Stirring Emotions: Labour’s ‘Maltese House in Europe’

In recent years the Malta Labour Party has promoted two rather different, albeit officially complementary, concepts of national identity and foreign policy. In the run-up to the 1996 general elections the Labour Party projected its vision of Malta as ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’ (Svizzera fil-Mediterran), recovering one of Dom Mintoff’s slogans from his days of glory. More recently, Dr. Alfred Sant has been promoting his Party’s vision of us Maltese building ‘the Maltese House in Europe’ (Id-Dar Maltija fl-Ewropa).

Political slogans rarely manage to capture the complexities of life and the policies that tend to shape and get shaped by it; ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’ is no exception. As Jeffrey Scott Mio points out in his article on ‘Metaphor and Politics’ (Metaphor and Symbol, 12:2, 1997), political metaphors are designed to simplify what the public potentially views as highly complex issues, making them tangible and understandable.

Conjuring Up Switzerlands

At the core of political communication’, writes Mio (echoing Edelman) ‘is the ability of the politician to use metaphor and symbols that awaken latent tendencies among the masses.’ The Switzerland slogan omits the definite article l- and therefore refers to a Switzerland, prompting the Maltese mind to conjure up the superficial images of an idyllic land of natural beauty, well-being and untainted wealth that have been brought home by generations of Maltese visitors to Switzerland. This is what Mio means when he says that political metaphors ‘can resonate to underlying symbolic representations in its recipients’. We’re not supposed to think of the ‘other’ Switzerland, with its homeless, its drug addicts, its dubious chemical industry and its secretive banks. We’re expected to revisit the popular, albeit worn-out postcard of a country wrapped in the magical aura of its immaculate neutrality. Facts, of course, inhabit a different realm.

The Labour Party could have chosen to describe its vision of Malta in a more definite way as ‘[The] Switzerland of the Mediterranean’ (L-Isvizzera tal-Mediterran) but this would have been narrower and more limited than ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’. The emphasis on the Mediterranean Region, on the other hand, is self-evident and the fact that it was replaced by the word ‘Europe’ in the more recent slogan does not alter Malta’s geographical position but it certainly shows a rather significant change in policy.

Perhaps the greatest limitations of the Svizzera fil-Mediterran slogan were that it tied Labour’s ideal vision of Malta first of all to a particular country (which ultimately let the Maltese Labour Party down) and secondly to a set of relatively ‘remote’ postcards, even though the Party leadership beefed the slogan up by insisting on what it perceived as the typical Swiss concept of political neutrality. The vagueness and shallowness of this slogan did not reflect well on Labour policy regarding national identity and foreign affairs; Swiss culture and life in general are not Mediterranean, so the metaphor had no depth because it only worked on a limited, superficial level, namely that of political neutrality, but it still stirred positive emotions.

Another Maltese House

One gets the impression that Nibnu d-dar Maltija fl-Ewropa (‘We Build the Maltese House in Europe’) says more than it was originally designed to say. The essential part of the slogan is id-dar Maltija, but it’s not clear whether it’s ‘the Maltese House’ or ‘the Maltese Home’ that is being referred to, even though the difference between the two can be significant. The cornerstone of the so-called Mediterranean way of life or culture is the home. In the Mediterranean, the family is the most important institution; it comes before the community, before the Church, before the State, before the Party and often before the individual.

If the Labour Party is after building a typical Maltese home in Europe then one would expect it to be the fort or defensive redoubt that anthropologists have observed in many parts of the Mediterranean. In rural Andalusia, one owes primary allegiance to one’s household, to those, as David Gilmore puts it, ‘with whom one shares a private and secret life’. In this sense, the world as portrayed by the Labour Party’s more recent metaphor is typically divided into us (the Maltese) and them (the others), that is the Europeans. This is hardly consonant with the stated EU ideal of European social, cultural, political and economic union. What ‘New Labour’ seems to be proposing is the shifting of the island-fortress of Malta from the heart of the Mediterranean Basin to the heart of Europe. But an island-fortress it will still be.

What is also worth noting is the fact that this second, ‘newer’ slogan does not shed much light on the Labour Party’s views with regard to national identity. This is an interesting point, because Dr. Alfred Sant has repeatedly said that as a full member of the EU Malta will jeopardize its national identity. But Labour (or any other political party, for that matter) doesn’t seem to have given much thought to what this elusive ‘national identity’ might be. It usually boils down to the Maltese language, which is unquestionably an important element, but it doesn’t go any further. Neither does this slogan about the Maltese House in Europe, with all the defensive images it conjures up, cover much ground.

Many political slogans are not meant to be taken seriously; they are shallow statements often backed by equally shallow visuals that are only meant to strike an impression, to carry people momentarily into an idyllic world that even they know is not real. Political metaphors are there to simplify, to ‘make the unintelligible accessible’, as Mio puts it; they are meant to stir emotions and to conjure up familiar images latent in the electorate.

Metaphor and Politics

And yet, while drawing their inspiration from people’s ideals, from the collective conscious and unconscious, political slogans also work their way back to shape those ideals. Some theorists believe that political metaphors ‘create political reality’. This seems to have happened not only in the case of Dr. Sant’s use of ‘holes’, Hofor and Mr. Mintoff’s recent reference to the Party ‘Machine’, Il-Magna, but also in the case of the Svizzera fil-Mediterran metaphor. Although most Maltese are so stubbornly unaware of the Mediterranean character of their thoughts and ways, many of them, especially Labourites, proudly declare that they believe in Malta’s so-called ‘Mediterranean role’. But this probably only means striving for a conveniently vague Bahar ta’ Paci (‘Sea of Peace’), as the official metaphor would have it.

There is some debate among US researchers about whether political metaphors are as effective, as persuasive, as has been traditionally believed. The impression is that in Malta, the electorate is swayed from slogan to slogan, from metaphor to metaphor by the Party leadership. But in the case of the Switzerland and Maltese House metaphors, and probably in other instances as well, in their inner selves, the loyal Party supporters are not as easily swayed as their enthusiasm may initially suggest, because they know, and they have known all along (momentarily suspending their disbelief), that political slogans are not meant to be taken too seriously.

Adrian Grima (11.8.98)




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