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In memory of one of our greatest prime ministers

Maltese statesman Lord Gerald Strickland died 75 years ago today

Gerald Strickland addressing a party meeting. Photos courtesy of Strickland House

Gerald Strickland addressing a party meeting. Photos courtesy of Strickland House

Lord Gerald Strickland, who served as prime minister of Malta between 1927 and 1932, died 75 years ago today. He made a great contribution to the development of Malta and was a pioneer in the area of social legislation. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of Malta’s greatest prime ministers.

Strickland had already had a most distinguished career before he became prime minister. Elected to the Council of Government in 1886, he was instrumental, together with Fortunato Mizzi, in ensuring that Malta was granted representative government through the 1887 constitution. As chief secretary to the government (1889-1902), Strickland was the driving force behind several reforms and public works.

From 1902 to 1917, Strickland held a number of distinguished posts as Governor of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, Governor of Tasmania, Governor of Western Australia and Governor of New South Wales.

Back in Malta after these governorships, Strickland involved himself in the political life of the island. After the grant of responsible government in 1921, he contested the general election of October as the leader of the Constitutional Party that wanted to strengthen Malta’s ties with Great Britain while also striving to raise the standard of living of the Maltese.

From 1921 to 1927, Strickland was the Leader of the Opposition in Malta and in 1924 he was also elected to the House of Commons in England as a Conservative. He then proceeded to win the 1927 election to become Prime Minister of Malta, at that time called ‘head of ministry’. He attained power with the help of the Labour Party with which his political party had signed the so-called ‘Compact’ of 1926. This was nothing less than an agreement by which the Labour Party bound itself to support Strickland’s Constitutional Party in return for a pledge that the latter would enact social legislation in line with Labour Party ideology when it was elected to power.

Strickland’s Compact government will always be remembered for its great achievements. The Urban Rent Regulation Act of 1929 gave greater rights to tenants; the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act of the same year was a home ownership scheme for workers, and government profits from this scheme were channelled into financing more new government buildings. The Use of Maltese Language in Legal Proceedings Act (1929) ensured that, in both civil and criminal cases, one could ask to have the case heard in the Maltese language.

Strickland’s greatest legislative achievement, however, was the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1929 which was one of the first major social legislation acts in the Maltese islands. Great merit for this belongs, above all, to Sir Paul Boffa who was the person who worked most to introduce this law in Malta, enabled by the Compact which Labour had with the Constitutional Party in government.

The mind boggles at what more Strickland could have achieved had his government not been undermined by the Nationalists in opposition

From then onwards, workers who were injured and their dependants were to benefit from a compensatory pension. Private sector workers were also now to be registered and regulated and would benefit under this law.

A monument to Strickland’s premiership was St Luke’s Hospital which started being built in 1930. Such a general hospital was badly needed in Malta at the time and its building constituted a great advance in the field of medicine and public health.

It was unfortunate for Strickland, the Constitutional Party and Boffa’s Labour Party that they eventually found themselves embroiled in the politico-religious dispute of 1928-1932. In those days, Malta had a bicameral legislature consisting of the legislative assembly and the senate. While Strickland had a majority in the legislative assembly, the senate was dominated by the Nationalist Party.

The Nationalists used their dominance of the senate to obstruct Strickland at every opportunity. Things came to a head in 1928 (the year he was raised to the peerage) when Strickland passed some offensive remarks which offended the ecclesiastical authorities after its senators had voted in conjunction with the Nationalists against the government.

The 1930 election was not held due to the ecclesiastical authorities’ attempt to influence the vote through a pastoral letter and power passed into the hands of the British colonial authorities, with Strickland and his ministers being reduced to a largely advisory role.

The issue became even more complicated with the involvement of both the British government and the Vatican. When, in 1932, an election was held, the popularity of both Strickland and the Constitutional Party, as well as that of Boffa and the Labour Party, had been badly eroded as a result of the clash with the Catholic Church. 1932 was a landslide victory for the Nationalist Party and a humiliating defeat for the Constitutional Party and the Labour Party.

Although Strickland became Leader of the Opposition and, under the 1939 constitution, leader of the elected majority in the Council of Government, he never again attained political pre-eminence. The mind boggles at what more he could have achieved had his government not been undermined by the Nationalists in opposition.

One has to admit that Strickland had his defects. He often tried to ride roughshod over the opposition he encountered; he could be argumentative to the point of exasperation; he also sometimes displayed lack of tact in the way he acted.

It is an undeniable fact that he could have avoided the friction he created when, in his early days, he was chief secretary to the government. Likewise, the way he handled the politico-religious dispute of 1928-1932 left much to be desired and he also could have avoided it in the first place.

Still, his achievements far outweigh his failures. Gerald Strickland was a great politician and prime minister.

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