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.