Let Peter be Peter

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 26, 2012

I am publishing, with Mark Montebello’s consent, e-mails between us following the passing away of Peter Serracino Inglott.

1. From Fr Montebello:

Mario, first of all, please accept my condolences upon the death of Fr Peter. Though I know you were not blood-related, I consider you one of his many (or should I say “few”?) “spiritual” (for want of a better word) children. It must feel, as I myself do, as a kind of strange severing of some umbilical bonding. It falls somewhere between sorrow and angst.

Secondly, I do agree with you if apart from the official commemorations, we were to find the opportunity of remembering him soberly for his philosophical work. When all the smoke from the funeral pyre settles down, Fr Peter must be taken seriously. Seriously not as in pedantic. But as in “serious fooling”, as he used to say. I am pretty sure that, even now, when primed to look all solemn, he has not lost his wicked penchant for bemusement. You know, in a philosophical sort of way.

My saddest moments since his passing away came mostly from seeing nincompoops and sycophants bury Fr Peter under a heap of hollow superlatives, banalising him, trivialising what was too big for their plate. Yes, indeed, Mario, we must let Peter be Peter: fool with our seriousness; get serious with our fooling. We have a responsibility here, you know, one which we owe to ourselves and mostly to future generations. Surely, Fr Peter will gleefully play donkey to our rickety cart.

2. To Fr Montebello:

My condolences to you Mark. The news of his passing away struck deeper than I thought it would. I too was nauseated by attempts to reduce him to a caricature of himself by those eager to appropriate him for their own little purposes. One is tempted to take them up one by one, to contradict their pompous assertions with the man’s own words. In the circumstances, however, it would have been inappropriate.

Twenty three years ago I wrote that had Fr Peter not existed, certain political interests in this country would have needed to invent one. I argued that depicting him as a brilliant but unpractical and absent minded professor, is one way of banalising those initiatives that made Fr Peter a sometimes uncomfortable fellow traveller of the powers that be. As if to say, true, he does sometimes criticise us but what can you expect from an incurable head-in-the air utopian? As if to say, let him air his futuristic visions but leave the here-and-now to us.

Sometimes, however, philosophers kick kings where it hurts and kings are embarrassingly silent. Such as when, recently, Fr Peter “said the implementation of the national minimum curriculum was the biggest ever disaster in the field”. “Never in Malta,” he argued, “did we have a situation where the central education authority left no space for freedom, originality and innovation for our teachers as was done since the national minimum curriculum was introduced”. www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20111218/local/Fr-Peter-launches-scathing-attack-on-education-policy.398787

3. From Fr Montebello:

Mario, philosophers can indeed have a cutting tongue on public issues, and Fr Peter was undoubtedly one of them. Here lies one of his merits in Malta with regard to philosophy. I submit (correct me if I’m wrong), that Fr Peter could do this – not personally, or as a priest, but qua philosophy – only because, since 1963, he had been building a platform for philosophy. What I mean is that, before he began his intellectual contribution here in Malta, philosophy seems to have been generally considered as, at best, interesting, and, at worse, futile. To his merit, I think Fr Peter succeeded in changing this; he gave philosophy a more or less respected voice.

Of course, one might say that, despite all of this, that voice is rarely heeded where or when it matters.

I beg to differ. One must grant that some of Fr Peter’s “spiritual” progeny – which includes you, me and others – did take this enhancement to heart, and we surely cannot say that we were never heeded. Some people, even a few around decision-making tables, did pay attention.

This role should be continued and, possibly, justified better. The time is ripe, I think, Mario, to seek – in full deference to Fr Peter’s “spiritual” legacy – to transcend him. Understand him better, yes, for sure, but also to take his charge to heart, and, as he taught us, deem philosophers’ duty towards society as part of their very definition.

4. To Fr Montebello:

Mark, in yesterday’s homily you defined Fr Peter’s optimism. It is not the optimism of those that are blind to what is negative, not the optimism that minimises the gravity of threats, nor the cruel optimism that dangles carrots of false hope in front of the desperate. It is the optimism that recognises reality for what it is but does not surrender to it and seeks to change it.

Last week as I and my old friend Joe Friggieri waited our turn to speak on Bondi+ about Fr Peter, I sensed – especially as we watched two former presidents of the Republic have their say – that our relationship to our teacher and interlocutor was radically different from theirs to him, though Joe and I have taken different political paths.

Though philosophical blood may not be thicker than politics, certain elective affinities across the political divide make me less pessimistic about the future of this country.



Pulcinella’s wooden spoon

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 12, 2012

Commedia dell’Arte fascinates me. Short for “com­media dell’arte all’improvviso” (comedy of the craft of improvisation), this form of popular theatre born in Italy in the 16th century but whose roots go back to the crisis of the 14th century, was first introduced to us fifth-year primary schoolboys (1963-1964) at Tripoli’s De La Salle Brothers by a teacher, Fratel Egidio, who was for us then what I suppose an internet search engine is for kids today.

Later, it was the subject of long unforgettable conversations with Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, before and after the latter was appointed the professor of philosophy at the University of Malta and yours truly, following his advice, became a student of his. Fr Peter, as all who know him will confirm, is fascinated by the figure of the clown and teaches us to take clowns very seriously.

Of the Commedia’s stock characters Arlecchino, Pantalone, the Dottore, Brighella, the Capitano, Colombina, Pulcinella, Scaramuccia and others, I am especially intrigued by Pulcinella.

Known as either Punch or else as Punchinello in English, Polichinelle in French and the model for the German Kasper, this originally Neapolitan character is funny – in the sense that he clowns on the stage and makes audiences laugh – but fundamentally mean and potentially violent.

In fact, he is often presented as carrying around macaroni and a wooden spoon. The macaroni reminds us that Pulcinella is no fool and what he does, he does for gain, for his pocket and belly. The wooden spoon is his ultimate tool to get what he wants to get down his gullet and into his pocket. In the last instance, the spoon is a weapon with which to hit someone hard on the head if that someone hinders Pulcinella from getting whatever he wants to get. Or as a cathartic revenge. “Te l’aggio ditto ca la cosa fenesce a mazzate” (I told you that this thing would end with a beating).

Another intriguing characteristic of Pulcinella is that the effect is funny but he has himself no sense of humour. His dense local dialect is not always meant to be understood and the audience often perceives it as grumbling, as badly suppressed anger at a world where he himself is often a victim. For Pulcinella is frequently at the receiving end of the stick.

Even scholars that see in the Pulcinella tradition a celebration of antiauthoritarianism, such as Orenstein in her Festive Revolutions: The Politics Of Popular Theatre And The San Francisco Mime Troupe, admit that the oppressed Pulcinella tends to vent his frustrations on other oppressed.

Why this reflection on a 500-year old character of the Commedia dell’Arte? Why speak of Pulcinella in our present Malta, in a period characterised by an extraordinary sharpening of political conflict and the disintegration of traditional networks of power, the whole nested in a period of unprecedented European economic crisis?

Let me begin by solemnly declaring that this week’s piece does not refer to the case of the circus promoter who took to court two young animal rights activists because, so he told the court, “they had called him a clown, using the phrase ‘Silvio Pulċinell’, which was also carried on placards during a protest in 2010 near the granaries in Floriana” ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120302/local/Circus-agent-felt-insulted-after-being-called-a-clown.409290 ). Any resemblance between these arguments and those that might be used to argue that the circus case might be interpreted as an attempt to repress voices of dissent – and intolerance is violence – is purely coincidental. Don’t believe me? Sue me.

No, I am worried by expressions of intolerance towards complaints regarding the state of public infrastructure in this country. You don’t have to look very far. If you are reading this column online, surf along the comments posted under reports concerning Mater Dei Hospital. Take the comments on the report of February 20, 2010 on the hospital bed shortage.

As is to be expected, the report generated a large number of comments (122 when I accessed it). Many spoke of mismanagement, others of political responsibility, some – like Frank Portelli – put forward concrete suggestions and a few shifted the responsibility onto patients. One of them suggested that the whole fuss is the work of anonymous provocateurs. Presumably referring to another comment urging citizens to wake up and see through political excuses, this commentator alleges that critical comments on the situation at Mater Dei are incitement to violence!

Quote: “These elves are just itching for a fight. Inciting the people to ‘wake up’ to throw out the government and it is counterproductive. The government will not allow anarchy to reign supreme and this call to arms coming from the same red elves known to one and all is criminal. So you better shut up. We have had enough of people beating doctors at Mater Dei and beating here and there. With the excuse that they are with the patients. We will have none of this. Force will be used against force” (sic) ( http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100220/local/patient-resuscitated-in-corridor.294848 ).

Suggesting that all those who demand a more efficient and humane hospital service are violent, politically-motivated doctor-bashing anarchists is preposterous. The promise of violent retribution, the warning “you better shut up” and the hysterical tone are shocking. If this were Pulcinella waving his wooden spoon in Commedia dell’Arte we’d laugh but it isn’t.


Arrogance makes you blind

Posted in 1 by Editor on October 25, 2011

Political arrogance is blinding. It prevents you from seeing what is happening around you. But let’s go step by step. On October 5, a student gave Minister Austin Gatt a piece of her mind because she could no longer suppress the frustration and the anger (in her words) “which had been boiling up for four months while waiting for many long hours on many bus stops”. She told him that “he should be ashamed of himself because of the Arriva service”.

The day after, on October 6, the minister issued a statement. Skilfully identifying himself with the aggrieved party, the minister expressed empathy with the student and, by implication, with all those that are angry and frustrated at the public bus service. He said: “I fully understand the frustration of (student’s name) with Arriva”.

Note the adverb “fully”. It is meant to disarm the sceptical. Condescending and patronising it may well be but politically effective it is. If you understand a problem “fully” there is nothing else that you need be told about it. If you understand the causes of someone’s anger and frustration fully, then she need not protest to bring the causes of her anger and frustration to your attention. Meaning: don’t bother me kid, there is nothing you can tell me that I don’t know.

The minister, an astute communicator, went further. Not only did he underscore his understanding for the aggrieved party in this situation, namely the users of the public transport system, but he also identified himself as their champion against Arriva. Quote: “I will continue hounding Arriva until they deliver the service contracted for and which the travelling public expects.”

Note the use of “hounding” to suggest that he will be a fierce and tireless champion of “the travelling public” against Arriva. Note the future progressive: “I will continue hounding.” Hitting two birds with one stone, it declares a commitment that goes further than momentary political expediency while telling us that he is not a Johnny-come-lately among critics of Arriva.

He will “continue” the fight, ergo he was already fighting and needed nobody’s prompting to challenge the dragon.

More. Having established himself as the tribune of the plebeians, he now presents himself as a student rebel at heart. He said: “I was a student once and I expect nothing less from a student but to speak her mind and publicly express her protests without fear.” How can a rebellious student identify Dr Gatt as an antagonist if the latter is himself one who unapologetically speaks his mind and protests without fear?

But what kills me is that not only does he completely ignore the student’s request that he should “apologise to the Maltese bus commuters for his disastrous attempt to reform the bus system” but that, from the dizzy Olympian heights, he practically forgives her for having spoken out. Quote: “I can assure her that there is absolutely no animosity and I consider the case as closed.”

The accused becomes the kind-hearted prosecutor who holds “absolutely no animosity” towards the student who accused him of having bungled what could have been the badly-needed public transport reform. Magnanimously he declares that “he consider(s) the case closed”. Intelligent rhetorical sleight of hand it is but a communications strategy that yields decreasing political returns.

For (to quote from the minister’s October 16 interview with The Sunday Times) “the 10,000 who are crucial to an election” the case is not at all closed. Moreover, for these, the case is not at all that of a protesting student. The case that interests them, a case that precipitates their sense of indignation, is that of a political class that is increasingly disconnected from the real country. It is the minister’s case, not the student.

This case is not, whatever the minister may say, closed. On October 15, Dr Gatt spoke to the media about the public transport system. With the same apparent straightforwardness with which he spoke about the incident at the University 10 days before, he bluntly stated that he is responsible for changes to the routes as these were designed by his ministry. But that is where the straightforwardness ends and the crookedness begins.

The real problem with the new system, he suggests, is not the new design of the routes (an interchange system as opposed to the previous hub-and-spoke one) but Maltese commuters. He is reported to have said that “maybe we were too avant-garde and too innovative and (…) we underestimated the reaction by commuters”. Oh, now I understand, if people are upset, it is their own fault because they are too backward and dumb to appreciate an avant-garde and innovative government.

It is all a matter of perception, the minister says. When, in The Sunday Times interview, he was asked about the massive traffic that we are seeing since the introduction of the new bus service, he coolly replied: “I think it’s more a perception than anything else.” When asked if he thought he should watch his words because “it’s making your (his) party sound very arrogant”, came the ice-cold, lapidary reply: “Perceptions”. If only we were to get our perceptions straight; then we would see how right the minister is.

The original of this post appeared on October 14, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at


Who’s afraid of Gerald Strickland?

Posted in 1 by Editor on October 11, 2011

Vincent (Ċensu) Bugeja (1887-1963) is one of the more interesting but lesser known figures of the early Labour Party. A mathematician and logician by training (Cambridge) but a journalist by profession (International Herald Tribune), Maltese by birth (and, therefore, a subject of the British Empire) but Parisian (and European) by choice, cosmopolitan, broad- (very) minded and thoroughly modern in outlook but yet deeply committed to the then (as now?) stiflingly provincial Malta, he was complex and brilliant.

An admirer (and, possibly, an acquaintance) of the legendary Josephine Baker, who settled in Paris in 1925, he must have been especially touched by the words of her 1931 hit J’ai Deux Amours: “J’ai deux amours/Mon pays et Paris”.

His contribution to the development of the PL has, in my view, been underestimated. He is sometimes superficially referred to as a “leftist element” and, yet, even a light reading of his writings show that this description runs the risk of caricaturing him. Today’s PL has been occasionally depicted as the total negation of its founding fathers (by those who count him as a founding father) and, yet, even a cursory look at his work indicates how much of his seminal thought is alive and well in today’s PL. Indeed, it may well be blooming.

We will come back to Ċensu Bugeja on this column but what I am concerned with today are his views of the first half of the 1920s on Lord Strickland, which views certainly contributed in no small measure to preparing the ground for the PL’s acceptance of the idea of what then became the Compact of 1926. It is interesting to note that Mr Bugeja developed his views before Lord Strickland, in January 1924, invited the PL to consider a united front in the Legislative Assembly.

Mr Bugeja did not simply divide Maltese society into two: poor and rich, lower and upper. His analysis, already well developed by the end of 1923, distinguished between two sections of the Maltese dominant social group.

On the one hand, there was the traditional section made up of mainly landowners, importers and the professions, supported by the clergy. These tended to support the PPM and the PDN, the two political groups that then merged as the Partito Nazionalista. They also looked towards Italy for support and the Italian regime – the Fascists had seized power in 1922 – looked towards them as its supporters in Malta.

On the other hand, he believed that there was another section, a social group whose members were capable of investing in the island’s economic development and were more open-minded and innovative. It was these that, in Mr Bugeja’s view, could drive Malta’s economic modernisation, namely its industrialisation. He saw them as the working class’s potential allies inasmuch as (within this perspective) an industrial capitalism would have been a step forward in relation to what Balogh and Seers would later call a “fossilised economy” (and the society and culture that went with it) that – apart from employment with government and UK Services’ establishments – characterised the country.

This progressive fraction consisted of the more far-seeing entrepreneurs and public administrators who supported Lord Strickland’s party and who looked towards Britain and the Empire for support. Support from Britain, it must be said, was not as forthcoming as Lord Strickland would have hoped. London preferred not to interfere in Maltese politics as long as these did not endanger imperial interests, hence Lord Strickland was often perceived as a nuisance who unnecessarily rocked the boat. It was only much later, at least 15 years after his death, that Britain decided to support Malta’s bid for development by promoting productive economic activities.

As Mr Bugeja had correctly foreseen, Lord Strickland, his party and his social network understood that an alliance with the PL would have provided the right political framework for a social alliance conducive to pulling Malta out of the entrepreneurial lethargy and bigoted cultural conservativeness that it was stuck in. He argued that the quid pro quo for Labour’s support should be a commitment to the enactment of legislation aimed at the promotion of employment, public instructions and adequate social welfare. In fact, the Compact’s programme provided for, among others, a Workmen’s Compensation Act, compulsory education and the freeing of local industries from duties on raw materials and industrial equipment (a key feature of the Aids to Industries Ordinance of 1959).

The transformational potential of the progressive historic social bloc that could have grown out of the Compact evidently upset those that stood to lose from it. What was at issue was the influence of the conservative fraction over society. This influence ensured that, when necessary, they could mobilise considerable popular support, mainly from the poorest strata of society (poorest does not mean progressive) and from the rural population. Lord Strickland, supported by the working class through the PL, threatened their hegemony. That the PL had – as Mr Bugeja had advocated – freed itself from the influence of its early conservative patrons and reached out to someone (albeit not unproblematic) like Lord Strickland, was a signal to the conservatives of the popular support they stood to lose from the Compact. The switch from Gonzi to Strickland alarmed them.

The original of this post appeared on October 10, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at:


Gaddafi and Somoza

Posted in 1 by Editor on September 27, 2011

The overwhelming sup­port given by the UN General Assembly to the resolution to hand Libya’s seat to the National Transitional Council confirms that there is an almost total worldwide consensus that the NTC is now de facto the government of our southern neighbour. A total of 114 states voted in favour of the resolution, 17 voted against and 15 abstained.

Speaking against a motion aimed at postponing this decision – a motion rightly voted into the dustbin of history – the Egyptian representative argued that this was “the moment of truth”. Failure to give Libya’s seat to the NTC without any further ado, would only serve to prolong the suffering of the Libyan people and to frustrate their will. There is no doubt that this has been an important step forward but it is by no means the end of the story, far from it. International recognition of the NTC as a government is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for Libya’s return to normality.

This is especially true if “normality” is to mean not more of the same but the successful establishment of democratic institutions that can ensure stability while promoting the change that most Libyans have been yearning for. Considering that Libyans have never really enjoyed such a state of “normality”, perhaps the phrase “return to normality” is inappropriate. One thing is certain.

Any idea that the templates of these institutions can be exported to Libya from elsewhere – be this from the West or from anywhere in the Islamic world – is widely off the mark. Nobody today is in a position to lecture anybody else about what is good for them. Which is not to say that some will not try.

They will try because within the footprint of these 1.8 million square kilometres lie what are possibly the seventh largest proven oil reserves in the world. A January 2011 estimate puts them at 46.4 billion barrels, certainly the largest reserves in Africa. Then there is gas too, about 55 trillion cubic feet of it, and other mineral resources. There are, for example, sufficiently robust indications of enough uranium to make it worthwhile for Canadian, French, Russian and Ukrainian companies to have signed exploration agreements with the regime.

The undoubted economic interest of the world’s great powers in Libya – which interests only the hopelessly naïve or the callously hypocritical will deny – does not justify opposition to UN Security Council’s Resolution 1973 of March 17. It is true that the language of the resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack” allows for interpretation when push comes to shove. But could it be otherwise?

Insisting with the Libyans – that rose against Muammar Gaddafi because they had enough of his corrupt dictatorship – that they should not ask for Nato to take “all necessary measures” to prevent the Colonel’s armed forces from killing them, is effectively to prop up a violent regime against the wish of the people. It hurts to hear people who should know better defend Col Gaddafi.

When Tripoli fell, Bayardo Arce, an economic advisor to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, is reported to have told a journalist who asked him if Nicaragua would welcome Col Gaddafi: “If someone asks us for asylum, we would have to consider it positively, because our people got asylum when the Somoza dictatorship was killing us”.

What an insult to the Sandinistas who died in the struggle to free Nicaragua from the dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s! If there is anyone in the Libyan context that can be compared to Somoza it is Col Gaddafi himself. Also, don’t some of the Colonel’s sons remind you of Somoza’s son, nicknamed El Chigüin, who in 1978 was almost certainly involved in the assassination of La Prensa’s editor Pedro Chamorro?

I have been watching Libya even more closely than usual ever since the first demonstrations in Tunisia in December last year. Contrary to the assurances of many of our own home-spun know-alls in business, civil service and politics in or around both parties – who swore that nothing could ever happen in Libya – it was clear to others that the Arab Spring would not spare Col Gaddafi.

True, I have the advantage of having been born there in a family that, from one side, had come down from Europe and settled in Tripolitania even before the Italian invasion, when it was still a Vilayet (province) of the Ottoman Empire. That sort of background teaches you something about political change in the country. It gives you a broader and more long-term view.

True, I also have the advantage of having to observe developments in Libya for professional purposes. But those that assured us that Libya could not change or that, at best, someone of “the family” or an old army comrade (say a Jalloud) would be brought in from the cold to replace him, were meant to know Libya well. The problem is that we Maltese, in spite of our vaunted experience of Libya, never ventured beyond that thin crust of Libyan society that constituted Gaddafi’s power-base.

The fall of the regime is only the beginning of a difficult but exciting journey. As I told a young friend who was in one of the first NTC teams to arrive in Tripoli from Benghazi to take over public administration: “You are privileged to be living a historic moment and I confess that I envy you for it.”

The original of this post appeared on September 26, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110926/opinion/Gaddafi-and-Somoza.386404

Strickland in context

Posted in 1 by Editor on September 12, 2011

Victor Aquilina’s Strickland House The Standard Bearers And Launching Of The Times Of Malta, Book One: 1921-1935 makes fascinating reading. I recommend it to anyone who is no longer content with the dominant version of Maltese social and political history. Certainly not written by one with Labour credentials, this book’s concern with “re-evaluating” Gerald Strickland (1861-1940) provides numerous painstakingly documented opportunities for a critical reassessment of the formative years of contemporary Maltese politics.

… the Establishment is never a monolith
– Mario Vella

This is not the place for a systematic study of the man and his times, not even “only” of the man and his (The) Times (of Malta). Although such an undertaking, one to which Mr Aquilina has made an outstanding contribution, is urgently required, it must of necessity go beyond the scope of an occasional piece by a newspaper columnist such as yours truly. A project such as I am advocating needs to be a multidisciplinary team effort focused on the broader, historically specific (social, economic, cultural and political) context.

Although a number of scholars have been working at this project for decades, they have been swimming, as it were, against the current of this country’s academic mainstream. Some readers, certainly those that belong to our intellectual establishment, will no doubt question that there is at all some such thing as a “dominant version of Maltese social and political history”. Some of them will, I am certain, especially question the existence of a national intellectual mainstream whose interests are intimately intertwined with those of the country’s traditional political social, economic and political Establishment. I beg to differ.

The “elective affinities” between the attitudes of the intellectual and political establishments towards Lord Strickland is a good starting point for a case study of the common interests that have welded and continue to weld together academic mainstream and conservative politics. This too, however, lies beyond the scope of my fortnightly invitations – I almost wrote “provocations” – to rethink passively received views and sheer prejudices. Kindly be provoked.

Readers of Mr Aquilina’s Strickland House are advised not to stop there. Although some of them will not have needed my prodding to do so, I suggest that they familiarise themselves with the broader context within which Lord Strickland acted before, during and after his 15 years in the colonial service as governor of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies (1902-04), Tasmania (1904-9), West Australia (1909-12) and New South Wales (1912-17). As regards the “before” and “after” periods, they would also be well advised not to limit themselves to the Maltese context. He was, after all, Conservative MP for Lancaster during 1924-1928 when he was elevated to the peerage.

The point about the importance of context cannot be over-emphasised. The “meaning” of Lord Strickland in our political development can only be reconstructed from the context within which he operated and of which he was a part. This reconstruction can only be undertaken after caricatures of Lord Strickland as a lackey of the British empire and as merely tactless and arrogant pain in the neck – not that, as Mr Aquilina would be the first to concede, he was not tactless and arrogant – are themselves taken apart (deconstructed) and exposed as constructions by those elements within his social context that perceived him as a threat to their interests.

Complementary to the importance of context is the need not to fall to the temptation of what is called “essentialism”. This is especially important for an understanding of Lord Strickland’s role in Maltese politics. An essentialist approach to Lord Strickland, for example, would assume that, given that he was a Conservative MP in Britain, therefore his views could not be progressive because “conservative” and “progressive” are practically antonyms. This approach would make it impossible, for example, to appreciate his Commons speech of February 9, 1927, where he refers to the “aggressiveness against the trade union movement” shown by “extremely conservative and anti-progressive elements in Malta” (Hansard, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1927/feb/09/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0202P0_19270209_HOC_86 ).

One good starting point for a critical reassessment of Lord Strickland would be a study of the hysterical hate that he aroused in the Church and the Nationalist establishments. The pelting of him and his daughters during the campaign of 1927, the swearing of a false affidavit by Ettore Bono (Terinu) to the effect that 30 years before he had seen Lord Strickland dressed in full Masonic regalia (“the Nationalists’ nastiest move … which, for the greatest possible effect, they left up to the very last moment of the election”, Aquilina, p. 178) and his attempted assassination would have been unthinkable were it not for the atmosphere created by the establishment. As a friend of Lord Strickland congratulating him on his “marvellous escape” when one Gianni Miller, “a keen Nationalist supporter” took a shot at him at the law courts on May 23, 1930, remarked: “even a lunatic requires an atmosphere for his deeds” (Aquilina, pp. 227-232).

One good question a reader may ask is: But was not Lord Strickland himself part of the Establishment? If the Establishment is by definition conservative, then how could Lord Strickland be “progressive”? And, why would other elements of the Establishment, whip up an atmosphere that almost killed him? The point is that the Establishment is never a monolith. Establishments are made up of shifting alliances between different interests. Different social groups within the Establishment may also come into conflict. Understanding Lord Strickland requires a consideration of these conflicts. We’ll look at this next time.

The original of this post appeared on September 12, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110912/opinion/Lord-Strickland-in-context.384353


Looking for Lord Strickland (1)

Posted in 1 by Editor on August 30, 2011

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.

The original of this post appeared yesterday, August 29, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110829/opinion/Looking-for-Lord-Strickland.382293

Not gently into that good night.

Posted in 1 by Editor on August 16, 2011

Around this time last year I devoted no fewer than four pieces (All Is Well Now Or Is It?, July 19; Premature Cries Of Pleasure, August 16; Looking With Eyes Wide Shut, August 30 and Watch The Wheels, September 27, 2010) to suggest that it was far too early for Finance Minister Tonio Fenech to get too smug about our economic prospects. I was reacting to what the minister had said in Parliament in the first half of July 2010. In fact, even less wisely, the Prime Minister had preceded him by a full four months.

My main point was that the global recovery was proceeding too slowly in many advanced economies. This mattered to us, I argued, because we export most of our goods and services to and get most of our tourists from these very economies. Moreover, there was no guarantee of global economic stability.

I had quoted the IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) of April 2010: “The outlook for activity remains unusually uncertain and downside risks stemming from fiscal fragilities have come to the fore. Moreover, sovereign risks in advanced economies could undermine financial stability gains and extend the crisis. The rapid increase in public debt and deterioration of fiscal balance sheets could be transmitted back to banking systems or across borders.”

I also quoted the July 7 (2010 not 2011) update of the WEO warning that “downside risks have risen sharply amid renewed financial turbulence. In this context, the new forecasts hinge on implementation of policies to rebuild confidence and stability, particularly in the euro area”.

Finally, I argued – quoting our own Central Bank – that our key trading partners were bound to attempt to pull themselves out of the mud through “radical adjustments of their domestic cost structures”. Our bid to safeguard our external competitiveness, therefore, was not about to become any easier.

One year after – actually almost 17 months if we begin to count from Lawrence Gonzi’s complacent reassurances of March 2010 – and one is tempted to say: I told you so. The debt crisis in Europe and the real danger of a contracting US economy should not come as a surprise. If you are surprised, then go back to the top and read again.

The US economy today is still not bigger than it was in 2007. The recently published revised data show that the recession has been deeper – and the recovery much weaker – than has been so far admitted. Thirty years have gone by since the US suffered two recessions in quick succession. Although today this has again become a very real possibility, this time last year the signs were already there for all to see. Only those that did not wish to see them, did not.

Last week’s warning by Bank of England’s Governor Mervyn King that “headwinds are growing stronger by the day” and the announcement that the Bank has clipped its 2011 growth forecast for the UK from 1.8 per cent to around 1.5 per cent, does not encourage much optimism. Recent news regarding Italy, Spain and France should make us sweat. The countries I mentioned above are our major markets for both industry and tourism. They get a cold, we get pneumonia.

A reader blinded by political passion may well remark that it’s not the fault of either Dr Gonzi or Mr Fenech that global economic conditions have not stabilised since the shock of 2007 and that the recovery may well fizzle out and be followed by a second dip. Who’s blaming the Prime Minister or the Minister of Finance for what is happening in Europe and the US? What the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance can be praised or blamed for is what they are responsible for, that is, what they can do something about.

We tend to refer to global international conditions to deflect the blame for bad economic performance from the government. We also do it to justify higher taxes, higher utility costs and higher government-induced costs generally. Finally, we also often point to international economic conditions to tell employees why they should not ask for wages and salaries high enough to make ends meet. This is where Dr Gonzi and Mr Fenech come into the picture.

None of us, politics apart, can be happy about the economic news we are getting from the US and Europe. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance have, however, specifically political reasons for not being too happy about the way things are unfolding in the world around us. In Approaching A Greece Too Far (this column, July 4, 2011), I wrote that in “EU countries, such as Malta, where the only solution to their governments’ problems is, finally, an election, it will mean that the incumbents will not be able to spend their way to re-election”.

A ruling party – and it social networks – that, come the elections, will have monopolised power for almost uninterruptedly a quarter of a century, will not go gently into that good night. It will do whatever it can to hold on for a while longer. Not a cent of public money will be spared if it can lengthen its hold for that while longer. With stronger headwinds ahead this becomes more difficult.


In a Norwegian wood.

Posted in 1 by Editor on August 2, 2011

What happened on Friday, July 22, in central Oslo, close to the office of Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and other ministries, and, just over an hour later, on the little island of Utøya – the property of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth league – in the Tyrifjorden lake, less than a 40-kilometre drive from the capital’s city centre, left a total of 76 dead and many questions.

You will recall how early reports on certain global news networks were strongly skewed towards an al-Qaeda-linked operation. Blaming militant Islamic fundamentalism has become a knee-jerk reaction. Just as striking the tendon below the patella does not require you to think before your leg suddenly extends itself, linking events such as these to Islamic terrorism is an equally reflex action that requires no thinking. Indeed, if you did think, you would probably decide to wait until you had some facts.

Anyway, it then turned out that it was the work of one Anders Behring Breivik, alias Andrew Berwick, 32 years old, described by the Norwegian police as a right-wing “fundamentalist Christian”. A misogynist who believes that feminism has softened Europe, he loves firearms and is obsessed with what, in his view, is the threat posed by Muslim immigration in Europe.

Author of an online manifesto, Mr Breivik advocates (and forecasts) a protracted European civil war that will end in 2083 – 400 years after the great Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 – with the expulsion of all Muslims from Europe, the stamping out of multiculturalism and the liquidation of what he calls “cultural Marxism”.

Intelligent debate on what we ought to make of (not of what we ought to do with) the man and his ideas, have swung between two apparent extremes. At one end, there are those that hold that Mr Breivik is completely deranged and we should not attribute any importance to his reasons. Simon Jenkins, for example, writes: “The Norwegian tragedy is just that, a tragedy. It does not signify anything and should not be forced to do so. A man so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood is so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science but not to politics” (The Guardian, July 27).

Observing that terrorism is “a specific and rational political form: the use of violence to achieve a multiplier of fear through a civilian population to a particular end”, Mr Jenkins concludes that inasmuch as Mr Breivik’s actions are mad and irrational, then we could not possibly refer to them as terrorism. It was tragic, he remarks, but it was neither political and it wasn’t terrorism. Terrorism is a political strategy with its own rationality. Mr Breivik’s bombing and his murderous rampage through the woods of Utøya have no political rationality. His own lawyer, by the way, argues that his client is insane.

At the other end, there are those, like Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, who argue that Mr Breivik “cannot be dismissed simply as a ‘madman’, he is something more.” Mr Mankell – creator of the well-known Inspector Wallander stories – claims that this follows from the consideration that “the man who committed this hideous crime developed a political agenda to defend his actions” (The Guardian, July 26).

For Mr Mankell, unlike Mr Jenkins, what happened in central Oslo and in that Norwegian wood was terrorism. Indeed, he argues, this tragedy shows how wrong are those who claim that terrorism today is exclusively the modus operandi of those who claim to act in the name of Islam. “One could say,” he writes, “that what happened in Norway is a ghastly return of the Übermensch mentality that was the mark of Hitler’s Nazism, which occupied and tortured Norway during World War II”.

Mr Mankell and Mr Jenkins, however, agree that Norway’s Labour government did right in not falling into the temptation of following the example of governments that react to terrorism or to its threat by curtailing democracy and civil rights in the name of national security or, more generically, by appealing to the reason of state, to an overriding and practically not appealable state power.

The Norwegian Prime Minister, in fact, speaking on July 22, said: “It’s absolutely possible to have an open, democratic, inclusive society and at the same time have security measures and not be naïve.” Distinguishing between a “before” and “after” Norway, a pre-July 22 and a post-July 22 one, Mr Stoltenberg told the media: “I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”

It is, of course, true that in our time – and this is especially true of our own region – national security is a very real issue concerning which we cannot be naïve. I must say that I would be more concerned about acts of terrorism on the ground than about ballistic missiles falling on our heads.

If anything, the Norwegian case has shown that soft-target countries are more likely to be caught unawares than others. If they are easier targets than countries with a higher security and military profile and yet hitting them would, nevertheless, achieve a multiplier of fear throughout the countries with which they are associated (in this case Europe), then countries like ours become more attractive targets.


A Greece too far.

Posted in 1 by Editor on July 5, 2011

If the foundations of western political thought were laid in ancient Greece, it may well be – at least as far as Europe is concerned – that the foundations of a post-war political economic system, where rulers and ruled, employers and employed, agree that this is grosso modo the best of all possible worlds, are being fundamentally questioned in Greece. In Greece’s particular case, the period that may be coming to an end began somewhat later than the conclusion of World War II. The fall of the military dictatorship in 1974 is a rough but useful landmark. In the greater picture, however, this is a small detail we need not concern ourselves with here.

This is not the place where we can even hope to outline the fundamentals of this system – let alone of its national variants – without reducing it to a journalistic caricature. It should be enough, however, to note that for it to work (that is, for all those that participate in it to be more or less happy with it), this system requires a constant supply of funds. Now if these funds are not generated by real economic growth – an economic growth driven by productivity and, in all European cases, ultimately by exports – then the state will have to resort to deficit financing. If it does not do so, the happiness bubble bursts. And you get a Greece.

Pathological optimists – otherwise known as fools – will try to console themselves by arguing that the Greek case is an exception to the rule, a deviant case. The system works, they will attempt to argue, and the institutions of the European Union are there to ensure that it does so. They will insist that the Greeks have only themselves to blame and that, therefore, Greece is the exception that proves the rule. Unfortunately for all of us, this does not seem to be the case. There is a growing consensus that the problem might well be a systemic one. That this happiness-bubble producing machine is not indefinitely sustainable. That, at some point, the chain has to give way. That it will do so at the weakest link. That the chain (read system) is ultimately only as strong as its weakest link.

Hence, the worry that we might be approaching a Greece too far. Hence, the suspicion the Union might be, on the one hand, loudly castigating profligate governments of member states, while, on the other hand, implicitly encouraging the idea that one can live beyond one’s means and to hell with productivity. One argument goes that expecting a union of states characterised by uneven economic development to develop institutionally in an even way, regardless of the reality on the ground in each of the states, does not promote productivity growth evenly throughout the Union. The suggestion is that quite the contrary might be the case.

The worry is that, whatever the explanation, a Greek collapse might trigger a chain reaction. The problem, of course, is not exclusively one of public finances. Nor even, though more broadly, only an economic one. The problem is now also, if not mainly, a social and a political one. The decisions taken in the Athens Parliament last Wednesday and Thursday have been greeted with satisfaction by European leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said they were “really good news”. In a joint statement, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy declared that Greece had taken “a vital step back – from the very grave scenario of default.” Markets, too, reacted positively.

Ordinary Greeks, however, and not only those protesting in the streets, are deeply unhappy and profoundly resentful of what they see as the EU’s and the Bretton Woods institutions’ pressure on a helpless and embattled Greek government to make them, the people of Greece, pay for the long-term wastefulness and economic mismanagement on the part of incompetent and possibly corrupt past Greek governing politicians.

With the Wednesday vote, the Athens Parliament voted to reduce very sharply indeed government spending and to dispose of a broad selection of national assets. The package, approved with a majority of 155 to 138, calls for the privatisation of assets worth about €50 billion. These include ports, telecommunications, real estate and the public stake in the national energy corporation. It also provides defence cuts over the next five years and, much more sensitively, hefty cuts to public health up to 2015, higher taxes on heating oil and for the self-employed. It will also mean reductions in the numbers of public sector employees.

This comes on top of 10 per cent plus wage cuts, began last year, for Greece’s 800,000 public workers – that’s more than 10 per cent of the country’s workforce.

The Thursday vote approved the second part of the austerity budget amounting to a further €28 billion. This should have now cleared the way for an immediate €12 billion cash injection. As I file this piece, there is as yet no confirmation of when this will actually come through. But will this settle the problem? No. Meanwhile, Ireland, Portugal and Spain will continue to tremble. Also for EU countries, such as Malta, where the only solution to their governments’ problems is, finally, an election, it will mean that the incumbents will not be able to spend their way to re-election.