A lot to say, but maybe not enough said

George Vella’s presidential tenure took him to task with even more challenges than he would ever anticipate.

Book review: ‘George Vella. Il-President li għandu ħafna xi jgħid’, Andrew Azzopardi (ed.) (Kite 2024)

In its nuanced ways, the Maltese language has a habit of playing tricks on us. Upon hearing “għandi xi ngħid” it is never clear whether one iskeen to vent off, tell someone something, or having a bone to pick with someone. Often, bodily language plays a role to tell the difference. Gest and face might show what one has to say, especially when one has a lot to say, but maybe not enough is said in the process.

Now if the person having a lot to say happens to be a former Head of State, then that would command more than casual attention. He is expecting us to listen and pay attention, if anything, out of sheer respect to his Office. Indeed, there are stories to be told, maybe scores to be settled, and facts to be set straight. What one could not say while in office, now one has the relative freedom to tell, perhaps anecdotally and jovially put … but still to be said.

George Vella. Il-President li għandu ħafna xi jgħid (Kite 2024) could well play on one’s imagination in this manner. At least, the title is suggestive enough. Does the man have a bone to pick? Does he expect us all to listen? Is he finally spilling the beans?

As soon as the book came out, the media was eager to pick a few plum facts from what the President had to say. But the media is always selective, and most of what was reported was out of context. Be that as it may, the message was clear: Malta’s 10th President, George Vella, had a lot to say and here’s a book with such a promise. Like many, I got curious. Yet, as I read through this book, I was left wondering whether enough was said.

Wearing the hat of author, interviewer, and editor, Andrew Azzopardi chose to give his own flavour of reportage and commentary in the first part of the book. Then he invited others to have their say on President Vella. This came as an assortment of contributions from former ministers of state, a former prime minister and party leader, civil servants, academics, colleagues, and friends of George Vella the family man, the doctor, the politician, and the Head of State. To use the last chapter’s title, this book was designed and presented as a President’s Mosaic.

The author, Dr Andrew Azzopardi, at the book launch.

For those who have not yet read the book, I can assure them that he who had a lot to say, “dak li kellu ħafna xi jgħid”, was not looking for a fight. Nor were his friends and colleagues. They all had a lot to say. Sometimes they were a bit repetitive but say it they did.

Bar the penultimate chapter, this book is broadly benign in its approach to President Vella’s career and track record. While I wouldn’t say it is a hagiography, moments of quasi sainthood came close at times, although ultimately some prudence was kept in mind (so as not to overdo it) given that, as it was politely suggested, President Vella had his own fair share of detractors in his political and then Presidential tenure. And who hasn’t?

As expected, Azzopardi cast George Vella in quite a presidential framework. Far from trying to sound tongue in cheek, to say that Azzopardi could not hide his admiration for the man is clear from the start. Yet he was also open on how he often felt at odds, or not exactly in sync, with the thoughts and decisions that this seasoned politician and family doctor would take in his role as President.

Those who followed President Vella would know well where to find the salient points of his Presidency. He inherited a nation traumatised by the brutal murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He had to deal with the resignation of a Prime Minister who was his protégé in the Labour Party and, as if that were not enough, it was soon followed by a trahison de clercs which the Nationalist Party’s Parliamentary group led against their own leader of less than a few years. The Covid pandemic seems to have sealed the nation’s fate. But for President Vella, much more was in store, and he had to face the moral dilemmas brought up by IVF and what he always regarded as the spectre of abortion, over which he had a foreboding, so much so that he made his protégé promise him never to bring it up in his presidency.

As Head of State, George Vella paid tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia at her assassination site.

History had its own designs for President Vella, which is why, in many ways, his career as a politician and Head of State needs to be studied and understood. Given Malta’s history, it is not surprising that, on top of a political career marked by one moral dilemma after another, violence, and major decisions over an entire nation’s destiny, Vella’s presidential tenure took him to task with even more challenges than he would ever anticipate (though his instincts were good enough to take a guess).

From this book one aspect of his character becomes clear: amongst his many qualities, the man has clearly shown himself to be an avowed Stoic. He also knew how to play the game, and even when one could profoundly disagree with some of his decisions, one cannot ignore his superb skills in the art of political survival.

Yet the question of not saying enough is captured by Carmen Sammut, who in her penultimate chapter asks, “how much far should the personal principles of a Head of State without an electoral mandate interfere in the work of an elected Government? Where can we draw a line between personal beliefs and social wellbeing?” [“il-prinċipji personali ta’ Kap tal-Istat mingħajr mandat elettorali, kemm għandhom jinterferixxu fil-ħidma tal-Gvern elett? Fejn nistgħu naqtgħu linja bejn twemmin personali u l-ġid tas-soċjetà?”]

Her conclusive remarks represent what I would regard as that which could have been said. In such a book about such a prominent President in such a crucial historical point in Malta’s Republican existence, not enough was said.

Prof. Carmen Sammut flanking former President George Vella at the launch of the Conference for National Unity in 2021.

More should have been said with regards to Malta as a nation facing the challenges of this 21st century. Sammut is spot on when she states that,“while a principled individual deserves all respect because he could well serve as a moral compass, in this case, the President declared from day one that he will not sign on abortion at the cost of resigning. Thus, he closed the door to free discussion and could not serve as a bridge with those who do not fit in his vision. Public life requires one to listen, reflect and update oneself so that personal principles do not become a heavy burden that binds them to specific hegemonic interests at the expense of the population in all its diversity.” [“Filwaqt li bniedem tal-punt jixraqlu kull rispett għaliex jaf iservi ta’ kumpass morali, f ’dan il-każ il-President sa mill-ewwel jum iddikjara li ma jiffirmax fuq l-abort akkost li jirriżenja. B’hekk għalaq il-bieb għad-diskussjoni ħielsa u ma setax iservi ta’ pont ma’ dawk li ma jiffittjawx il-viżjoni tiegħu. Il-ħajja pubblika tirrikjedi li wieħed jisma’, jirrifletti u jaġġorna ruħu biex il-prinċipji personali ma jsirux mażżra tqila li torbtu ma’ grupp ta’ interessi eġemoniċi, askapitu tal-popolazzjoni bid-diversità kollha tagħha.”]

On this, one has to open new chapters and seek to open new avenues for discussion where there is far more to say. And this has nothing to do with Dr George Vella the person, his principles, moral convictions, and the consistency by which he exercises them in his life. Rather, this has something to say about Malta, its political class, and the relationship between state and society. It has to do with how the same political class is all too happy to avoid difficult challenges that are faced by a huge section of the population — namely, women — who cannot simply be ignored or put second to the protection of physicians (in this particular case, those who are now protected by a botched law which solved nothing), even when such issues may well be far too complex for politicians’ reductive moral compass.

It is curious how Carmen Sammut’s words did not feature in the concluding chapter,aptly (or strangely) titled ‘Mużajk ta’ President’. The President’s “mosaic” looked decimated, because to be fair, one should have been more careful to include the complexity of tesserae which made this mosaic. This is not a President’s mosaic, but a Republic’s mosaic. The man and the role become one in such an onerous job. And that’s why the job is so daunting. Being head of state was never meant to be easy.

Apart from the fact that bar Sammut’s and Alfred Sant’s papers, one was simply regaled by a circular litany of the man’s good qualities, this was also a missed opportunity. One consolation is that Sammut’s and Sant’s contributions were included, and this must be recognised in favour of Azzopardi’s editorial decision. Still, I think more of that and less of the other could have featured in what the man had to say, and what the other people — women included — still have to say in return.

But let’s not dismiss the generous spirit of the book. What I took from it are the challenges that Malta faces in the figure of its leaders. This was perhaps best captured by some of the testimonials that Azzopardi curated, although more concisely it came from what Alfred Sant had to say. In Sant’s contribution one finds more on Vella’s role in the polity. It brings out George Vella’s powerful contribution and role in the evolution of the Labour Party, and I should add, the Labour Movement, which is as complex and paradoxical as the history of Malta itself. There, Vella emerges in his full strength as a statesman who kept his cool and had a vision to offer.

To get such an accolade from Sant is not easy. Sant is known for his sharp and clear commentary. Often, he could be unforgiving, especially with those who are all too quick to draw conclusions without fully arguing their case. He never shirks away from being unequivocal and controversial. Sant’s rule book of history is clear enough for those who have followed him to know that that what he writes is carefully thought and rigorously measured.

Alfred Sant and George Vella in the 1990s.

In his reflections on Vella, Alfred Sant is not inclined towards hagiographical commentary. While he admits his own bias, he is clearly generous yet absolutely fair when he recalls Vella’s moment of truth in those troubled times of the historic clash between Sant’s Labour Party and Dom Mintoff: “In this process, I will always recall how Dr Vella behaved at a crucial moment when, before the General Conference, we came to a vote on a resolution agreed by the national executive and the parliamentary group. Again, the intervention he made in such a difficult moment was marked by his character of commitment, enthusiasm, and passion. It was one of the most moving and effective speeches I have heard during the many years that I have attended Labour’s General Conference in one capacity or another.” [“F’dal-proċess, nibqa’ niftakar l-imġiba ta’ Dr Vella f’mument kruċjali meta quddiem il-konferenza ġenerali konna resqin lejn vot fuq riżoluzzjoni maqbula mill-eżekuttiv nazzjonali u l-grupp parlamentari. Mill-ġdid l-intervent li għamel f ’mument diffiċli kien magħġun fl-istil tiegħu ta’ impenn, ta’ ħeġġa u ta’ emozzjoni. Kien wieħed mill-aktar diskorsi mqanqla u effettivi li smajt matul is-snin twal li f ’kariga jew oħra attendejt il-konferenza ġenerali Laburista.”]

Perhaps more poignantly, one gains a fuller insight of Sant’s esteem for Vella when, reflecting on his own political legacy, which he built with Vella, he soberly adds: “I don’t know how long I have left as the years press on, [but] at some point I will write in some detail about that period, during which we tirelessly carried fulfilled our tasks, without any hatred towards anyone, for what we held to be the best interest of the country. Here I wouldn’t go into the details of those years. We didn’t get where we wanted. For me this was, and remains, a source of bitterness. That we did our duty to the end according to how we understood the national interest remains the best source of comfort.” [“Ma nafx kemm għad nitħalla mill-għafsa tas-snin, f ’xi ħin nikteb sew dwar dak il-perjodu li matulu wettaqna ħidma bla waqfien imma mingħajr mibegħda lejn ħadd, għal dak li qisna bħala l-aqwa interess tal-pajjiż. M’iniex hawn se nidħol fid-dettalji ta’ dawk is-snin. Ma wasalniex fejn xtaqna. Dan kien, u għalija għadu, sors ta’ mrar. Li għamilna dmirna sal-aħħar skont kif fhimna l-interess nazzjonali jibqa’ l-aqwa sors ta’ faraġ.”]

There is more to say, and there’s merit in how this book prompts us to do so. As Azzopardi states in his opening remarks: “This book is intended to make us more familiar with George Vella and the way he thinks, but also it is a means of provoking a national discussion on various themes of great importance that he went through and where in several circumstances he had to take a position.” [“Dan huwa ktieb intiż biex insiru aktar midħla ta’ George Vella u l-mod kif jaħseb, imma wkoll mezz kif nipprovokaw diskussjoni nazzjonali fuq diversi temi ta’ importanza kbira li għadda minnhom u f ’ħafna ċirkostanzi kellu jieħu pożizzjoni.”]

Prof. Baldacchino is a Professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. He authored many books and is a frequent contributor to thejournal.mt and other Maltese portals.

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