Labyrinths of colonial policy
The constitutional precursors of political achievements were a series of conflicts that marked the turbulent times of British Malta. An evaluation of colonial times would clarify the ‘recent’ events of Independence, Republic and Freedom Days
British political strategists granted constitutions that marked both progression and regression for Malta. Their studied decisions were intrinsically bound by colonial interests in the island and by events in the Mediterranean.
Upward trends occurred in 1849, 1887, 1921, 1947 and 1964. The downward bends happened in 1813, 1903, 1936 and 1959. Others were static.
Twelve constitutions delineated the general path along Malta’s road to Independence: gubernatorial autocracy (1813); advisory council of government (1835); elective representation in minority (1849); representative system (1887); responsible government (1921), self government (1947) and Independence (1964). This constitutional development was, from time to time, dented by a crown colony system and the official majority rule.
Britain activated cooperation and submission by adroit manipulation of the political organisation of the island. A monopoly of legal power sanctioned its principles. Therefore, the gradual transformation of Malta’s political structure generated a sequence of conflicts. The imperial philosophy of gradualness or the belief in evolutionary changes often met with failure. Maltese leaders accepted a gradual evolutionary change but not one that entailed political regression nor one that fostered a stagnant outlook.
Maltese aspirations of constitutional progression were nothing less than politics of vision. However, Britain’s dominant authorities changed these values; curtailed and even denied political participation. Consequently, 164 years of British presence had turned Malta’s politics of vision into politics of despair. The constitutional pendulum rose and fell with trumped up British authoritarian decisions.
Britain determined the nature and extent of each Constitution. The existence of two societies, Maltese and British, put them in constant intercourse and intermittent conflicts. Yet, somehow, they regulated their relations, often unwillingly or grudgingly or imperfectly.
The function of the fortress island determined the structure, the concession or the withdrawal of the Constitution. To Britain it seemed absurd to give a Constitution to “a battleship”. This view of the Duke of Wellington epitomised the feelings of the Imperial Government. The greater the intensification of the imperial commitments, the more was Malta subjected to international fluctuations. Thus, regresses and reversals were common occurrences.
Naturally, constitutional changes affected the political system, the legislatures and any achievements. These variations were not entirely the outcome of Mediterranean circumstances. They were intrinsic to Britain’s determined policy of enforcing its colonialism doctrine.
To enlightened Maltese, the term ‘colonialism’ denoted a designed policy that imposed dependence through ideological coercion. The related series of constitutions gave the imperial authorities unlimited control, irrespective of Maltese opposition. Thus, deliberate constitutional fluctuations were sometimes attempts to stabilise turbulent situations in a fortress island.
Malta faced a negative impossibility in striving for constitutional advancement to self-government.
Constitution may be a political-legal institution, however, the rise and fall or the give and take were strategies of Britain’s studied policy. The belligerent reactions of Maltese leaders were natural consequences.
Stripped down to the bare bones of political manoeuvres, every Constitution seemed like a game of ‘snakes and ladders’, of slipping down and climbing up, of regression and progression, of withdrawals and concessions, even of punishments and rewards. The game generated conflicts, demonstrations, clashes, intermittent protests and delegations to London. It was a conflict between two different cultures; between the aspirations of an emerging nation and the discipline of an empire.
John J. Cremona provides a coherent survey: it reveals the struggle for national liberation against the forces of colonial imperialism.
The Royal Commission of 1812 considered the Maltese incapable of administering a system of representative government. Consequently, Malta was burdened with a despotic governor vested with both civil and military government. This recurring colonial principle controlled the fortress island.
The Council of Government as established in 1835 included three unofficial Maltese members. The governor could act in opposition to any majority in Council.
The 1849 Constitution incorporated the elective principle but power was reserved to the Crown to legislate by Order in Council
The year 1881 brought about political unrest. The anti-reformist party rose in opposition to the administrative, fiscal and educational reforms. A series of elections and resignations demonstrated Maltese contempt of the official majority.
The Constitution of 1887 gave elected members the power to decide on questions of local concern but full power was reserved to the Crown. Conflicts persisted during the years 1892-1895. The elected members refused to cooperate. Their demand for a better form of government brought out the stock statement that responsible government was incompatible with the position of Malta as an imperial fortress and unsuitable to the political capacity of the people.
In the election under the 1903 Constitution, the elected Maltese members were returned unopposed. Conflicts arose over the governor’s overriding power.
The Constitution created an oppressive oligarchy, a reversion to the 1849 Constitution and the official majority principle.
Members protested by systematic abstentionism. Within 10 months, six general elections were held. The members were returned unopposed but resigned after every election. Malta’s representative institutions were a mockery and a delusion.
The Constitution of 1921 instituted a diarchy. Beside the Maltese Government and the Maltese Imperial Government, there were the Executive Council, the Nominated Council, the Privy Council and the Joint Committee of the Privy Council. Thus, a system of checks and balances ensured the security of imperial interests.
The Constitution gave power to the Legislature to enact laws, provided none infringed on ‘reserved matters.’
Other limitations were extended in 1930, 1932 and 1933. Moreover, sections, 41 and 68 were respectively related to reserved matters and to ‘special subjects.’
These notorious sections were often subject to conflicting interpretations.
Yet, the 1921 Constitution functioned well until the political crisis of 1928-30. Then, the Constitution was suspended initiating constitutional retrogression, a return to the 1813-1835 political periods. After amendments, responsible government was restored in 1932.
Amendments followed in 1933. The Constitution was suspended in 1933 and revoked in 1936. The result was a return to gubernatorial autocracy and to legislation by Ordinance.
The period between 1928 and 1936 generated political confusion. The 1939 Constitution had the power of veto and legislation by Order in Council.
The 1947 Constitution followed the pattern of that of 1921. The Legislature included some healthy changes. However, the demarcation line between the reserved and non-reserved matters remained blurred.
The 1959 Constitution revoked that of 1947. An Executive Council was set up. The governor could consult it, overrule it and also legislate by ordinance.
In the Constitution of 1961, one government with legislative and executive powers substituted the diarchy. The Legislature, unicameral, was still subject to the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865. The Colonial Office was still responsible for Maltese affairs.
In spite of Constitutional upheavals over time, the political relationship remained symbiotic: both rulers and ruled made efforts for reciprocal goodwill. This relationship was at times harmonious, at other times turbulent.
The whole gamut of constitutions carried the island through the labyrinths of colonial policy.
Joe Bugeja holds a postgraduate degree in political sciences from Oxford University