The triumph of a strong charismatic leader with an authoritarian streak over the lethargic but gentlemanly George Borg Olivier in 1971 changed the character of Maltese politics
Surely in 1971 Malta had been spared the fate of becoming a banana republic in which a weak political leadership left the country at the mercy of an insufficiently evolved market economy, and where real estate, rather than industry, was regarded as the ultimate investment.
However, under Labour Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, Malta started drifting towards authoritarian rule, where checks and balances became luxuries and the state assumed the role of a largely absent capitalist class.
From 1971, Mintoff cultivated a personality cult immortalised by the “Viva s-Salvatur” battle cry. Mintoff’s personality cult was only matched by Eddie Fenech Adami’s growing stature following his investiture as party leader in 1977. As Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain observed, Labour supporters not only identified themselves as Mintoffjani but even copied his style of dress, wearing large belt-buckles.
By preaching that “everyone who is not with us is against us,” Mintoff widened the gulf separating the MLP from those sectors of society alienated by his warlike rhetoric.
Addressing a meeting in 1976 Mintoff underlied the exclusive working class identity of his party.
“In every place he visits Borg Olivier says: we are everybody’s party and when we will be in government we will be everybody’s government. And I tell him that we are not everybody’s party and we are not everybody’s government. We are not a government of thieves, whoever steals votes against us… We are a working class government”.
By so doing he gave the PN the chance to transform itself into a national movement representing a coalition of different and contrasting interests. Yet it took a decade for the PN to recover from two consecutive defeats in 1971 and 1976, giving Mintoff enough time to change the face of the country by giving it a much needed dose of modernisation.
Unfortunately, Mintoff’s medicine was contaminated by a lethal cocktail of cronyism, violence and big daddy politics which retarded the evolution of a vibrant civil society which was only to emerge in the aftermath of EU accession in 2003. Boissevain notes that Mintoff behaved “like the traditional Maltese father – aloof, mainly harsh and looked after his own. The authoritarian figure was familiar to all Maltese. Most of them had grown up in and formed part of families dominated by such fathers.”
He had enough self-confidence to face dockyard workers, insult them and receive an applause in return. In 1973, Mintoff told the loss-making Dockyard workers that they “had no balls” – a very powerful offence in a country dominated by Mediterranean machismo. On that occasion he ditched his typical casual attire by putting on a dark suit, white shirt and tie, “emphasising his distance from the workers” and amplifying “the seriousness of his message”.
Mintoff resorted to parables in explaining the new gospel of Maltese socialism. In one of his speeches he compared the state to the sun, the capitalist class to the sea, the welfare state to the rain and the workers to plants. Like the sun which takes some water from the sea by turning it in to rain, the socialist state taxes the wealth of the rich to help the workers. By effectively modelling his speeches on the Christian parable, Mintoff was able to mould the common sense of the people.
His ability to change the mentality of an entire nation can be measured by the epochal changes taking place in the opposition party. In the next decade even the Nationalist Party was to move to the political centre by ditching any suggestion of doing away with national insurance (the bolla balla) and income tax after the 1976 election debacle. The new PN leader knew that his party needed the support of the workers to become electable.
“I cannot but think of the workers and I tell them that our heart is with you. We don’t use you for our ends but we work for you. For us your interests come first and foremost,” declared Eddie Fenech Adami after his investiture as party leader in 1977. Under Fenech Adami, the welfare state, income tax and the state’s role to redistribute wealth from the haves to the have-nots became part of the PN’s ethos.
Despite relying on a one-seat majority in parliament after being elected in 1971, Mintoff was able to change the face of the country. Immediately after being elected he was able to re-negotiate a much more favourable agreement with Great Britain securing for the country precious aid from the former coloniser.
While Nationalist prime minister Gorg Borg Olivier only managed to snatch Lm9 million in foreign aid following independence, Dom Mintoff managed to squeeze Lm129 million from foreign powers. Mintoff not only managed to make the British pay dearly for the use of the military base prior to 1979, but also diversified Malta’s foreign aid by getting Lm2 million from Libya in 1972 and Lm6 million from oil-rich Kuwait, Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the aftermath of 1979.
In 1974 Malta ditched the British monarchy and became a republic. Like post-war Italy, Malta was declared a republic based on work. Borg Olivier voted against the republic, but most of his MPs rebelled by voting in favour.
Mintoff also managed to liberalise the stronghold of the Church on Maltese society by introducing civil marriage in 1975 and by legalising homosexuality by removing the laws against sodomy. Even the contraceptive pill reached the Maltese shores for the first time in the 1970s.
With the Nationalist Party still in disarray after two consecutive defeats in 1971 and 1976, the General Workers Union was the only force which could set limits to Mintoff’s power. The GWU was traditionally very close to the MLP, to the extent that the MLP’s 1971 manifesto was co-authored by the MLP and the GWU. Joe Attard Kingswell – the GWU’s secretary-general from 1958 till 1976 – resisted Mintoff’s attempts to turn the union from friend to vassal.
Attard Kingswell was eventually ousted from the union and replaced by the more loyal George Agius, who presided over the statutory merger of union and party. Through the merger, the GWU exchanged autonomy for a cabinet post.
Vilified by Mintoff, Attard Kingswell was to return to the political life of the country serving as Eddie Fenech Adami’s advisor on the dockyard after 1987.
Another of the outspoken critics of the merger, Lino Briguglio, was expelled from the party for opposing the merger. Writing in 1978 on l-Invell, Lino Briguglio observed that effective control over the General Workers’ Union was essential to implement an industrial policy based on the need for wages to be kept as low as possible, and on the need to control industrial conflict.
During the Labour era between 1971 and 1987, Malta’s economy was effectively transformed from one depending on military expenditure to an export-driven economy where manufacturing and tourism were the major earners of foreign currency.
The manufacturing industry, particularly in the textile, clothing and machinery sectors, rose from 17 per cent of GDP in the early 1960s to 33 per cent in the late 1970s.
According to sociologist Michael Briguglio, Mintoff’s “old Labour” administrations emphasised the state’s role within the economy, thus carrying out various nationalisations and setting up a number of state-owned enterprises. Malta’s Development Plan 1973-80 emphasised the need to attract foreign, industrial, export-oriented investment, which would benefit from a disciplined workforce and “very competitive local wage levels”. One major foreign company to invest in Malta under Old Labour was SGS-Thompson.
Import substitution, bulk-buying and wage/price freezes were resorted to, so as to ensure cheap prices as well as economic viability of local industry. Briguglio observes that by the end of Old Labour rule, “the Maltese people enjoyed a much higher standard of living than that of their previous generations but at the same time they faced a situation wherein their materialist and post-materialist aspirations could not be met due to the lack of economic freedoms.”
Mintoff’s greatest shortcoming was his failure to enact the checks and balances on state power proposed in the party’s 1971 electoral manifesto. The party’s pledge to introduce an ombudsman was forgotten and the promise to give citizens the right of petition the European Court of Justice was only implemented on the eve of the 1987 election. Instead of strengthening accountability and the rule of law as promised in 1971, Mintoff gave himself and MLP supporters a free ride to trample on democratic safeguards. The association between the party and criminal and violent elements tarnished the MLP’s democratic credentials.
On October 15, 1979, the offices and printing rooms of Progress Press, publisher of The Times of Malta, were ransacked and set on fire during a spontaneous political rally by Labour Party supporters following allegations of a failed attempt on Prime Minister Dom Mintoff’s life in his offices at the Auberge de Castile, Valletta. The allegations were never proven, and are generally believed to be unfounded. Believing that the Nationalist Party had some responsibility for the alleged attempt on the prime minister’s life, Labour Party supporters invaded the private residence of Eddie Fenech Adami, ransacking his home and assaulting his wife, Mary, his five children and his elderly mother.
In both incidents the police failed to intervene. The incident gave the new opposition leader his political baptism of fire. From then on, he was portrayed by the party as a father figure able to deliver the people from misrule to a promised land where political and economic freedoms co-existed with a firmly ingrained welfare state.
Rising discontent with the prevailing political climate and the government’s restrictive economic measures undermined the MLP’s hold on Maltese society. People had more money but they could only find Desserta chocolate bars and Chinese luncheon meat on the grocery shelves.
In the meantime, the Nationalist opposition, with its battle cry of work, justice, and liberty, managed to create a winning coalition led by the charismatic Eddie Fenech Adami. It was the beginning of a brand new era.
Once again the success of Eddie Fenech Adami’s ability to mould a new effective political discourse can be measured by the transformation of Labour after Alfred Sant took over as party leader from Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici. As the middle class became the ascendant class, the MLP realised that it could only win by winning over this new constituency by looking beyond its working class roots.
Ironically, upon being elected in 1996, Sant like Mintoff in 1971, had to rely on a one-seat majority. But this time round the crucial seat was occupied by a restless Dom Mintoff himself. After denying Sant of his parliamentary majority on the development of a yacht marina in Cottonera, Sant had no choice but to call for an early election. Just as Mintoff had rebelled against party leader Boffa in 1948, 50 years later Sant was to call Mintoff a traitor.
Like Mintoff in 1958, Sant was unable to complete the legislature. Like Mintoff in 1962 and 1966, Sant was to lose two consecutive elections in 1998 and 2003. Like Eddie Fenech Adami in 1987, Sant now confronts a leader anointed by his predecessor. Both Lawrence Gonzi and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici stubbornly refused to change any of the old guard ministers.
If Sant manages to win the next election and usher a decade of Labour Party dominance, he would have emulated the feats of the two political giants of contemporary Maltese political history.
But there is one big difference between 1971 and 1987: Malta is now firmly entrenched in the European Union and the days of absolute power are gone for good.