Controversial in life as in his death
The death of Dom Mintoff, one of the most controversial and towering figures in Maltese politics since Lord Strickland in the 1930s, appears to have reopened wounds from 30 or 40 years ago – for some, even from over 50 years ago.
What has happened in the past weeks says a lot about us as a nation. And most of it is unsavoury and makes for uncomfortable reflection. How can otherwise educated and reasonable people - on both sides of the political divide - react in the way they did, express thoughts of such intolerance, resurrect such historical and often uninformed prejudices and expose so many imagined wrongs three or four decades after the event? How can normally rational individuals fail to see that every leading political figure has both good and bad points?
Yet, to read some of the comments made in articles and on the blogs has almost invariably been to receive such an unbalanced and partial picture of the man as to make those judgements worthless.
Dom Mintoff was not the paragon, the saviour, some have made him out to be. But nor was he the devil incarnate that others have painted. He was, like many great figures, neither all black, nor all white.
As Eddie Fenech Adami, his nemesis for some 30 years, said, generously and in a statesman-like manner, a balanced assessment was that he did more good than harm.
As another avid Nationalist, Austin Bencini, put it, he was an outstanding parliamentarian. Other notably balanced assessments came from Lino Spiteri and Fr Joe Borg.
On the other hand, those who argued, in that petulant, spoilt kind of way that he “ruined the best years of our lives” and, therefore, they felt justified in dancing on his grave when the news of his death was announced, really need to take a hard look at themselves.
They should honestly ask themselves whether the long overdue rebalancing of Maltese society 40 years ago, the huge alleviation of poverty, the long-awaited development of the welfare state, the rehousing of families, the increase in national pride and self-confidence which Mintoff introduced and engendered were, on a national scale, not worth the personal sacrifices in lifestyle that many pampered and privileged individuals of my background had to endure.
And before somebody accuses me of not having been here throughout the period of the 1970s and 1980s and, therefore, having no idea what it was actually like, let me say that I was fortunate while I was in the Ministry of Defence to read many of the intelligence reports and diplomatic dispatches about Malta during that period.
And I have heard, at first hand, sometimes in glorious technicolour, from my friends over the last 20 years what things were like.
Yes, I do know about the lack of chocolate and toothpaste, about the impact on the (Royal) Malta University and the civil service, the lack of infrastructure investment, the international opprobrium as Malta flirted with some very unsavoury regimes, the red-in-tooth-and-claw socialism, the overbearing police force, the lack of control over Labour thugs, the class warfare (though it takes two to tango) and the tensions with the Church.
But even given all of that, history will judge Mintoff, on balance, to have been a force for good in Maltese society when this fledgling country first found its wings and when a deeply socially divided country began to even out some of the privileges that people like me and my friends had hitherto enjoyed.
In life as in death, Mintoff will remain a deeply controversial and divisive figure. Margaret Thatcher was (is) an equally divisive figure in Britain. But when she dies even those – the miners and the steel workers who lost their sources of employment, the unions that lost their power, the Scots who rejected her policy on the poll tax and the majority of those living north of the Watford Gap – who excoriated her in her lifetime will have the maturity to recognise that she transformed the country through sheer force of leadership and, on balance, made the country a muchbetter place.
These past ugly few weeks have shown that many are still incapable of rising above the political polarisation that characterises this country and that hotheads on both sides of the political divide will still come out of the woodwork to stoke the fires of hatred 30 or 40 years afterwards.
I had mistakenly thought that the accumulated stresses and strains of the 1970s and 1980s were behind us. Blind political allegiance should not be all. Yes, politics is the art of mobilising prejudice but reason should be the enemy of prejudice.
The lack of tolerance that has been shown by both sides, the inability to weigh the evidence of the last few decades and to reach an impartial and balanced judgement has been deeply worrying.
Talk of “the spectre of Dom Mintoff” to score cheap political points is unworthy and undermines all the good work that the Fenech Adami, Sant and Gonzi governments have done in the past 25 years.
It is something that both political leaders need to address forcefully if we are not to regress.