It has been quite interesting in these last couple of weeks after the predicted outcome of the local general elections. Quite interesting for political analysts and commentators, that is. So many different reasons for a Labour massive win were aired publicly. Or, to be more precise, the debate centred on the reasons for such a huge conservative loss.
The constant readings of a PN trashing in the monthly national surveys were mentioned. Unfortunately, the Nationalist Party leader could not state what Israeli PM Banjamin Netanyahu had gleefully stated in the past: ‘I always lose the election in the polls, and I always win it on Election Day.’ Other hysterical reasons were uttered in public by people of dubious IQ standings, who even urged the Party to check if each ballot box had fixed lids and bottoms.
But, as was widely expected, prominent PN spokespersons continued with the narrative of an egoistic electorate, a crooked elected government, a deprived opposition…and so on and so forth. Party Leader Grech also took to the airwaves after a fortnight hiatus from the announcement of the election results and forcefully tried to order and impose unity of thought and perception on Party activists. Publicly. On the radio!
Labour activists, on the other hand, are over the moon with the result. A result which comes after eleven consecutive huge winnings by the Party in every single political election, be they local, EU-related or national. Most of these activists actually believe the fallacious notion that there is no way that the Nationalists can rehabilitate themselves and start winning again.
But is there?
History shows us that actions create reactions and that the cycle of time always repeats itself. During World War Two, the Nationalist Party, the Party which had been so prominent in the pre-war years, had practically ceased to exist. The British authorities had indeed exiled the Party’s key personalities for being Fascist sympathisers and the local population, bombed to kingdom come by the Fascists and the Nazis, did not want to have to do anything remotely associated with the wicked enemy. Which is why, in the 1945 and 1947 elections, voting PN was essentially taboo and looked down upon.
History shows us that actions create reactions and that the cycle of time always repeats itself.
By 1950, however, a mere five years after the end of WW2, the Mintoff and Boffa split created two ‘Labour’ parties and the Nationalists all of a sudden found themselves with just one more seat in parliament than the eleven seats each ‘Labour’ party possessed. So they started ruling again, as if WW2 and their Fascist baggage had disappeared.
History also shows us that in the late eighties and early nineties, after Labour lost the 1987 general elections, Labour leader Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was the main reason why the Party did not fragment itself in much the same way as the present Nationalist Party.
Such political changes within the electorate are normal and natural. This is not merely a Malta phenomenon.
The Scottish History Lesson
Let us take Scotland, for example. Ask any Scot what is extinct in Scotland and the answer would be simple: a Conservative. The conservatives have been blown out of the water all over the highlands and lowlands across the border. But it was not always so.
Little more than a generation ago, in the 1950s and early 60s, the union could not have been more secure. The Scottish Unionist party (only becoming the Conservative party in Scotland in 1965) had won a famous and overwhelming victory in the general election of 1955. The SNP at the time was but an irrelevant and eccentric sect rather than a mainstream political party. Indeed, despite the mythology of Red Clydeside, Scotland had voted mainly for the Tories in the 1920s and 1930s. The Labour landslide victory of 1945 can be seen as an aberration in that context.
The empire, in which the Scots were so fundamentally involved, started to dissolve with the independence of India in 1947. Yet, contemporaneously, the welfare state was established and soon became the new sheet anchor of the Anglo-Scottish union. Nationalisation of key industries further strengthened the idea of a British-wide collective economic enterprise.
Yet all this can be seen in retrospect as the quiet before the storm. Winnie Ewing’s surprise victory for the SNP at the Hamilton byelection of 1967 was a small but significant portent of what was to come. By then, and even more so in subsequent decades, the age-old stability of the union state was being undermined by developments both within Britain and beyond.
A primary factor affording the union stability had long been the perception of a collective existential threat from a foreign foe: France and Spain in the 18th century, Nazi Germany and a nuclear-armed Soviet Russia in the 20th. The end of the cold war removed the fear of the Other, although whether that will return depends in the future on Putinesque sabre-rattling and Islamist fanaticism.
A shared English and Scottish commitment to Protestantism in the past had provided much of the ideological glue of union. This is no longer so in the age of secularisation. The Church of Scotland has lost two-thirds of its membership since the 1960s. That working-class Protestant culture of the Kirk, the Boys’ Brigade and Rangers Football Club, long a bulwark of unionism and the Tory vote, is in decay. With that has withered the old sectarian voting patterns, of Protestants supporting the Conservatives and Catholics giving automatic allegiance to Labour.
That sectarian electoral pattern, especially significant in the west of Scotland, derived from the age-old hostilities between Protestant and Catholic that had reached a crisis between the wars, when the Church of Scotland leadership petitioned the UK government to prohibit Irish Catholic immigration. That policy failed but left deep scars. As late as the 1970s, labour market discrimination against Catholics remained endemic in several economic sectors.
Working class adherence to the two political parties most committed to the union left little space for the growth of nationalism. Moreover, Catholics had at that time a profound suspicion of the SNP, believing it to be dominated by Presbyterians, as well as having a few notorious bigots in its senior ranks.
The experience of Scotland in the 1980s is a critical factor in this narrative. Between 1976 and 1987 the nation lost nearly a third of its manufacturing capacity. The great heavy industries that had made Scotland’s global economic reputation over more than a century disappeared in a matter of a few years. A post-industrial economy did emerge in the 1990s, but the crisis left behind a legacy of social dislocation in many working class communities and created a political agenda north of the border in marked contrast to that of the south of England. Rightly or wrongly, the devastation was blamed on the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher. Scotland soon became a Tory-free zone in electoral terms. Another bastion of the union passed into history.
The foundation of the Scottish parliament in 1999 and the referendum were not directly linked causally. But the parliament did eventually become the vehicle for a transformed SNP to gain political power and then trigger the referendum process. As old Labour became New Labour, the SNP adopted left-of-centre policies of considerable appeal to the electorate. Its reputation for competent government was established during the first minority administration. This, then, became the basis of the historic SNP victory in 2011 and its subsequent victories.