Wednesday, July 6, 2011 , by Josè Herrera
For quite some time now, the prevalent perception was that there no longer existed any significant divergence in ideology professed by both the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party in government. The fact that the PN had swerved to the left while the PL did likewise but to the right contributed a great deal to this general feeling. In the aftermath of the political struggles regarding the major national issues, such as those about European Union membership, politics became mundane and people complained of not seeing any noteworthy differences in the creed of the two major parties. Time, however, would prove us wrong.
Once elected to the helm of the PL, the new leader faced the eventful task of underlining Labour's ideology. He immediately pledged radical reforms and clearly stressed the way ahead. There was a time when the party in government demeaned all this talk of change and even ridiculed what the Leader of the Opposition had earlier referred to as the coming storm. Eventually, however, the result of all this was the emergence of a wide movement encompassing people with moderate or progressive outlooks. In essence, the PL asserted itself as liberal.
This new attitude led to the prioritising of minority rights, thereby making the party far more inclusive and more European. Soon, it became all too evident that what the Leader of the Opposition had declared earlier on during his tenure was not mere rhetoric but hard facts. Senior Labour exponents have not shied away from taking the lead in affirming this political philosophy. Labour has been resolute in insisting on the secularity of our country and on the clear distinction between state and Church. This approach has prompted the party into taking a clear view on issues such as in vitro fertilisation, moral ethics, gay rights and censorship.
In sharp contrast to this approach, the PN has been lagging behind and is showing its true colours. Few doubt that the Nationalist Cabinet, as a whole, is today, oddly enough, composed of ultra conservatives who resist renovation and scorn what is liberal and secular. The Nationalist members of Parliament who entertain diverse opinions are a minority. It is becoming only too noticeable that the purported drive to the left was only one of convenience and that at heart. The PN has remained very much entrenched in antiquated ideals.
Unfortunately for the government, today, the Maltese are far more unregimented and forward-looking than those of times gone by. No doubt, they will no longer tolerate dogmatism and will not put up with a paternalistic government that expects to dictate from above what is to be considered as values.
Ultimately, however, the PN leadership seems to have noted the persistent haemorrhage of its supporters. As happened in the 1970s, a major U-turn is about to happen. Reading between the lines and analysing what has been said in the last PN general council, we realise that, in a subtle fashion, the party is intent on opening a window to more liberal views, hoping to curtail further decline in the support enjoyed by the party.
This is reminiscent of what happened in the 1970s. Back then, the PN actually prided itself on being conservative and proudly em braced the motto of patria et religio.
Seeing the masses turning against them, the party strode to the left, trying to entice a broader spectrum of support.
The electorate, will, this time round, be facing two major political parties with visibly defined principles. The choice will be either to vote for a liberal, inclusive and secular political movement or for a retro party epitomising anachronistic values. This, to me, will be a defining moment.
On the other hand, this sudden change of attitude seems artificial and may only be intended to accommodate political exigencies. Regrettably for the party, the top brass are all too well known. The beliefs of such individuals are definitely well anchored in conservatism and the status quo serves them only too well. An eventual retreat will risk portraying the PN as opportunistic and, in all likelihood, such a gimmick will backfire.
Dr Herrera is a Labour member of Parliament and spokesman on justice.
[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]