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How Malta's Dom Mintoff Played Big Politics From a Small Context
Tribute to a Post-Colonial Leader
by PETER MAYO

Valetta, Malta.

Malta, a small island in the Mediterranean with a long history of colonisation, paid tribute last week to its former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff who died, on Monday 20 August, at the age of 96. He ranks with the likes of Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Maurice Bishop and Julius K. Nyerere as the classical post-colonial politician. Like everyone else, the man had his contradictions and made mistakes (allowing thuggery or turning a blind eye to it).  He played the very dangerous but often successful game, in cold war politics, of pitting one bloc against the other.  He befriended Willy Brandt and Aldo Moro just as he developed strong links with China, Libya and North Korea. The heavy handed tactics employed particularly during the build up to and aftermath of the 1981 elections, characterised by a perverse result, tarnished his image in the eyes of many.

Many others will counter this by pointing to his achievements.  These are considerable and include:  his substantial reduction of material poverty ( I recall beggars, with their ‘catch phrases’, roaming the streets of my home city, Valletta, before 1971 –the year Mintoff won the general elections, in the post-independence period, to start an uninterrupted 16 year Labour rule); the creation of a welfare state;  the establishing of a minimum wage; the generation of parastatal (state owned) companies that provided employment; his government’s emphasis on production rather than simply importation, which led to unpopular forms of import substitution and impositions of tariffs to protect the ‘infant local industry’; his government’s broad provision of social housing; his government’s attempt and partial success to convert Malta’s ‘fortress economy’ not to one of mercantile capitalism prevalent throughout the 60s, but to one of industrial development fuelled by local and primarily foreign capital (often resulting from Mintoff’s great international network of high profile contacts, German ones in particular); his government’s cementing of Malta’s identity through its own national currency, banking system and means of transportation (Air Malta, in particular, was and indeed still is a landmark of his tenure); his opening to North Africa (even though this was for the most part confined to neighbouring Libya); his government’s and party’s efforts at generating awareness of the Palestinian cause (even opening a PLO office in Malta in the 70s); his strong and steadfast belief in the role of cooperatives and worker representation (he clung to this belief till the latter stages of his life, talking to me personally, at his residence in 2009, about their importance, in what was my only face to face meeting with him) as well as self management (shades of Marshall Josip Broz Tito); his international politics of non-alignment.

In education, he will be lambasted in certain quarters for his far from perfect ‘reform’ or, to use less euphemistic language, the rather radical overhaul of tertiary education (especially the abolition of the faculties of Arts, Science and Theology to make way for more ‘utilitarian’ courses).  Sociologist, Ralph Dahrendorf, who had accepted Mintoff’s invitation to serve as Chair of the Royal University of Malta Commission and was subsequently  Chair of the Commission for the Development of Higher Education in Malta, was arguably the most prominent critic of this radical change. This overhaul, however, also had its positive aspects.  It led to the introduction of professional courses linked with the imperatives of industrial development, thus rendering the University less of an “appendix” to the traditional professions (Dahrendorf’s original criticism of the University prior to the reform).

Mintoff was also criticized for the introduction of a half-baked comprehensive school system.  His government, however, had notable achievements in education: the introduction of kindergarten education, the attack on elitism in education, the call for reform of church schools (vindicated by the fact that the reforms called for, amidst acrimonious reactions, were eventually introduced by the Nationalist government as a result of a Church-State agreement in 1989), the government’s contribution, in the 50s  and 70s, to the development of technical and vocational  education, the introduction of salaries for students at sixth form and university levels (via the Worker-Student and Pupil-Worker schemes criticized by Dahrendorf and, according to a parliamentary statement by Mintoff, inspired by the North American cooperative university model).

More generally, there was his relentless drive to take on the establishment (that includes the Catholic Church in its institutionalised form), be it ecclesiastics, medical doctors, and other forces, not to mention his own party in government (1998), when he served as backbencher. With regard to the last point, while he would have claimed that these efforts were noble in that the fiscal crisis was tackled at the expense of ordinary people through tariffs, energy rates, etc., elements of a personality clash and detestation of the then government’s ‘New Labour’ policies  were also evident. Then there is his government’s introduction of equal pay for both sexes (1974), his government’s de-criminalisation of homosexuality and its introduction of a national health service (this included taking health services to the communities via polyclinics).  The list is not exhaustive.

Mintoff considered himself socialist through and through (he even spoke, after his 1976 electoral victory, of the need to create “a socialist generation”) and never shied away from using the word.  And yet, as I indicated, his economic policies suggested an accelerated attempt to usher in a belated capitalist development, as sociologist and political economist Dr. Mario Vella, of Edinburgh Napier University, affirmed. Vella suggests that Mintoff articulated socialist and developmentalist elements into an interpellative discourse aimed at mobilising mass support for what has, in reality, been export-oriented capitalist industrialisation driven by foreign direct investment.

With regard to the Mintoff Labour government’s attempt at modernization, one can detect a somewhat contradictory element in that Mintoff came across as someone who mistrusted modern technology, perhaps fearing its deleterious effect on job creation. Nyerere’s similar distrust comes to mind, even though the contexts concerned were markedly different.

As for taking on the establishment, Mintoff never compromised his principles simply to win elections. His party’s programme for social reform, including civil marriage, separation between church and state, led to his incurring the Church’s wrath in the 60s and specifically the wrath of the ultra conservative Archbishop of the time (who is said to have been nonplussed by Pope John XXIII’s Vatican Council II), the very same archbishop who campaigned against and undermined the integration attempt. An interdiction was thundered by the Maltese Curia and that cost Labour two general elections.  Short term interests were sacrificed for long term gains. Parties fearing to tackle the issue of racism and immigration, because of immediate electoral concerns, can take a leaf out of his book.

Together with fellow Rhodes Scholar Edward De Bono, of ‘lateral thinking’ fame, and USA- based Maltese cartoon journalist, Joe Sacco, Dom Mintoff placed Malta on the map. Love him or hate him, one would be hard-pressed to deny this. Tenor Joseph Calleja might be the other likely Maltese candidate with the credentials to join this exclusive club.  In my estimation, Mintoff is one of the very few Maltese political figures worth writing about for an international readership.

An avid sportsman (he swam almost daily), which on paper satisfied one of the then ‘sexist’ requirements for the Rhodes scholarship, he bore resemblance, with his iron fist control, ‘hair dryer treatment’ rants and reluctance to suffer fools gladly, to the late English soccer manager, Brian Clough, himself an avowed socialist from England’s North-East and Labour Party (UK) member.  Both were cult figures in their respective countries, though in different areas. Had he operated in a much larger milieu, perhaps more befitting, according to some foreign commentators, for a person of his stature, Mintoff would draw comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson, the Glaswegian Labour (UK) supporter, raised near the shipyards at Govan, where his dad and relatives earned their living.  I doubt however whether Mintoff would have accepted such a knighthood as did the Manchester United manager. He certainly turned down proposals for an Honoris Causa being planned for him by the University of Malta, though he accepted the one awarded, in the mid-seventies, by the University of Athens – perhaps out of national interest?

Any Labour Party follower who adulates Mintoff would take pride in reminding one of Lord Carrington’s statement on Michael Parkinson’s popular BBC talk show, namely that Maltese Prime Minister Dom Mintoff was the toughest negotiator he ever came across. Carrington was referring to the agreement Mintoff renegotiated with him, as British Defence Secretary, in 1972, with regard to the lease of the island for the British Mediterranean military base. In the agreement reached on 26 March l972, Mintoff secured one large final financial package, almost trebling the sum, from the original five million sterling p.a., to 14 million sterling p.a.  For this and other matters, not least that of ‘standing up to Britain,’ Mintoff won the admiration of many, including members of the UK working class -  persons of my generation I have come across on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border.

He attracted international coverage for playing ‘big’ politics from the limits of a ‘small’ context but with a view one associates with persons of vision (in his case, it included a Mediterranean vision), namely that of reaching out from the local to the global and returning back to the local. His speech at Helsinki in 1975, concerning peace and security in Europe being contingent on peace in the Mediterranean, earned him accolades in the international press as did his acceptance speech for the honoris causa in Greece.

He might have been despised, in certain international quarters, for being ‘too big for his boots’. One conservative tabloid referred to him, in 1984, as a ‘pocket Napoleon.’ That most conservative of broadsheet papers (The Telegraph) referred to him, in an obituary, as ‘the irascible gadfly of Maltese politics.’  And yet it was this very same paper which, back in late 1977, referred to him as ‘looking very much the elder statesman’ when favourably and reverentially reporting and commenting on his address to British industrialists in London.

On the Maltese front, he was famous for his fiery oratory and his ability to feel the mass audience’s pulse, adapting the tempo accordingly. He would temper his long (not of Castro proportions, though) but never dull speeches with serious affirmations, punctuated by wise-cracks that would have the audience in stitches. The language could be particularly colourful and irreverent at times.   For all the boisterous laughter triggered by his jokes and mimicry (reminiscent of Nyerere), nobody on the platform would be allowed to step out of line.  A stern look and ‘calming down’ hand gesture would be sufficient to bring everyone in tow. Journalists and anthropologists have been fascinated by his handling of large audiences at mass meetings – very much the right setting for the display of his oratorical skills.

Anthropologist, Jeremy Boissevain wrote an evocative account of the way he handled audiences, often serving up a master class in this regard. The House of Representatives was the other stage he helped light up, to the delight of his frontbenchers and backbenchers, sympathetic journalists and supporters in the strangers’ gallery. Ever the populist, Mintoff was the past-master at wooing an audience. And yet he had that uncanny ability to explain some of the most complex economic and foreign policy concepts in simple but never simplistic terms. He would constantly draw on everyday examples that directly connect with people’s framework of relevance.

Schooled in his politics and economics by a range of mentors including anti-fascist Italian socialist emigre, Umberto Calosso (who befriended Gramsci and who spent time teaching in Malta, as did his wife), members of the Fabian society in the UK (this society also inspired Edward De Bono’s socialist mother, Josephine Burns De Bono) and the redoubtable Thomas Balogh at Oxford, Dom Mintoff, from the ‘Tal-Bastjun’ area at Bormla in the Cottonera district of Malta, was indeed larger than life. He had his contradictions: the very same person who first sought integration, an attempt conditioned by the contextual specificity of the time (Mintoff had the habit of publically poking fun at opposing political leaders for the use of such highfalutin language), he eventually championed self-determination tout court. In this regard, he brooked no half measures - no British Governor General; no NATO HQs; no communications sector in British hands; no British military bases on the island….
That very same Maltese district from which he hailed, for long characterised by arguably the most visible presence of the British defence forces on the island, provided the backdrop to his crowning moment of glory on the night of the 31 March 1979 as the British flag was finally lowered (signifying the closure of British bases on the island) -the significant moment captured in a monument that, to my mind, represents the ultimate exercise in poor aesthetic taste.  As for the event itself, one prominent Labour politician and minister suggested that Mintoff could have left the political scene there and then. His place on the plinth of fame, with regard to postcolonial politics, was secured. He did not do so, since he felt there were more social reforms to be introduced. There followed turbulent and unsavoury times for him and his government. However, one other honourable moment beckoned. He was to strive relentlessly, against opposition from within his own party, to change the Constitution to ensure that the perverse electoral result of 1981 (the party with the lowest number of votes in a two-horse race obtained the majority of seats) would not repeat itself. This led to his party losing the elections in 1987 through this very same amendment. A section of the Italian press at the time referred to this development as the ‘suicide amendment’ (‘ammenda suicida’). By then, Mintoff had retired from being PM and had taken a back seat.

But a larger than life personality cannot adapt comfortably to the role of backbencher. He was to roar back by denouncing and later controversially voting against his own government in 1998, ostensibly because of disagreement on a specific regional project but more likely because of his antipathy for the kind of New Labour politics, espoused by the government of the time, and imposition of utility rates, introduced to address the financial deficit – rates which, he and others alleged, hit the poor labouring classes. Later, having definitely retired from parliamentary politics, he campaigned vehemently against Malta’s accession to the European Union, feeling strongly that, among other things, such an accession would undermine the country’s hard earned neutrality status (and was therefore anti-constitutional) and national sovereignty. This is a measure of the man that was Dom Mintoff.

PETER MAYO is Professor in sociology of education and adult education, Department of Education Studies, University of Malta. His books include Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education (Zed Books, 1999), subsequently republished in five languages, Liberating Praxis (Praeger, 2004; Sense, 2008) which won a 2005 Critics Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association, Learning and Social Difference (with Carmel Borg, Paradigm, 2006) and Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interviews (with Carmel Borg, Peter Lang 2007), .Learning with Adults. A Critical pedagogical Introduction to Adult Education (with Leona English, Sense, 2012), Politics of Indignation. Imperialism, Postcolonial Disruptions and Social Change (October, Zer0) Books/John Hunt Publishers nd Echoes from Freire for a Critically Engaged Pedagogy (Continuum, Ocotber, 2012). He is co-series editor of (with Antonia Darder and Anne Hudson) of the Palgrave-Macmillan book series, ‘Postcolonial Studies in Education’ and series editor of Sense book series ‘International Issues in Adult Education’.