Godfrey Baldacchino, a Maltese writer based in Canada at the Institute of Island Studies
, discusses the emergence of the Maltese nation as well as the formative role of the catholic church and political parties in the evolution of the Maltese state. It is an extract of a paper (available online only against payment) written by Baldacchino two years ago for the influential journal West European Politics
. For a good understanding of Maltese society in a historical context this piece is essential reading:
With a long history of colonisation of at least five millennia, the Maltese come across today as a people with no internal racial tensions, united by the Catholic faith, speaking a unique language and living on definitively precise limestone blocks comprising just 316 square kilometres. Yet one may hazard to proclaim that Malta today is a 'nationless state', a 37-year-old sovereign unit where the nation is yet to be formed. It is easy to condone references to a monolithic 'Maltese Society'. Such a definitive term fails to render justice to sub-cultural traits amongst the Maltese and fails to take account of the existence of -- albeit very small -- minority groups, such as Indian entrepreneurs or retired British pensioners. But history, acute population density and the pervasive socialising powers of Catholicism have tended to erode many cultural differences overtime. It would, therefore, be fair to define Malta as a 'crossroads island' with a 'cosmopolitan and polyglot' population reflecting the 'ethnic and linguistics mixtures of Phoenician, Arab, Sicilian and British colonial influences'. Other than in extreme cases, ethnicity is not a relevant analytical category to contemporary Malta.
The Maltese Islands certainly qualify as pioneers in imaginative statecraft, having been held as a distinct fiefdom by Aragonese and Castellan landlords in the late Middle Ages and subsequently having spent a long period (1530-1798) as the seat of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, a theocracy that ruled over Malta in an interesting chivalric and pioneering version of the European Union. Specific nation-building initiatives as such were not, however, encouraged by the ruling elite, including the Maltese aristocracy of lawyers, medics and priests, a comprador bourgeoisie even in a cultural sense that traditionally and linguistically associated itself readily with Italy. Indeed, the eventual unity of Malta with Italy was a policy pursued in the early to mid-1900s by various exponents of the strong Nationalist (sic) Party (NP), and several NP leaders, many with declared fascist sympathies, were interned in Uganda for the duration of the Second World War, when Malta served as the critical fulcrum of the British war effort in the Mediterranean theatre. The legitimation of Maltese as an official language by the 1930s was a largely unintended outcome of the struggle for cultural (and political) supremacy between Italian and English, the latter being the upcoming language of the new middle mercantile and administrative classes during the period of British rule (1800-l964). There was absolutely no struggle for political independence -- granted by Britain on 21 September 1964 -- and its pursuit was again a 'second best' option after attempts to secure full integration by the Malta Labour Party (MLP) with Britain had failed in the late 1950s. Premier Mintoff did negotiate successfully to extend the date of the eventual dismantling of the British Military Base in Malta, the mainstay of the local 'fortress' economy, up to March 1979.
This is not to argue that Malta has had no nationalist birth pangs. An undercurrent of anti-colonial resistance had been active in Malta certainly since the late Middle Ages. Even before Malta was officially declared a British colony by the Treaty of Amiens in 1814, there were already agitations for representative rights and institutions by members of the Maltese clerico-professional elite. The spontaneous 'bread riots' of June 1919 did bring about a reassessment of the assumed loyalty of the Maltese and paved the way to the first self-governing constitution in 1921. Still, the one 'national' rebellion to speak of in two centuries occurred during the brief French occupation (1798-1800). Then, the Maltese rose against their new occupiers when the French started despoiling the local Catholic churches of their gold and silver artifacts. Interestingly, it was in favour of the interests of the local Catholic Church that the Maltese rebelled; and clerics played a key role in organising the uprising.
The power of the Catholic Church in Malta must not be underestimated, even today. The Catholic Church and its ethos and ceremonies remain today the closest to a national Maltese symbol. In spite of evident secularisation, around 70 per cent of the population attend weekly mass regularly; a third of all young Maltese complete their schooling in church schools; and most young Maltese have to attend long hours of 'doctrine' to qualify for the sacrament of confirmation. There is one church or chapel for every square kilometre on the small archipelago, and many remain in use. Most of the arts -- including music, drama, sculpture, painting, folk stories -- are patronised substantially by the church and have explicit religious themes. 70 per cent of the Maltese identify commitment to religious values as their top priority in life. The decisions of the Catholic Church's ecclesiastical tribunal in declaring the annulment of marriages or otherwise are recognised in the civil courts. Malta remains the only European country that has not legalised divorce. Malta's long years as a Catholic fiefdom facilitated the emergence of a local ecclesiastical hierarchy that exercised strong political and cultural influence. This, in turn, has bred a national mind-frame strongly determined by religious precepts of propriety and morality. Thus, non-Christians have been historically relegated to the status of 'heathens' or 'infidels', and in this way have served as a convenient 'other' to the Maltese. The contrast aggrandises the role of the Catholic faith and church in moulding Maltese national identity, albeit in non-secular fashion.
The hegemony of the Catholic Church in Malta was dented most seriously in its drawn out confrontation with the Malta Labour Party during the 1960s. The Church then did not support the MLP's campaign for Malta's integration with Britain, for fear that its interests would not be safeguarded and would eventually be eroded in an Anglican British state. The Church may also have had serious concerns that Dom Mintoff, the charismatic MLP leader, had Communist tendencies which -- given his well-publicised overtures to China, North Korea and the Soviet Union -- might eventually translate Malta into a secular state where the Catholic Church would lose out. In a bitter showdown between Church and political party in 1961, the top MLP officials were excommunicated from the Church; the faithful were advised that voting for the MLP would be tantamount to a mortal sin; while MLP activists were denied the holy sacraments and were buried in nonconsecrated ground. Religious services of reparation were held at those public spaces that had hosted MLP meetings; this included the sprinkling of holy water. The crisis served to harden the resolve and commitment of the core MLP supporters and peace was only made in 1969, two years before the MLP was returned to power. Such high drama is still within living memory of the Maltese population, including the bulk of the current political and religious leadership.
Malta's proportional representation system with only two political parties represented in parliament is unique in Europe. With the allegiance of the voting population split neatly down the middle, the difference in voter support between the two main political parties has never been more than 13,000 votes since 1971. In such a situation, a 'winner takes all' political system prevails. A candidate requires close to 3,300 votes to get elected to the 65-seat national parliament, a small number that institutionalises close personal and patronage links between politicians and their constituents. The MLP and NP are today 'catch-all' parties, which deploy both conventional and modern techniques for both the mass and customised socialisation of citizens into loyal and unswerving party faithful. Each political party now has its own television station, radio station and newspapers; its own emblems, flags and anthems; not to mention the web of party clubs and com mittees spread all over the country. Information on the voting preferences of each and every Maltese is a key and active concern of the political parties. In the dense, claustrophobic social atmosphere -- there are almost 2,000 persons per square kilometre -- the presence, if not control, of the party is supreme and complete:
Partisanship in this polarized polity is so pervasive, ingrained and linked to class ideology and locality that preference patterns are known by street. Loyalties are strong, stable and rooted in social and family background ... Candidates can employ networks of family and friends to promote their election chances and to achieve greater social control over their sympathizers. They may also be able to reward their known supporters if elected.
With the overriding influence of the Church--now keen not to involve itself in partisan politics--the Maltese are, from cradle to grave, called upon to express loyalty and commitment to any of these three 'total institutions'. The political party thus takes on the characteristics of an ethnie, a moral community, extending the locus of empathy, trust and identification with others as if in an extended family. Loyalty to the state and to the ethnie may easily be perceived as being on a potential collision course. The strong sense of partisan identification and the (real or imaginary?) pursuit of partisan-driven clientism may easily override any sense of national patriotism to the larger civic and territorial whole. While the casual observer may dismiss the relevance of ethnicity from Malta's socio-political landscape, a local form of bicommunalism based on political ethnicity is current; an implosion of the democratic Maltese state as a result of partisan ethnic fragmentation appeared possible in the constitutional crisis of 1981-84.
In this incessant, internal struggle for loyalty and support, Maltese nationalism has lost out. The notion of the nation as an 'imagined community' becomes relevant. National symbols remain significant in their absence and, where identified, are quickly taken over and co-opted by partisan and/or religious motifs. A brace of poets and writers have struggled for some years to raise the spirit of nationalism, but their message has fallen on deaf ears and reads strangely hollow. Some academics have sought to emphatically announce the cultural maturation of Maltese nationalism, much like a natural development, particularly with the onset of political independence: 'Malteseness came of age ... The new state was, after all, an old nation.' But is this not more properly appraised as an exercise in wishfulfilment? Is this not part of the unconscious obligation to defend and justify nationalism, especially de rigueur in newly independent states?
The alternative explanation propounded in this paper is that the battle for the definition of Maltese national identity has yet to commence. Malta may be an 'old nation' in a cultural sense, but politically this nation does not disclose or manifest itself, whether to the inside or to the outside world. This critical assessment can be taken forward at different analytical levels. First, in specific situations, an easily manageable tourist front is resorted to by the Maltese in relation to foreigners; in this case, the language of communication is typically English. Amongst themselves, however, the Maltese develop an intricate knowledge of the partisan affiliations and loyalties of friends, family and acquaintances, effectively mapping a network of potential influence, patronage and obligation. In these instances, the interaction is strictly aural-oral, and the code is the Maltese language, conveniently incomprehensible to all but the locals. Second, in relation to the labour market and social stratification, the industrial working classes are traditionally loyal to the Labour Party, while farmers, entrepreneurs and civil servants gravitate mainly towards the Nationalist Party. In spite of a congruence of policy by the two political parties over recent decades, this occupational/social class split remains surprisingly strong. Third, macro-power structures are strongly aligned with political organisations. The latter have become well-organised networks at national, regional and local levels, down to specific streets and neighbourhoods. With one of the two political organisations in full control of the state apparatus at any time, the likelihood of obtaining desirable 'goods' from the state is generally seen to change in accordance with the nature and clout of individual partisan affiliation. Fourth, the cultural identity of the individual Maltese, and the perception of one's life world, remains substantially dominated by such partisan definitions. The Catholic Church, via the parish priest, provides the only escape route here, and only at a local level. Finally, the assessment of the past and the present continues to be dominated by contradictory interpretations of the relevance of historical events. As reported by an expatriate living in Malta (Ms Helga Ellul, a prominent German business woman married to a Maltese): the Maltese are very proud of their [past] history, but apparently not of their present.
The analyses converge: only the members of the troika--the two main political parties and the Catholic Church--loom large as anchors of identity. The 'national interest' has been sabotaged: imploded into frenzied partisanship internally; replaced by integrationism externally.