Some national Constitutions have confident Founding Fathers, who produce a document with the aura of sacred writ, whose every word is weighed and pondered by future generations. Other Constitutions have fathers (almost) unknown and anxious births, with hastily improvising midwives in the back of a taxi hurtling through a dangerous intersection.
Our constitutional history is closer to that second caricature, and one of the many pleasures of listening to the historian Prof Joseph Pirotta yesterday — at the President’s conference on the occasion of the centenary of the 1921 Constitution — was feeling that my prejudice was being confirmed.
Then I remembered that the current chief midwife, heaving red-faced, one leg over the nation so as to fit on the backseat, urging a final push, is Edward Zammit Lewis.
The people dominating the thinking about the country’s constitutional architecture are the same who have approved the devastation of the landscape. They’re the same who, in pursuit of rapid economic growth, closed an eye to the erosion of workers’ conditions, not only but not least for foreign workers. And they’re the same who permitted (if not actually colluded with) the smuggling of arms and fuel, and sales of citizenship, to members of regimes that are inimical to international peace.
In short, the very things highlighted in the first article of the current Constitution — territory, work and an active commitment to international peace — have been destabilised with the contribution (by commission or omission) of the same people who are meant to safeguard the relevance of our Constitution.
Then there’s the certainty that, over the next 10 years, we shall see global forces radically alter the character of national territory (because of the colonisation of the sea), the nature of work (because of automation) and international peace (the resurgence of China, Russia and Turkey, including in our region).
So while the Constitution is not exactly a subject that goes with Sunday toast and marmalade, it’s something that touches what kinds of breakfasts await us for the thousands of Sundays to come.
Pirotta outlined the background of the constitutional history between 1887 and 1921. While he made no reference to our own day, it’s evident that he sees the relevance to our situation.
First, our national aspirations — the run-up to demands for self-government — were not driven by an inward looking spirit of “Little Malta” or, as we might call it today, “il-popolin”, the little folk waiting for a Great Leader to sweep it off its feet.
On the contrary, our sense of nationhood was internationalist from the start. National identity combined a sense of difference from others with a shared international history. It was the colonial power that strove, for its purposes, to promote a sense of purely indigenous folk — to limit national emancipation. For the Maltese nationalists, patriotism and internationalism went together.
Second, Pirotta pointed out a recurring tension, a structural contradiction that kept deep-seated problems festering. The British wanted to grant autonomy without real power — a kind of private self-rule for Malta that would not interfere, however, with the real power to determine public choices. That was doomed to fail.
The relevance for our time? Is it that far-fetched to see a continuity with how today’s politicians treat us as though we are their wards, whose “hurt” needs to be tended to? Who award us rights to do with our private lives but narrow the scope of our rights to participate in public life — as though we are teenagers, not adults?
George Vella is right: we cannot get through our current predicament if we do not adopt a constitutional patriotism, a sense that what pulls us together is the Constitution that empowers us to run our affairs. In a world of diversity, it’s the Constitution that makes us one. Constitutional patriotism, however, requires that we learn how to love.
You cannot be a constitutional patriot and love with bitterness towards others — for the Constitution itself guarantees the dignity and rights of others.
You cannot be a constitutional patriot and resent the concern that other nations have for developments in this country. For our Constitution itself anchors our rights in a universal declaration of rights. Any amendments that water down our universal rights should be an affront to all of us.
You cannot be a constitutional patriot and crow that it’s the majority that rules. For the Constitution says only that the majority governs, but that it should govern in a way that does not exclude, let alone crush, minorities or individuals.
The Constitution doesn’t just unite us. It helps us make sense of our differences. Enacting “the will of the people” can be deeply divisive. We should thank the Constitution for guaranteeing a system where differences are protected, rather than bless the rewriting of the Constitution to make it easier for differences and dissent to be prosecuted.
And you cannot be a constitutional patriot and think of the nation as a folk that’s there to be caressed by a paternalistic State. For our Constitution makes us the masters and the State our servant.
Let the President preach that message every time he unveils a plaque, visits a school or greets a band club. And when he preaches unity I’ll be the first to get behind him.