Shattering Mintoff’s myth

Had it not been written in English, I would have thought that I was reading L-Orizzont or Kull­Ħadd. Yet, it was The Sunday Times that published the transcript of a telephone conversation between Dom Mintoff and Britain’s James Callaghan and a related article referring to declassified British notes. But, then, most Labour-oriented papers wouldn’t dare as much.

That different histories exist is a principle that most European academics accept
- Michael Grech

Emasculated New Labour does not want to displease the ‘moderate’ electorate.

The unofficial but widely accepted ‘history’ concocted by some historians and by many journalists and political commentators holds that Mintoff’s years in office were characterised by hardships, depravation, lack of progress and oppression. That ‘we’ (without specifying who are/were the ‘we’) were definitely worse-off back then is taken for granted.

This ‘history’ served to cement the Conservative hegemony over our islands in the past 25 years. So successful has this attempt been, that it came to be accepted as ‘our history’ by many Labourites and by many who, by local standards, may be described as apolitical.

(That other ‘histories’ may exist, that not everyone can be classified under the ‘we’ in question are possibilities that are implicitly denied. See my Search for Honest Answers, The Times, August 3, 2012).

Labour, particularly since the 1990s, has been unwilling to challenge this unofficial but widely accepted story. One interesting exception was a conference where Labour’s history was revisited. The papers delivered during the conference have recently been published. The publication concerning Mintoff by SKS is another exception.

The Sunday Times did what Labour was unable to do. Admittedly, the piece seems more concerned with former President Anton Buttigieg’s drinking habits and with the fact that he did not see eye to eye with Mintoff on a lot of things than with anything else.

A credit to both Buttigieg and Mintoff is that, despite their disagreement on a number of issues and the fact that none entertained a particular personal liking towards the other, they could establish a working relationship. This shatters another myth that concerns Mintoff, the belief that he was surrounded only by yes-men.

Yet, the piece also contains entries that contradict the unofficial but widely accepted picture.

Against those who claim that, under Mintoff, ‘the people’ (whatever this means) suffered material depravation if not hunger, the report states that the “Standards of living are rising…”

In contrast to those who claim that while Labour was intent on dividing more equitably the pie – it often “… forg(ot)… that wealth has to be created before it can be shared…” (Frendo 1991) – the notes report that “Malta’s economy is generally healthy and well-prepared for the British departure… The balance of payments is in surplus, inflation is only around five per cent and unemployment has been successfully contained… (Predicting that) There is… no reason why Malta should not stand on her own feet after 1979 without external financial or economic aid” (The Sunday Times, December 30).

Regarding the medical reforms of the 1970s, which have been much maligned in the unofficial but widely accepted history (many young people do not even know that we have free healthcare thanks to these reforms and mistakenly believe that this was introduced by some Nationalist Administration), the notes indicate that, though the industrial action by local medics had led to some decline in the standard of the service provided, there was no evidence to support the claim that the services provided were ‘inadequate’.

Moreover, the foreign doctors brought to Malta are described as ‘competent’. This also runs against what Conservatives claim to this day (one may watch Dear Dom again for a taste of this).

Mintoff’s conversation with Callaghan serves to dispel another myth: the belief that he was fundamentally anti-British and/or that he wanted to terminate the British military presence in Malta out of spite.

That he wanted this chapter to be closed in the best of terms is evident from the conversation.

Furthermore, the confidence and absence of any inferiority complex he exudes throughout the conversation (he was the Prime Minister of a micro state talking to the leader of a former empire), are features that I suspect his successors (red or blue) could/can only dream of exhibiting.

The intent of my article is not to dispel one myth and replace it by another; to have a picture of a ‘period of oppression and/or want’ replaced by one of some golden age that never existed.

My intent is, as I had affirmed back in August, to debunk the idea that one may refer “…to a ‘history’ (meaning one history) that needs to be definitively and unbiasedly written… (that there is some history which is the history of) …a ‘people’ rather than the histories of different classes and groups (each with its own interests and perspective/s)…” (The Times, August 3).

That different histories exist is a principle that most European academics (and not just academics) accept. In Malta we have yet to arrive.


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