Questions about Malta’s Independence, 52 years later

In most areas of identity, the questions remain wide open

22 September 2016, 8:47am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Fifty-two years is not a long time by the reckoning of history. Nor even by the standards of an ordinary human lifespan.

Yet within that modest time, Malta has experienced rapid and dramatic change. 52 years ago, the greatest challenges facing our country included creating and strengthening our identity as a politically and economically independent nation. No small task, at a time when British presence in the Dockyard – Malta’s largest employer by far – was about to be wound down, and the post-war housing crisis was in full swing. 

Inevitably, in the social and political climate of the 1960s, the questions asked about Independence were bound to differ from our own questions today. One question on people’s lips at the time was whether such a small island could even survive as a sovereign state, without the benefit of a ‘parent’ country to provide a safety net. 

None asked it more frequently and with greater anxiety than the people who first led independent Malta after 1964: in particular, George Borg Olivier and Dom Mintoff, both of whom agonised over ways to transform the country’s economy in the face of unthinkable odds.

That Malta has not only survived its initial challenges, but also made great strides forward in many aspects since then, attests to one of the undeniable attributes of both those Prime Ministers (as well as, arguably, of the country as a whole): resourcefulness. Truth be told, Malta in 1964 and Malta in 2016 could almost be two different countries. Institutions have been created, new industries such as tourism and financial services have taken root and flourished, and the infrastructural changes are too many to mention. 

Most – though significantly not all – of these changes were for the better. There is no comparison between the standard of living enjoyed today, and that which prevailed in 1964. But all this progress has come at a cost which our ancestors would probably never have imagined, either. 

Sadly, the face of our island is for another reason unrecognisable to anyone who remembers pre-independence Malta. The urban sprawl we have witnessed in recent decades is in itself the fruit of policies that were needed in the 1960s, but are questionable today. Housing was urgently required in the immediate aftermath of independence, and the construction and development sector has since become necessary to sustain an unprecedented growth curve – both population and economic. 

And yet, land use is probably the greatest single challenge facing the smallest country in the EU. Safeguarding what is left of the countryside should surely be a top priority for our political class. However, planning policies in the last 30 years have led to the slow death of our countryside, as time and again we have proved incapable of diversifying our economic model enough.

To put the matter succinctly: times have changed since 1964… yet our answers to Malta’s economic and employment challenges have remained exactly the same. 

There is an irony in this: the forefathers of Independent Malta managed to found a successful state precisely because they understood that the motor of the economy had to change gear. For practical reasons – but also as a matter of political direction and vision – we had to discover or create new industries and wealth-generation nodes.

Such farsightedness sadly seems to be a thing of the past. If ingenuity and resourcefulness were the qualities that led Malta out of the doldrums, they are rarely seen 52 years later.  

But there are other questions about Independence that are as relevant today as they were half a century ago. What does it mean to be Maltese? What is our identity as a nation?

In most areas, these questions remain wide open. Language is clearly a key factor in our cultural identity; and despite concerns with the quality of the spoken and written language, few can deny that Maltese has successfully been kept alive and kicking. 

But part of the social change we have witnessed involves an ever-growing ex-patriate community, not to mention vast cultural changes brought up about the mobility associated with EU membership. Clearly, language alone cannot be the determining factor.

Early efforts to make Roman Catholicism the mainstay of our cultural identity were doomed to fail for the same reason. None would dispute the enormous influence religion has wielded – for better or worse – but Maltese society is now too pluralistic and variegated to be comfortably accommodated in such a limited bracket.

As with the economic situation, new realities call for a new way of doing things. The old stereotypes and assumptions are no longer sustainable. Just like in 2016, we must once again ask ourselves what sort of country we want. 

It is on this point that all issues converge. When steering the country’s economic direction, do we ask ourselves whether we really want to turn Malta into a never-ending building site? Do we question the wisdom of courting the global perception of a tax haven? Do we want to become yet another Dubai or Singapore… or do we want to create or strengthen what is more authentic?

What, in brief, is our vision? 52 years after Independence, we seem to be no nearer to an answer.