Dom Mintoff: Pugnacious Prime Minister of Malta who fought for liberation from British colonial rule

 

Modern Malta is perhaps best known for three things: the resistance in the Second World War which earned the island a collective George Cross; the storm-tossed US-Soviet summit of December 1989 at which George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War was over; and, lastly, Dom Mintoff.

Clever and quarrelsome, driven and cussed, Mintoff was by far Malta's most important politician of the 20th century. He made a career fighting the island's two historically dominant forces, British colonial rule and Malta's profoundly conservative Roman Catholic Church. The island of his birth in 1916 was a barren garrison colony with a British military governor. The one bequeathed to his successor when he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1984 was an independent, non-aligned and vibrant state, generating attention out of all proportion to its size.

One of the nine children of a local cook employed by the Royal Navy, Mintoff was heavily influenced by the Church in his early years, studying for a while at a seminary, while one brother became a priest, and one of his sisters a nun. But after graduating in engineering and science at the University of Malta, he himself went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. There, he took another science degree, and for much of the Second World War worked as a civil engineer on loan to the British War Office.

During this period, he got to know radicals like Hugh Dalton, Dick Crossman and Nye Bevan, with far-reaching consequences. Not only would Mintoff join the Labour Party, he could not fail to appreciate the gulf between the heady socialist ideals of the British party – on the eve of its watershed 1945 election victory – and the abject reality of Malta's colonial status.

A year before war's end, Mintoff returned to help rebuild his devastated island. He also entered politics, making a swift and typically tempestuous ascent through the ranks of the Maltese Labour Party. By 1949, he was deputy Prime Minister, only to resign in protest at what he saw as the government's failure to demand adequate reconstruction aid from Britain.

By 1955 however, Labour was back in power, this time with Mintoff as Prime Minister, who made a startling demand – not for independence, but for a total merger with Britain that would see Maltese MPs at Westminster and full, unrestricted British citizenship for every inhabitant of the island. Terrified of the precedent that would be set for other, vastly more populous colonies, London said no, and in 1958 Mintoff resigned again. The riots that followed prompted the MacMillan government to scrap the limited autonomy granted in 1947, and re-impose direct colonial rule.

That move banished Mintoff's remaining doubts about the need for independence and thoroughgoing social reform. Though back in the political wilderness, he joined battle with Britain and with the Church, which he regarded as a barrier to change. Relations deteriorated to the point where Mintoff was denied the sacraments, and the opposition organised by Archbishop Michael Gonzi was instrumental in his defeats in the elections of 1962 and 1966.

In Britain, however, he kept his old friends. In February 1970 Dick Crossman, by then Lord President of the Council, took him to dinner at the Garrick Club, where afterwards, as a clearly intrigued Crossman recounted in his diaries, "Dom was collected by three shady looking figures. He is a little party power boss, powerful, shrewd, intensely intellectual. He is part of the Malta Mafia."

But not until he had made a fragile peace with the Maltese Church did Mintoff finally succeed in returning to power. Even then, his victory in June 1971 over his old rival Borg Olivier, the leader of the conservative Nationalist Party, was by a hairsbreadth. Had three votes in a single seat gone against him, he would have been defeated.

Edward Heath's Government found him even more of a handful than MacMillan's had 13 years before. Though Malta had finally won independence in 1964, it remained an appendage of Britain, using British currency and with the infant Maltese army under de facto British control. Mintoff, in his incarnation as scourge of empire, set about changing things with a vengeance.

The first step was the expulsion of the Italian commander of the island's Nato base. Next, he ended docking privileges for the American Sixth Fleet, costing Malta's exchequer $80m a year in the process. But some of that was recouped with a new bases agreement with the British – only for that deal to fall foul of demands by Mintoff for extra compensation after the end of the old sterling area in 1972.

His negotiating tactics, exploiting his country's strategic geographic position, drove Britain and Nato to distraction. He visited Colonel Gaddafi's Libya half a dozen times in his first two years in office, prompting Italy to pledge $95m in loans and grants on top of a military assistance deal, should a non-aligned Malta come under attack. China coughed up $40m while the Soviet Union, not to be outbid, signed a lucrative fuel-storage agreement. In 1974 Malta threw off a century and a half of allegiance to the crown to become a republic within the Commonwealth.

Mintoff revelled in the iconoclast's role, lecturing his way around the world, preaching non-alignment and pushing his goal of a weapons-free Mediterranean. He worked ceaselessly – 16-hour days were common – and when needed ruthlessly, to overcome his enemies. But not only was Malta at last free of foreign domination; there was the added schadenfreude from the irritation he caused in Britain. The last British troops pulled out of Malta in 1979, but Mintoff's squabbles with things British continued; at one point, the British press was banned from the island in protest at what he deemed its slanted coverage.

After his final election victory in 1981, he returned his attentions to his other old foe, the Church. The two clashed over medical reform, when Mintoff closed the island's two church-run hospitals as part of his campaign against private medicine, and then over education, when the Government closed 70 Catholic fee-paying schools under Labour's plan to introduce free and equal education for all. In the end, an uneasy standoff was reached.

On 22 December 1984, Mintoff finally carried out his longstanding intention of resigning. But he stayed active in Parliament, only quitting as an MP in 1998, but not before he had helped bring down the government of Alfred Sant, widely seen as "old" Labour's revenge over the modernising pro-European party. In vain did Mintoff oppose Malta's accession to the EU in 2004, and its entry into the Eurozone in 2004.

His foes were only too happy to see the back of a man they regarded as a scheming bully with totalitarian tendencies. His allies as well often found Mintoff quite maddening: impatient, self-centred, and domineering. But indubitably he was a patriot, who more than any other individual, and largely by the force of his own personality, was responsible for the independent Malta of today.

Rupert Cornwell

Dominic 'Dom' Mintoff, Maltese politician: born Bormla, Malta 16 August 1916; married 1947 Moyra de Vere Bentick (deceased, two daughters); Leader of Malta Labour Party 1949-84, Prime Minister 1955-1958, Leader of Opposition 1962-1971, Prime Minister 1971-1984; died Tarxien, Malta August 20 2012.

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