Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Times: Sad return of ideology

Sunday, 1st February 2009 by Lino Spiteri

Save for a few noteworthy cases, such as China and Cuba, politics has been undergoing a large degree of convergence as parties shifted gradually towards the centre.

That is not to say that political parties became indistinguishable from each other. Yet, the old dividing lines between left and right have become increasingly blurred. This process was most evident where society itself no longer harboured huge differences, except for minorities who lived on, or outside, its margin.

That is not to say that class distinction has been rubbed away, or that everyone now truly belongs to a mystic middle class defined in a combination of economic and social terms. Nevertheless, the perception that a political party which truly wanted to gain the right to govern had to penetrate and win the middle ground is now embedded.

The above is true in Malta. The Labour and Nationalist parties are far from being uniform in their beliefs and approaches. But they are no longer the class parties that they were in the 1920s, and even in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays the thrust of politicking is more about who can govern most efficiently; who presents the best set of ideas most likely to achieve a strong measure of social progress, prosperity and harmony.

Not even yesterday's great debate about EU membership, now resolved once and forever, except in the minds of the like of Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, was carried out along divisive class lines.

Labour's awkward rallying cry of Malta becoming a Switzerland in the Mediterranean did not have class at its heart, being more of a metaphorical flourish than anything else.

The similarities in attitudes to social welfare, jobs creation and economic prosperity are so strong that one is often tempted to remark about the end of ideology. So much so that the old brand names which differentiated our political parties died out.

Few nowadays preach Socialism from within the Labour Party. Practically no one from within the Nationalist Party beats their chest to proclaim the effervescence of Christian Democracy. And no one at all drags out any belief in old liberalism typified by laissez-faire.

Which is why the Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Leader of the Nationalist Party took most people by surprise when he cried out, metaphorically thumping his chest, that his party is not a liberal party, but Christian Democrat.

That odd triumphant roar resounded out of tune in the midst of a debate about social considerations in the context of rent reform. The Dalli reform contains safeguards for surviving spouses, who will remain entitled to occupy the couple's rented accommodation, but offers no protection to couples who cohabit outside marriage vows.

There are those who believe, and not just within the Labour Party either, that couples who have cohabited for years should be afforded some protection in the legislation now heading to the committee stage of the House of Representatives. For one thing, we live in an age where there is increasing recognition of the right to choose. Read pro-choice Barack Obama's explanation of his stand on abortion in his book The Audacity to Hope and it will help to get the point. Better still, read the human story recently published by The Times about the worries of a long-cohabiting man and woman, now well past their prime, and the point should emerge clearer still.

Church morality aside, the couple had no choice but to cohabit. One of the partners could not get a release from an abusive spouse who haunts a past life. Now, not only do they have to grapple with steep flights of stairs to their apartment which put great physical strain on them: they have already been told by their landlord that, when one spouse dies, the survivor will have to leave the apartment.

There is no doubt in my mind that Minister Tonio Borg is a kind and feeling person who would be grieved should that eventuality come about. Nevertheless, as a politician he is prepared to do nothing to stop it. He is, he declares, a Christian Democrat, not a liberal. Later he attempted to modify that fundamentalist social stance, explaining to readers of The Times (January 29) that he defined liberalism in laissez-faire terms. That was a weak effort not worthy of the otherwise upright Tonio. He knows as well as those who heard or read him that the discussion was not about economic laissez-faire. It was about social decency.

It is the extent to which politicians are committed that broadly defines social decency. It marks and distinguishes them from other politicians. It does so within parties as well. I believe that Dr Borg was not correct when he described the Nationalist Party as a Christian Democratic Party. Like all modern political parties - like the PL too - the PN is essentially a coalition of parties. Parties include members who have the same political ideal and understand how to achieve it, but among them there may be those with non-party-mainstream views on divorce, gay couples, civil marriage, and such matters.

If ideology is to be resuscitated, it should be to bring about an ideology of inclusion, an ideology committed to help those who live on or outside the margin of society to come into the varied milieu of the fold. This issue is not one to be debated in religious terms.

First and foremost, the issues which account for the minorities who are at the edge or outside of society are social issues. It would also be a mistake to debate them in terms of defunct ideologies. Dr Borg is entitled to his - at times very old - rightist beliefs.

Those of our brethren who are out there in the cold are surely entitled to whatever justifiable protection we can give them, if only starting with legalities meant stamping out discrimination.

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