Mintoff remembered - Firebrand who forced his way to power
A man of exceptional stature, substance, contrasts, extremes, an evoker of great passions, has died. Malta is bereaved. One way or another no one was indifferent to Dom Mintoff. He made an indelible mark on Malta’s life, serving his stewardship during her formative adolescence as a nation-state. He put her on the map of the world like no one else before or since.
To the Maltese psyche he bequeathed self-esteem by showing that a nation’s small size was no excuse for keeping its head low in the world. Permanently at odds with the smallness of complacency and predictability, he was of a different order from the other men of politics.
Historians will forever argue whether the great men of history would be as great if they had not happened to live in the right historical moment, but that is no issue in the case of Mr Mintoff.
Raised in the heart of the inner harbour, which accounts for so much of Malta’s history in every way, his coming of age coincided with the historical moment that beckoned him. Post-Second World War Malta wanted leadership that combined intelligence, strength, energy, fearlessness, inventiveness, perseverance, self-assuredness. Mr Mintoff, therefore.
So shrouded was post-war Malta in claustrophobic backwardness and servility that no one less could ignite her self-awareness and empower her to claim her place in the modern world, as a nation and as a society.
A nation that had evolved in servitude to some of the most outstanding European forces, Malta had yet remained impervious to the revolutionary waves of enlightenment, egalitarianism, and self-determination – never mind industrialisation – that had transformed European society into a model of the modern state.
To catch up with the history on which Malta had missed out for centuries was the brief Mr Mintoff took upon himself and delivered on. In power or in opposition, as driver or catalyst, he was at the centre of the process that saw Malta’s rapid transformation into a modern nation-state.
A child of the turbulent inter-war generation, Mr Mintoff entered politics at the young age of 19, when he became General Secretary of the Labour Party, while still a student of architecture and civil engineering.
After a stint in Oxford University to further his studies, he returned to Malta and in 1945 was elected to the Council of Government (under the MacDonald Constitution), whose most notable achievement was the Compulsory Education Ordinance of 1946.
When parliamentary government was restored in 1947, he became, at 31, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Public Works and Reconstruction in Paul Boffa’s Labour Government. There he led the way in laying the foundations of the modern welfare state amidst strong conservative opposition.
More critically, Mr Mintoff led his Cabinet colleagues into demanding from Britain a pro-rata share of its allocation of American Marshall Aid which, beyond being a large injection of foreign capital, would have entailed joining the process of European economic reconstruction and integration at its outset. But it was not to be.
Succumbing to British pressure and vague reassurances, the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet backed down. Not one to be cut loose like that, Mr Mintoff forced a crisis within the Malta Labour Party and went on to become its new leader in 1949.
There followed five years of weak and ineffectual coalition government, postponing any progress on the pressing questions of the future of thousands employed with the British Services and of economic reconstruction and diversification.
On regaining power in 1955, Mr Mintoff set out to terminate once and for all the relationship of inequality between Malta and Britain. He proposed integration on the basis of full equality and local autonomy – a fast-track route to development failing which, independence, so that Malta might explore its own way forward unfettered by any further colonial ties.
At first welcomed in Britain, the integration project foundered on disagreements over the allocation of responsibilities, together with other signals, especially during and after the disastrous Suez War of 1956, that the British government brooked no limitation on its control over Malta.
Calculating that the cost to benefit ratio of integration was too much in Malta’s favour, they began shedding the more costly of their responsibilities, chief among which the admiralty dockyard, thus accelerating the prospect of mass unemployment.
Admitting no half measures, Mr Mintoff demanded full and unconditional independence and moved on to raise trouble for British continued rule, to which the British authorities responded by shutting down democratic government.
The next four years of direct colonial rule supplied the window in which all the forces that opposed Mr Mintoff’s overhauling project could regroup and close ranks to cut off his access to power. Each for their own ends but pulling in the same direction, the forces of conservatism mounted their counterattack.
On top of the arbitrary and unaccountable British exercise of power came the condemnation of the ecclesiastical authorities and the calling of a crusade of all the anti-Mintoff political elements to defeat the challenges of secularism, socialism and unqualified self-determination.
Not before Mr Mintoff and his party were roundly blockaded was parliamentary government restored in 1962. But there was not, for that reason, any stopping his momentum. Adversity fuelled him and gelled his support base into a compact movement which wore electoral defeat itself, the price of steadfastness, with pride and defiance.
When the time came to discuss independence, Mr Mintoff from the opposition would legitimise no version that did not terminate dependence in every sense, or one that did not include an undertaking by the receding imperial power to meet its responsibilities.
He typically snubbed the Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, who tried to buy his compliance over the defence agreement with the offer of a corrupt practices clause that would prohibit future ecclesiastical interference in elections.
That Britain in 1964 held on to its military facilities in Malta, largely unrestricted yet with no further responsibility for the country’s future, was for him a warp in the transition to self-determination that he would flatten at the first opportunity.
The minute he returned to power in 1971 he closed down Nato’s Southern Europe Command headquarters, and insisted on renegotiating with Britain the existing defence relationship.
By hard and skilful negotiation of near-legendary recollection, he clinched a new agreement which secured a respectable rent for the use of the base, circumscribed the scope of Britain’s remaining military facilities (in particular forbidding their use against Arab countries), and set a term for their full and final closure in 1979. In Malta’s history, the conclusion in 1979 of her role as a foreign military base and fortress, which had defined the country for centuries, was the end of an epoch.
For Mr Mintoff, who had already in 1974 secured enough bi-party consent to make of Malta a republic, the year 1979 was the high mark of his political journey. Rerouting the country’s role in the opposite direction of what it had been in subjugation, external policy was re-founded on neutrality and non-alignment, friendly relations with neighbours, and the vision of a Mediterranean community at peace with itself. In his pursuit of a pan-Mediterranean policy, Mr Mintoff was the pioneer. Overlooked by most regional states and impatiently dismissed by bigger powers, the Mediterranean idea did not sit well in the overriding paradigm of the cold war.
Yet Mr Mintoff was able to force it onto the agenda of international relations notwithstanding. His counsel withstood the test of time: the singularity of the Mediterranean region and the concern that its problems deserve to be dealt with by coordinated regional policies have long since become universally accepted.
On the domestic front, the dragging out of colonial or para-colonial rule and the less than democratic conduct of internal forces dug in against change delayed Malta’s development and modernization until long after Western Europe’s economies had fully recovered and begun to thrive.
Years after independence the country struggled still to construct a diversified economy that would supplant the declining but still dominant role of the British defence establishment. Mr Mintoff’s brand of democratic socialism aimed for economic growth and a fair distribution of wealth in a context of social stability.
Under his drive, the country’s wealth grew remarkably, but also equitably, while the welfare state was built and consolidated. Along the way society was able to break free from its confessional cast and become more open.
And despite acute and noisy divisions that neither started with Mr Mintoff nor ended with him, there reigned enough stability and social peace to make the country attractive to much new foreign investment and tourism, enabling it finally to partake of the windfall of Europe’s economic recovery and prosperity.
Arguably he may have stretched out his model of development longer than there was a need to, but it worked and, laying down the solid foundations of economic growth with a social conscience, it paid off in dividends for future development.
Unrepeatable maybe, in a world that has changed so much since, but a far cry from the contemporary political economy of spending today in the hope of being able to pay back tomorrow, and which lately has been sending shivers down Europe’s spine.
Mistakes he made, and also enemies – common hazards for one who strove against massive and multiple odds, continuously devising ways nobody before had thought of or tried out, the more improbable the target, the more creative his unorthodoxy.
Not everyone welcomes change, nor is everyone better off when it comes about, especially those who were all right before. With so much to be done and so much to change, and so urgently, conflict was an inevitable fallout with a man who typically assaulted his tasks with the relentlessness of a gale sweeping through a musty house.
Still, despite appearances, and considering the choices made by many contemporary post-colonial leaders with much less to show for them, Mr Mintoff was all told a man of measure and a committed democrat. Given to brinkmanship perhaps, but a democrat no less, who owed no apology to any who, in their time, saw nothing wrong with cutting him from legitimate power any which way they could.
With a record like his, with so much concluded business under his big belt, it remains an enigma why Mr Mintoff, having once voluntarily given up the party leadership, did not let the leaven of reclusion quietly cultivate his legend, but soldiered on instead, with far reaching consequences for the party that had identified with his name.
Maybe it was his restlessness, or a generational difficulty adjusting, or protectiveness of his legacy: if he was not resting on his laurels, nor would he have them trampled on.
Certainly he was not one to be turned out to pasture, not when combat was his lifeblood.
Mr Mintoff’s paradox – one of them – was that he seemed to care enough about the verdict of history; yet his actions, in youth or old age, were never governed by what others might think of him. Only the deepest conviction can make a man prefer the judges of the future to those of his lifetime.
Dom Mintoff will for a while yet keep pundits arguing over what he was and did, as a person of such enduing consequence must. Now, however, is a time for bidding farewell to a man of greatness who loved his country and its nation in one mighty and unrepeatable way.