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Who’s afraid of Gerald Strickland?

Vincent (Ċensu) Bugeja (1887-1963) is one of the more interesting but lesser known figures of the early Labour Party. A mathematician and logician by training (Cambridge) but a journalist by profession (International Herald Tribune), Maltese by birth (and, therefore, a subject of the British Empire) but Parisian (and European) by choice, cosmopolitan, broad- (very) minded and thoroughly modern in outlook but yet deeply committed to the then (as now?) stiflingly provincial Malta, he was complex and brilliant.

The switch from Gonzi to Strickland alarmed them
- Mario Vella

An admirer (and, possibly, an acquaintance) of the legendary Josephine Baker, who settled in Paris in 1925, he must have been especially touched by the words of her 1931 hit J’ai Deux Amours: “J’ai deux amours/Mon pays et Paris”.

His contribution to the development of the PL has, in my view, been underestimated. He is sometimes superficially referred to as a “leftist element” and, yet, even a light reading of his writings show that this description runs the risk of caricaturing him. Today’s PL has been occasionally depicted as the total negation of its founding fathers (by those who count him as a founding father) and, yet, even a cursory look at his work indicates how much of his seminal thought is alive and well in today’s PL. Indeed, it may well be blooming.

We will come back to Ċensu Bugeja on this column but what I am concerned with today are his views of the first half of the 1920s on Lord Strickland, which views certainly contributed in no small measure to preparing the ground for the PL’s acceptance of the idea of what then became the Compact of 1926. It is interesting to note that Mr Bugeja developed his views before Lord Strickland, in January 1924, invited the PL to consider a united front in the Legislative Assembly.

Mr Bugeja did not simply divide Maltese society into two: poor and rich, lower and upper. His analysis, already well developed by the end of 1923, distinguished between two sections of the Maltese dominant social group.

On the one hand, there was the traditional section made up of mainly landowners, importers and the professions, supported by the clergy. These tended to support the PPM and the PDN, the two political groups that then merged as the Partito Nazionalista. They also looked towards Italy for support and the Italian regime – the Fascists had seized power in 1922 – looked towards them as its supporters in Malta.

On the other hand, he believed that there was another section, a social group whose members were capable of investing in the island’s economic development and were more open-minded and innovative. It was these that, in Mr Bugeja’s view, could drive Malta’s economic modernisation, namely its industrialisation. He saw them as the working class’s potential allies inasmuch as (within this perspective) an industrial capitalism would have been a step forward in relation to what Balogh and Seers would later call a “fossilised economy” (and the society and culture that went with it) that – apart from employment with government and UK Services’ establishments – characterised the country.

This progressive fraction consisted of the more far-seeing entrepreneurs and public administrators who supported Lord Strickland’s party and who looked towards Britain and the Empire for support. Support from Britain, it must be said, was not as forthcoming as Lord Strickland would have hoped. London preferred not to interfere in Maltese politics as long as these did not endanger imperial interests, hence Lord Strickland was often perceived as a nuisance who unnecessarily rocked the boat. It was only much later, at least 15 years after his death, that Britain decided to support Malta’s bid for development by promoting productive economic activities.

As Mr Bugeja had correctly foreseen, Lord Strickland, his party and his social network understood that an alliance with the PL would have provided the right political framework for a social alliance conducive to pulling Malta out of the entrepreneurial lethargy and bigoted cultural conservativeness that it was stuck in. He argued that the quid pro quo for Labour’s support should be a commitment to the enactment of legislation aimed at the promotion of employment, public instructions and adequate social welfare. In fact, the Compact’s programme provided for, among others, a Workmen’s Compensation Act, compulsory education and the freeing of local industries from duties on raw materials and industrial equipment (a key feature of the Aids to Industries Ordinance of 1959).

The transformational potential of the progressive historic social bloc that could have grown out of the Compact evidently upset those that stood to lose from it. What was at issue was the influence of the conservative fraction over society. This influence ensured that, when necessary, they could mobilise considerable popular support, mainly from the poorest strata of society (poorest does not mean progressive) and from the rural population. Lord Strickland, supported by the working class through the PL, threatened their hegemony. That the PL had – as Mr Bugeja had advocated – freed itself from the influence of its early conservative patrons and reached out to someone (albeit not unproblematic) like Lord Strickland, was a signal to the conservatives of the popular support they stood to lose from the Compact. The switch from Gonzi to Strickland alarmed them.

This is the third and last in a series of three articles on Lord Strickland.

Dr Vella blogs at http://watersbroken.wordpress.com.

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