Leader with divisive political style
Mintoff’s demise at the venerable age of 96 robs Malta of one of the most prominent political figures in Malta’s recent history. He dominated Malta’s post-war political era in no uncertain manner with a staggering presence in parliament of over fifty years.
Dom Mintoff started his political career early in life, joining the Labour Party at the age of 19. From the start, he showed his mettle as a person determined to challenge the status quo and revolutionise Malta’s social structure.
He was a radical with ardent left wing views.
This is not surprising. He came from a large family in the industrial working class stronghold of Cottonera.
Like many of their counterparts in the rest of Europe, the lives of the working class since the Industrial Revolution, especially in areas of heavy industry such as the Dockyard, were harsh.
Social services to cushion the ravages of cycles in the world economy were weak or non-existent and workers were poorly paid and insecure. Not only was employment precarious, but losing a job meant outright poverty and destitution.
The bitter fruits of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century impacted on the working class with a vengeance and the two world wars wreaked havoc on the social fabric of society.
Historically, many working class aspirations were expressed through trade unions and quite often through their political offshoot i.e. Labour parties with a strong Socialist ideology.
On entering the political arena in 1943, Mr Mintoff became Secretary-General of the Labour Party and immediately showed he was a force to be reckoned with, winning a seat in parliament in the 1947 elections.
Mr Mintoff betrayed passionate Socialist tendencies from his early youth. His left wing credentials were further strenghtened following his association with the Fabian Society during his stay as a Rhodes scholar in England between 1939 and 1943.
Lesser known, was his association with the hard line left wing ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt who had an influential position in the British Communist party. This might explain Mr Mintoff’s more aggressive form of Socialism.
Following WWII, Communism and Socialism were considered real threats; something that cannot easily be appreciated by younger people today.
Mr Mintoff’s deliberate flirting with extreme left wing movements did very little to allay concern locally that he would adopt negative Socialist policies.
An ill-fated aspect of the Marxist element in Socialism was its deep seated hostility towards religion in general, but particularly towards the Catholic Church. From his early days in politics, Mr Mintoff relished being a thorn in the side of the Church.
Nonetheless, his legendary oratory, brash charisma, boundless energy and political acumen ensured his rapid rise in popularity.
He was a born leader who had a great impact on Malta’s destiny in the latter half of the last century. For many people who struggled on miserable salaries, lived in appalling conditions and lacked access to the better prospects in life, he was acclaimed a hero, the “Salvatur”.
It was most unfortunate that he thrived on controversy and resorted to a white hot, confrontational style of politics. He was also politically ruthless and would exploit situations to his advantage, regardless of the pain and hardship that would follow.
He deliberately fomented class division to pursue political objectives and dangerously exercised the maxim that the end justifies the means.
His overpowering personality, abrasiveness and anti-clerical stance alienated people who would otherwise have willingly supported him. His overpowering personality also stifled and suppressed political collegiality within the party.
His explosive temper dismayed and disappointed even his close admirers and supporters. Many capable people who initially held him in high regar, found it impossible to work with him and felt obliged to break ranks.
One of the few Maltese who dared stand up to him publicly was the formidable Archbishop Michael Gonzi who, although sharing Mr Mintoff’s concern for the “social question”, opposed the modus operandi.
In the latter part of the 1950s, Mr Mintoff’s uncontrollable animosity towards the Church came to the fore and gave rise to the Labour Party’s subsequent persistent and orchestrated vilification of the Church and particularly of the late Archbishop Gonzi.
It was mainly this shameless and virulent campaign, besides the issue of political ideology, that eventually incurred the censure of interdiction.
This was to have long term, tragic consequences for Malta. The open conflict between Mr Mintoff and Archbishop Gonzi poisoned Malta’s society and left deep seated scars in many adherents of the Labour Party which did not heal and still remain simmering below the surface.
On being elected Prime Minister in 1971, Mr Mintoff pursued his goals with unbridled single-mindedness, unhindered by the brakes of a colonial government.
Whereas the previous Prime Minister, the late George Borg Olivier, was the quintessence of prudent manoeuvre, procrastination and bedevilling calm, Dom Mintoff was a political volcano.
The years during his first legislature from 1971 to 1976 are considered the best years of Socialist rule. Mr Mintoff enacted fundamental social legislation, such as the minimum wage, that ensured that employees were no longer as dependent on the “benevolence” of their employer. Vital institutions, such as banks and broadcasting, were taken over. He nationalised crucial services such as energy and telecommunications.
Social housing was embarked on a scale and level which was unprecedented. In foreign policy, he brazenly stood up to the Western powers that usually treated moderate pro-European governments with patronizing condescension, if not outright indifference.
Despite the initial achievements and good intentions, even Mintoff’s success in improving the economic well-being of the working class was already being questioned.
Whilst in Malta, Professor M.M. Metwally, a distinguished Egyptian economist, published a study in 1974 pointing out that, in real terms of earning power, the working class fared better under the leadership of the much denigrated Dr Borg Olivier.
The 1976 election was held in a climate of unforgettable tension, terror and abusive behaviour.
The broadcasting media, now controlled by Mr Mintoff’s henchmen, was a well-honed tool of partisan propaganda. After this election, human rights abuses escalated.
Mr Mintoff’s undemocratic political approach and his lack of restraint were his undoing, as well as that of the party he had fashioned in his image. Dom Mintoff ruled by ultimatum. Consensus and respect for his political opponents were very low on his agenda.
Violence was no more the inevitable but unacceptable aberration of a few hotheads.
Instead, it was used as an effective tool to terrorise opposition into submission and achieve political results.
The deliberate corruption of the police force made matters infinitely worse. The ordinary citizen was at the mercy of the government. With the notable exception of Vanni Bonello, very few lawyers had the courage to challenge this crass abuse of human rights in the courts.
As early as the mid-1970s, police were accused in court of fabricating evidence. No action was ever taken against them. On the contrary, some were promoted.
Church run schools and hospitals were forced to operate free of charge or close down. Head on clashes with teachers, academia, the medical profession and other sectors of society led to endless political tension and ocial upheaval.
Private banks were taken over without compensation. Many government and para-statal organisations virtually became private fiefdoms of his ministers.
Human rights abuses and corruption stained the record of his administration and there was scant regard for Malta’s cultural and environmental heritage.
There were times when Mr Mintoff even suspended the Constitutional Court thus crippling the process of legal redress.
However, the worst failing of Dom Mintoff was the cultivation of class hatred, envy and violence.
His divisive political style was his downfall and after the controversial 1981 election, matters reached such an unbearable state, that Mr Mintoff resigned as Prime Minister and Party leader.
To his eternal credit, he had the statesmanship to reach an eleventh hour agreement on proportional representation. This paved the way for a change in government.
However, this came at a huge political cost. Violent incidents, culminating in the killing of Raymond Caruana in Gudja, pushed Malta to the brink of civil strife.
Mr Mintoff’s legacy demands a dispassionate and professional analysis. One fact stands out. The clash with the Church clouded Mr Mintoff’s entire political career. This was more than just a clash between the two strong personalities of Dom Mintoff and Archbishop Gonzi.
Mr Mintoff felt that the Church had too much of a domineering and negative influence on what he considered to be the rightful progress and emancipation of the working class.
This does not do justice to the Church, and even less to Archbishop Gonzi who, like Mr Mintoff, also had working class roots and sympathies and hailed from the Dockyard area.
The purpose of studying history is to follow the events that lead to where we are now, and to see how the present could so easily have been quite different.
“The highest use of the imagination”, says G. K. Chesterton, “is to learn from what never happened.”
One cannot but admire Mr Mintoff’s idealism, commitment to the underdog and conviction of purpose. Yet, it is also true that his undeniable talents and outstanding energy could have been applied so differently and much more positively.
It was a case of squandered opportunities.
Malta’s recent history would have been considerably different had Mr Mintoff been fired by the spirit of Rerum Novarum rather than Das Kapital.
The Mintoff years
From Cospicua to Helsinki
1916: Born in Cospicua
1935: Appointed Labour general secretary
1937: Graduates from the University of Malta
1939: Qualifies as an architect
1939: Awarded a Rhodes scholarship
1945: Elected to Parliament
1947: Appointed deputy prime minister and Works Minister; marries Moira Bentinck and has two daughters
1949: Appointed Labour leader
1955: Becomes Prime Minister; proposes integration with the UK
1958: His government resigns in protest over the way the British government was treating Malta, an action followed by a general strike and riots
1958: Travels to London to discuss introduction of self-government
1960: The Church imposes religious sanctions against Mr Mintoff and his colleagues
1962: His party proposes equal and sovereign rights in his electoral manifesto but still loses the election
1966: With the Church vociferously opposed against Mintoff, Labour again loses the general election
1972: Establishes diplomatic relations with China; signs defence agreement with the UK
1971: Becomes Prime Minister; removes Maurice Dorman from the post of Governor General
1973: Calls the Libyans ‘blood brothers’ as he starts a close relationship, albeit at time jittery, with Muammar Gaddafi
1973: Announces the takeover of the National Bank’s assets, a saga that prevails to this day; Mintoff’s government approves setting up of Air Malta
1974: Declares Malta a republic
1975: At the Helsinki summit, Mr Mintoff stalls proceedings by insisting on inserting a clause about peace in the Mediterranean, frustrating world leaders
1976: Wins the general election; violent elements start creeping into the party
1979: Declares Freedom Day as the British forces agreement comes to an end; a man charges into Castille allegedly heading for Mr Mintoff, a prelude to what will become known as Black Monday, with Socialist supporters running amok
1980: Negotiates a protocol neutrality agreement with Italy
1981: Mr Mintoff’s party gets a minority of votes but can still govern because of the Constitution as the Nationalists accuse him of tailoring the districts to suit Labour. It is the precursor to five years of political unrest
1984: Mr Mintoff resigns as Prime Minister, handing over the baton to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici
1985: Negotiates an agreement with the opposition giving the party with the majority of votes the right to govern
1998: He votes against Alfred Sant’s government on the Cottonera project motion, prompting an early election
2002: Sets up Front Maltin Inqumu, an anti-EU membership lobby group
2009: For the first time, he sets foot inside Labour’s Ħamrun headquarters