituency of voters to win. Whether one buys into the notion of a Movement or not, this is exactly what both Muscat and Fenech Adami needed. They both confronted a government on its knees, where people were fed up, and where the opportunity to build a wider alliance was ripe.

On the economic front, the house that Eddie built was already projected for full EU membership. After Mintoff torpedoed Sant’s project, Fenech Adami restarted an economic infrastructure that was entirely invested in EU membership. This begins to show how the House that Joseph inherited, could not be other than that which Lawrence Gonzi bequeathed him on Eddie’s behalf.

So what’s the problem with the house that Eddie built? Joseph inherited a house that was not simply rotten from within, but which needed a change in its foundations. While Sant’s objection to EU membership was indeed his Achilles’ heel, one could see today that had he built his house, politics in Malta would be very different, not only from a PL or PN perspective, but from at least ten years of institutional reforms that are still to be conceived.

While Eddie’s house may have modernised its economic structures, moving from a mixed to a market-driven economy, it quickly steadied the conservative constitutional-legal structure, which characterised the confessionalism of Malta’s modern history. And speaking of history, it was very evident that 25 years of Nationalist stewardship managed to fully complete Malta’s historical regression to an idealized Christian continuity, reversed decades of work by historians like the late Godfrey Wettinger and the generation that followed him, and fully restored the populist image of Malta as a Catholic and Latin nation.

While Eddie’s house presented itself as modern and European, its political articulation was never short of an intellectual laziness that clearly aimed at restoring a conservative language of myth. The irony is that while this happened, Maltese society reacted by not simply rejecting religion, but by discarding any form of moral imaginary that it may well have had—only keeping an ethics of selfishness and religious bigotry—in other words, a judgemental culture of which Catholicism is just a mere shell.

For the relatively new Labour tenants in Eddie’s house, here is the political rub. Divorce, widened civil rights and a general tendency towards more tolerance and limited secularism are not enough. With an Aristotelian-Thomistic Legal infrastructure; with a populist resumption of history, mind and place; and with an economy that is no different from what Gonzi’s economists have laid down; for a party with democratic socialist roots, the House that Eddie built remains problematic.

This might explain why the Nationalists look ever so keen to have the keys back—as the PM rightly said last Sunday. After all, they still feel quite at home in it. And now that it has been restored it looks more than ever, attractive. As to what they say in public, a Maltese proverb comes back to mind: Min imaqdar irid jixtri!

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