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Defining moments in decades of politics

Mario Cutajar (Ed), Mintoff: the Man and History. Sensiela Kotba Soċjalisti, 2012. 608 pp.

Well before the death of former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in August 2012, the Labour Party had planned to publish a fitting tribute to the man who, in Government or Opposition, had dominated the local political scene for half a century.

Editor Mario Cutajar faced the task of distilling decades of political and religious controversy, social and industrial reform as colonial Malta moved from British military dependence towards economic self-sufficiency towards Independence.

Cutajar included some of Mintoff’s seminal writings and speeches: The Inner Eye (1955), Break with Britain resolution (1957), Priests and Politics in Malta (1961), European Security and Cooperation in Helsinki (1973) and Strasbourg (1978), and the Moment of Truth speech of December 11, 1986, consequent on Tal-Barrani mob violence and the murder of Raymond Caruana, which led to the momentous agreement that the party securing most votes in the general election has the constitutional right to govern the country.

Stating upfront that this publication is not intended to promote a personality cult, (Joseph) Muscat does not once mention Dom Mintoff by name

Cutajar’s introduction and biographical notes listing defining moments in Mintoff’s life set the title Mintoff: the Man and History, in perspective. Festschrift contributors were tasked with assessing Mintoff’s impact on Malta’s history.

Since most contributors knew Mintoff well, it is not surprising this publication provides insights into the life of the dynamic visionary leader who they imagined “bestrid the narrow world like a Colossus”.

Universally admired by supporters and despised by opponents from the late 1940s on, till after the 1998 Cottonera Waterfront high-spirited shenanigans, he attracted the opprobrium of rank and file supporters for voting out the Labour government into a waste of shame for the next 14 years.

In 2009, however, in the sunset of his life, occurred Mintoff’s rehabilitation. So that at his death in August 2012 he became an icon to be venerated as if, like Caesar, he had had the “start of the majestic world…” while his subordinates staring in adulation now saw him bear the victor’s palm alone. And so an invitation to this festschrift to an array of scholars and other gifted writers!

In order of appearance: Mark Montebello presents an intriguing contrastive time paradigm showing why both Mintoff and Manwel Dimech were hated by the reactionary privileged classes; and Francis Galea effectively highlights recurrent images of Mintoff as a young rebel with immense potential fuelling political change.

Mario Vella writes about the Labour Party’s refoundation in 1944 to its resounding electoral victory under Boffa, and the split ushering Mintoff as the new leader oozing charisma in 1949; John Chircop thoroughly evaluates Mintoff’s early and lasting images in the collective consciousness of Labour supporters; and Helena Dalli provides sociological reasoned arguments why Mintoff’s charisma failed to win over an intransigent civil service.

Vella (Mascina) takes a philosophical step back to framework Mintoff’s charisma within Weber’s paradigm of supporters’ “enthusiasm, need and hope”; while Aleks Farrugia writes about Mintoff’s skills encouraging the middle class through educational and industrial reforms, and consciously fostering a mystic aura of adulation among supporters.

Cutajar defends Mintoff switching from integration to self- determination and later, within a framework of ecclesiastical sanctions to a policy of independence; while Oliver Friggieri revisits l-Għarix and Delimara and writes with feeling about Mintoff’s humanity as socio-political reformer even as he clashed with Archbishop Michael Gonzi.

From a deceptively idyllic life in Tarxien, surrounded by olive trees, flowers and butterflies, Yana Bland Mintoff leads to the harrowing experiences as she grew up in the shadow of her father forever misunderstood and targeted by political reactionaries.

Edgar Mizzi records Mintoff’s attempts to establish closer relationships with Nato and contemporaneously his determination to break with colonial structures; and Jeremy Boissevain reprints a clear anthropological account of Mintoff’s Autocracy of Haste during Malta’s tumultuous political developments in the 1970s.

Raymond Mangion provides an insightful detailed narrative of Mintoff’s impact on the Constitution and consequent legislation, highlighting Act XXXIX of 1974, establishing compulsory education to age 16 as the most important law enacted.

Mintoff’s private secretary in the late 1970s, Martin Zammit, provides an exclusive behind-the-scenes view of Mintoff’s negotiating skills overseas, overworking his secretariat and ministers, tirelessly urging them to efficiency for the good of the nation, at one time transmogrifying Castille Prime Minister’s office into late-night classes in Arabic for bleary-eyed ministers – a shortlived enterprise much to the relief of Justice Minister Ġużè Cassar.

Desmond Zammit Marmarà confirms Mintoff’s commitment for educational reforms tackling pressing needs, solutions which in turn created new problems as when raising compulsory school age and establishing vocational trade schools; and Peter Mayo, inter alia, discusses the twinning of Mcast to University, and the euphemistically called ‘moratorium’, ie. shameful suppression of the Faculties of Arts, Science and Theology on absurd pretexts of encouraging sponsorship of ‘relevant’ courses for the good of the nation.

Karmenu Farrugia lauds Mintoff as a forward-looking visionary, championing change like equal pay for equal work irrespective of gender, but impugns Mintoff’s intransigence and preferred policies on import substitution and his merciless cutting down of dissenters.

In a carefully balanced article, Edward Scicluna highlights Fabian and Marxist early influence on Mintoff, and in context interprets his embrace of the old-fashioned golden rule striving for surpluses and avoiding deficits in national budgets.

He states this allowed Mintoff to stave off bankruptcy and foster competitiveness, but castigates him for not investing enough in energy and for mistakenly shying away from the communication revolution.

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca recalls her teenage years, effectively bewitched by Mintoff’s oratorical skills as he preached a just society that sheltered those most vulnerable, but bewails the unfortunate misunderstandings between Alfred Sant and Dom Mintoff for failing to appreciate each other’s intellectual greatness.

Sandro Debono highlights how Labour emblems and Mintoff’s battle cry “Malta first and foremost” figured prominently in Maltese contemporary art. Marius Zerafa, nephew of Sir Paul Boffa, ousted from the Labour leadership by none other than Mintoff, records Mintoff’s strong admiration for Boffa, reputedly stating he “never had the courage to say or do” what Boffa did.

Godfrey Pirotta presents an impeccably reasoned argument for Mintoff’s flexible policies re-fashioned through the Labour split, the April riots, integration and a flawed Independence constitution.

Describing Mintoff as “the man for all seasons”, Salvu Fenech compares him to the more radical Socialist and mentor Ċensu Bugeja. Maria Camilleri, a pious devotee, expresses her intense grief to the Perit who had just been laid to rest – effusive sentimental adulation at its best.

Finally, leading poet Charles Flores ends the day’s reading with an elegy: “That I may sleep put out the lights… to the last he knew… where he wanted to go… where he wants to arrive.”

At last the day is done: terminat hora diem; terminat auctor opus. And so you’d think the task is finished.

But not quite.

In a remarkably measured foreword, placed first but always written last, it is remarkable that Joseph Muscat, the present Labour leader, moves away from adulation to spell out the fact that major social, economic and political reforms and events were never the work of just one person, no matter how great.

Stating upfront that this publication is not intended to promote a personality cult, Muscat does not once mention Dom Mintoff by name! A sobering thought.

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