MaltaToday | Books | A man called Guido
BOOKS | Sunday, 20 January 2008

A man called Guido

WENZU MINTOFF reviews former President Guido de Marco’s autobiography ‘The Politics of Persuasion’

It has been the unwritten convention ever since the birth of the Maltese republic, that former presidents stay away from political controversy not just during their tenure, but also retire completely from public life when that role comes to an end, save for some philanthropic work in the social and cultural fields.
This happens to be the practice in almost every Western state, except for those rare exceptions in which the person in question vents off some anger, as in the case of the former Italian president Francesco Cossiga and his famous outbursts (the Italian word is ‘esternazione’); although it must be said that in Italy the system is for a former Head of State to become a senator for life, and as everybody who follows Italian politics knows, Romano Prodi’s government is being just kept above the surface of the water by the votes of the life-senators.
On the other hand, in the United States of America where there are no royal families but the political dynasties of the Kennedy, Bush and recently the Clinton families, the former presidents in these dynasties enter the scrum of partisan politics to defend the interests of these ‘dynasties’ as Bill Clinton is doing by throwing his weight behind his wife Hillary’s candidature.
Certainly it is no coincidence that the former President of the Republic Guido Demarco decided to publish his autobiography ‘The Politics of Persuasion’ right now, just prior to the general elections when it is just a matter of days or weeks before they are called. There is no doubt of the deliberateness of the choice of date for the publication and the way this autobiography was written.
Throughout many passages in this autobiography, Prof. Demarco once again becomes his party’s ‘paladin’ and without beating about the bush, he does not think twice about brushing aside the common custom that presidents and former presidents belong to Malta as a whole, and not just to any party. One can speculate over the motive why Demarco is publishing the story of ‘his life’ just now, and in a style of writing that in many instances attempts to blow on the burning embers of history. He might have been overcome by the sense of the protagonist found within every active or retired politician, and using his autobiography as a pretext, he gave in to this desire to once again immerse himself in the political battle.
Those harrowing events which took place in the period between 1981 and 1987 are often one of the cards constantly played by the Nationalists in every electoral campaign since. Of course, the more years pass since those times and for those who lived through those years, the less effective this card will be for obvious reasons. With the fact that the protagonists from the PN of those years are no longer with us or have become presidents: Censu Tabone, Guido Demarco, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and now even Eddie Fenech Adami (due to the so called constitutional custom which does not permit former presidents to be divisive and partisan), there are few people left to speak of their personal experience during that time from a Nationalist perspective. Demarco’s autobiography has the duplicate effect that during the electoral campaign the surname Demarco can be continually in the news, a factor which indirectly benefits his son Mario who has kept the surname in Parliament. At the same time, the Nationalist strategists will have a good prop/backdrop which will enable them to rekindle certain stories from the past, where the collective memory would have otherwise started to wane.
You could say there is little we did not know in this autobiography when it comes to events in the history of our country in which Demarco was the protagonist on the frontline or in the backbench. But we do find various anecdotes and quaint stories which will provide some colourful and useful detail to whoever is yet to write of Malta’s socio-political history from the 70s to the 80s from a viewpoint which, as much as possible, will not be clouded by the political passion which stands out in Demarco’s book, and unfortunately even in the work of academic historians.
Demarco is the self-made man par excellence, who made himself almost out of nothing in the post-war period. With those characteristic manners so attributable to the persona of Guido Demarco in his heyday, somewhat self-centred, sophisticated and aristocratic, it is hard to imagine that in his childhood and adolescence, his immediate family was on the edge of poverty. And during the days of Demarco’s childhood, poverty was real poverty. “We were very well close to poverty, but we were never poor in values.”
Without any hesitation, Guido places the blame at the feet of his paternal grandmother Susanna for the fact that his father had a hard time earning a living for his family; she demanded an annual rent of £120 from him to run the St Rocco Baths in Marsamxett, a sum of money that was impossible to earn in those days.
To arrive at where he has arrived, Demarco must have had to believe in himself, and whoever believes in himself excessively ends up falling to the excesses of self-glorification and egocentrism. The character Demarco paints of himself in his autobiography does not lack this vainglorious attribute. “At such an early age (7), I could already feel the magnet pull of a beautiful woman”. The nuns of St Joseph are said to have realised Guido ‘would be a good lawyer’ in his primary schooling. Always excelling in examinations, even being promoted to higher-year classes, he not only reached levels of excellence but so did his children. “I did well in my examinations. It was an achievement to have managed to follow three courses without having to sit for a supplementary examination.”
His childhood recollections evoke the strong contradiction and the conflict in his conscience between the strong sympathy handed down through his bloodline for all that was Italian and Latin; and for the fact that at the same time during the war Malta was being bombarded by the enemy. In his book Demarco always repeats his condemnation for fascism and Nazism, but at the same time admits that his family on his mother’s side was a supporter of the Generalissimo Franco, and of his sorrow when the graffiti ‘Bomb Rome’ started appearing on the walls of buildings, “something that revolted me”.
He devotes a whole exposition to defend the historical roots of the Italian language as the official language in Malta, to make it clear that it was not necessary that anyone in Malta enamoured with Italian language and culture, had fascist sympathies.
And yet, the only figure mentioned in Demarco’s autobiography who was body and soul against fascism was a certain Italian professor Arnaldo Fabriani. We never get to know what the side of Italo-Maltese from whom the Demarco family hailed actually thought of Mussolini’s fascism when he declared war on the Allies. Demarco recounts how at the start of the war, his paternal grandfather and his uncles from his father’s side were exiled from Malta, but we never get to know whether they were in favour or against Mussolini.
The most emotional part in Demarco’s autobiography does not concern politics but his parents. He expresses his gratitude many times towards his mother especially, who in the difficult circumstances of the war, made many sacrifices and pushed her children to continue with their schooling even under the wrath of the falling German bombs. “Every night before I go to sleep, I still find myself kissing their photo and say to them ‘Thank you’. I owe them so much.”
At the height of his political career, Demarco never gave the impression that the social dimension was important to the composition of his political thought. On the contrary, he would show himself to be positioned to the centre-right of the internal ideological spectrum of the Nationalist Party, closer to what people like Giulio Andreotti, Forlani and Gava were to the Italian Christian-democrats, than what Aldo Moro and Benigno Zaccagnini meant. Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Eddie Fenech Adami and Joe Cassar of Hal Tarxien were considered to be the main exponents of the leftist current at the heart of the PN. In his book, Demarco surprisingly projects himself as somebody clearly inclined to the left. I can’t think that anyone who followed Maltese politics in this period could objectively have had this impression. “I have always been inclined to the so-called left. I found in Alcide de Gasperi’s definition of Democrazia Cristiana, ‘un partito di centro che guarda a sinistra’, the realisation of my political and economic philosophy… Unless there is a true sense of social justice, there is no true sense to serve in politics. The Nationalist Party had to be close to the workers rather than the professional middle class if it wanted to interpret the future.”
With his roots planted in the Grand Harbour conurbation, raised in Valletta, and having lived most of his life in Hamrun, Demarco was certainly influenced by this deprived social environment, and had to necessarily show himself to be sensitive to this social aspect if he wanted to be elected in a constituency like this. And yet, there is a strong element of historical revisionism in the way he tries to project himself in his autobiography as some sort of guardian of social justice.
Guido Demarco speaks of Borg Olivier in terms of absolute loyalty, with an enormous and reverential sense of respect, but you could say that in many crucial moments he did not mind taking it against him. When Herbert Ganado’s Democratic Nationalist Party came to life from a split in the Nationalist Party, Guido Demarco found himself in Ganado’s party. “This led to a rift and I found myself with the Democratic Nationalist Party”, after signing a writ along with a number lawyers, so that the Courts would declare the expulsion of Albert Ganado from the PN null. Albert Ganado was summarily expelled from the PN when, in his role as president of the Nationalist youth section, he demanded that the party update its policies, which Borg Olivier took as a threat to his leadership.
In the 1962 election, Herbert Ganado was elected from two districts but he didn’t cede the first district, from where Demarco stood to be elected by a bye-election. Despite the split from Ganado, Borg Olivier had managed to secure enough seats in parliament to be able to govern on his own without the need of coalition with the umbrella parties. But according to Demarco, it was the question of Independence that led to his split from Ganado, and not because he was not given the chance to be elected to parliament, and because Ganado’s downfall was slowly starting. After all Ganado’s position on Independence had been well known much earlier, and in principle he wasn’t against it but felt that it should not be awarded so soon.
Demarco makes no reference to the secret meetings which took place inside the office of the lawyer Giuseppe Maria Camilleri to depose the PN leader. He says that Ugo Mifsud Bonnici “in a very theatrical gesture, kneeled down before Borg Olivier and implored him to change his mind” on the 1974 Constitutional amendments which made Malta a republic, “but Borg Olivier would not budge” and he ended up voting along with five Nationalist MPs against the amendments. Demarco’s relationship with George Borg Olivier’s son Alex soured. As the permanent representative of Malta to the United Nations, Alex Borg Olivier was about to be nominated for the presidency of the General Assembly of the UN, and he had taken great umbrage when Guido Demarco scuppered this position for him with the premise that the role required somebody who was “a high-profile candidate”.
A recurring factor in this biography are the constant episodes in his political career where, according to what Demarco writes, he internally registered a position contrary to the official party line, even though he appeared to be toeing the party line from outside. Towards the end of the 60s and the start of the 70s, when the Borg Olivier government was nearing its end, Demarco says he was in favour of abrogating the death penalty, the removal of adultery from the list of criminal offences, and other legal measures which were required to take Malta out of the Middle Ages. At that time, there wasn’t even civil marriage for non-Catholics and homosexuality between consenting adults was still a criminal offence. But in the time when the Labour government of 1971-1976 abrogated or updated this medieval legislation, many times Demarco ended up voting against these changes in Parliament, such as when suffrage was extended to voters of 18 years.
A strong aspect of Demarco’s character emerges in his autobiography where he continuously attempts to take direct paternity of everything positive that came from the Nationalist Party, but tries to distance himself ex-post facto from anything that was negative. Demarco says that in the 90s he did not agree that the PN should depend completely on the State broadcaster and that he emphasised the need for the party to have its own television as the Labour Party had. Demarco says that “a certain section of the Nationalist press started demonising the MLP leader (Alfred Sant). I was against this as it is incompatible with the Nationalist way of doing politics.” Although this demonisation campaign intensified throughout the years, it is not known whether Demarco had ever directly attempted to stop or quell this campaign.
In his subtle manner, Demarco throws some daggers at his internal rivals in the PN, foremost among them Richard Cachia Caruana. Demarco accuses him of having given “the impression that his ambition was to be the power behind the throne”, who wanted to render the Cabinet in one composed of a “field marshall and a number of sergeant majors”. Demarco says he did not take RCC’s diktat lying down and that he never succumbed to his interference. Demarco makes a small reference to the attack upon him by Daphne Caruana Galizia, a close friend of RCC, on the case concerning Meinrad Calleja and his father Brigadier Calleja, who resigned due to the case concerning his son; and that he should not have resigned before having spoken to Prime Minister Fenech Adami. With the undercurrents taking place between Castille and Palazzo Parisio (Demarco’s ministry) RCC and Daphne Caruana Galizia accused Demarco of subversion against the prime minister.
Another dagger is thrown at Austin Gatt, when he insinuates that Gatt decided everything himself and says “he was efficient and innovative but he ensured that the decision making process evolved from the centre, and more specifically from the secretariat, divesting the periphery of power”.
Demarco is pretty ambiguous about those officials in the Police corps who were found guilty of criminal offences and breaches of fundamental rights under Labour administrations. In a passage in the book, Demarco says that “those within the Police force found guilty of crimes or of gross misbehaviour had been removed by legal means”. But then he doesn’t comment on why the notorious former inspectors Joseph Psaila and Charles Cassar were not only allowed to stay in the corps, but were also awarded various promotions under a Nationalist government and they were finally removed from the Police during Alfred Sant’s tenure in Castille.
The last word goes to the ambivalent relationship that developed between Demarco and Dom Mintoff throughout the years: “we built a bridge of trust between us, which held well for many years”.
One must admit that main exponents of the PN like Guido Demarco gained strength and grew in stature the more the excesses of Dom Mintoff’s patriarchal tribalism grew during the 70s. It is said the PN rose back from the death towards the mid-70s, taking life just as the Nationalists themselves were being violently hindered from celebrating Independence Day. It is dubious whether, had that confrontation and division not taken root, the PN would have risen from its moribund state after the 1971 electoral loss.
Ironically, Demarco is one of those main exponents who continually projected themselves as heroes and victims in that confrontation which suddenly had degenerated into political violence. It is hard to explain the big contradiction in what Demarco says when he uses adjectives such as “dictator”, “vulgar” and “extremist” for Mintoff, in a quite exaggerated manner equating the events during Mintoff’s time as a “recurrence of what happened in Italy at the start of fascism as well as in Germany in the first days of Nazism”.
On the other hand, he declares that he managed to build a “bridge of trust” with Dom Mintoff for many years; hard to say whether this was the result of persuasion, or political convenience.

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