All hail the new colonialism…

If Repubblika’s proposal were to actually be acted upon… it would only illustrate the sheer extent to which the scars of our Colonial experience have never really healed

Repubblika president Robert Aquilina
Repubblika president Robert Aquilina

“I’m currently looking into the loss of self-government in 1933. Before aborting it, the British governor told the Maltese ministers that it was not enough to abide by the letter of the constitution. They had to abide by its spirit. Some things never change…”

In case you were wondering, those words are not my own. They were posted on Facebook – significantly, last Thursday: the day after Malta’s greylisting – by Prof. Dominic Fenech: historian, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

And I thought I’d clarify that in advance, because: a) I am not exactly ‘looking into the loss of self-government in 1933’, myself; and; b) unlike Prof. Fenech, I have not dedicated an entire lifetime to the study of Malta’s long march towards self-determination, either.

Nonetheless: I have read a thing or two about the subject… including, as it happens, Fenech’s own contribution: ‘Endemic Democracy: Responsibility and Power in Interwar Malta’, among others. And in any case: the legacy of that era can still be palpably felt, in… oh, so many ways. At a certain level, you almost don’t need to be aware that Malta even had a Colonialist past at all: it is something we still live and breathe, knowingly or unknowingly, each and every day of our lives….

So I feel more or less entitled to embroider that little quote with an interpretation of my own. And I stress ‘of my own’, because… well, it may coincide with the point Fenech himself intended to make all along – in which case, so much the better – but then again, it may not….

… in which case, I suppose Arnold Cassola could always report me to the ‘Commissioner for Standards in Historiographical Assessment of Facebook Status Updates’ (if nothing else, that way at least he’d be giving George Hyzler a little break…)

But now that the necessary disclaimer is out of the way: without further ado, onto the interpretation itself.

For what it’s worth, my own (admittedly simplistic) understanding of Malta’s Colonial experience was that the entire system was designed – by the ‘Colonisers’, naturally – to be able to ‘short-circuit’ the democratic process, at any given moment.

Yes, Malta had ‘Responsible Self-Government’ since 1921: but between then and 1964 (or arguably even later), Malta’s ‘responsible self-governments’ were not actually ‘responsible’ for such things as… um… ‘The Exchequer’, for starters; or (even less so) anything related to ‘Defence’… a category which, at the time, just happened to also include the Dockyard: basically, the mainstay of virtually all employment on the island.

From the outset, then, those ‘responsible governments’ were firmly strapped to a life-support mechanism controlled entirely by the British… who could ‘pull the plug’ at pretty much any time they chose.

And in any case: their very existence still depended on a Constitution drawn up for ‘our’ benefit by the same British government… on the proviso that it could always be ‘withdrawn’ (or ‘aborted’) at the mere whim of any old Colonial Governor.

And… well, that sort of thing happened quite a lot, you know.  In terms of ‘aborted Constitutions’, there were actually four: the ‘Amery-Milner Constitution’ (the one alluded to by Fenech), which was suspended in 1933; the 1939 ‘MacDonald (I kid you not) Constitution’, which lasted until 1947; its replacement, the ‘MacMichael Constitution’; which would in turn be replaced by the short-lived (and aptly-named) ‘Blood’ Constitution of 1961… culminating in the Independence Constitution we still have today (i.e., the only post-Colonial – and therefore, stable - one of the lot).

But there were other ways, also embedded into that Colonial system, whereby democracy could very easily be circumvented: like, for instance, when the Colonial Government availed of the outbreak of World War II to first intern, and later deport to Uganda, the entire Nationalist Party executive (a point so sore, that some PN old-timers still occasionally moan about it to this day…)

And you can rest assured that, lurking behind each and every one of those decisions, there would have been intense lobbying on the part of Maltese ‘special interest groups’ – in, and out of politics – who somehow stood to gain by the democratic deficit.

Sometimes, this happened very literally: such as in 1942, when the Constitutional Party lobbied so hard to get the Nationalists deported, that then Prime Minister (and PN leader) Sir Ugo Mifsud even suffered a heart-attack while trying to resist it in Parliament… only to die a few days later.

But there were more powers at work behind the scenes than just the British; and in some cases, the balance of power worked the other way around, too. So when Archbishop Maurus Caruana excommunicated Constitutional Party founder Lord Strickland in (I think) around 1930… the latter’s response was to travel to Rome, to try and intercede directly with the Pope himself.

And while he didn’t actually succeed…. Strickland did, at least, illustrate one of the fundamental principles of any self-respecting Colonialist system: there is always a ‘double hierarchy of power’ at work behind the scenes – the local, and the foreign: both of which have complex internal hierarchies of their own – and if you can’t get what you want from any part of one of those ‘chains of command’… there is always another, over-arching chain to try your luck with instead.

The bottom line, then, was that ‘democracy’ (at least, in the eyes of those upon whom it was impo… sorry, ‘conferred’) comes to be seen as a process that can always be ‘short-circuited’, one way or another.

Like the Nationalist and Constitutional Parties of the interwar years (and, later, the post-war Nationalist and Labour Parties), this could be done either by engineering the suspension of the Constitution of the day – as a rule, on the basis of some (equally engineered) national ’crisis’ or other - or else, by simply by getting your opponents ‘eliminated’ altogether by the Colonial powers-that-be…

… all of which could be achieved through carefully planted ‘loopholes’ in the system: all designed – like the system as a whole – to ultimately benefit the Colonisers, at the expense of the Colonised…

And… Ok, I’m not expecting to be conferred any Honoris Causa degrees, for pointing all that out: it is, after all, a reflection of the same old ‘Divide and Rule’ technique that proved so extraordinarily successful throughout the rest of the British Empire (and worked quite well for the Romans, too…)

Nor do I particularly blame the Maltese politicians of the time, for falling so naturally and unsuspectingly into that particular trap. It is, I suppose, an inevitable consequence of having one dominant political force, imposing itself on all others through sheer force of its own ‘superiority’.

Under those circumstances, your very survival depends on the ability to successfully negotiate a complex network of (often competing) power-structures …

The only other alternative was violent resistance; and it’s only fair to point out that Malta’s prospects of victory, in a ‘War of Independence’ against Great Britain, would not have looked particularly good in 1933 (when we had no direct control of Defence, remember? Today, perhaps, it would be a different story…)

Ah… but that’s the thing about Colonialism, isn’t it? It is supposed to be a ’different story’ today… in a great many other ways, too. We did, after all, achieve Independence from Great Britain in 1964. The Maltese flag did go up; and the British flag did come down… and there are photos to prove it.

And yet… well, I suspect that’s what Prof. Fenech partially meant with that status update of his. For not only did it come one day after yet another ‘dominant international force’ decided to flex its muscles upon Malta - a fact which, in itself, neatly divided Malta’s political establishments into two opposing camps: both equally eager to exploit the situation to their own advantage, as best they can…

…but also just a few days before the NGO Repubblika came out with its extraordinary suggestion: i.e., to simply replace the current, democratically-elected government of Malta, with an interim administration of technocrat appointees… tasked precisely with ‘removing Malta from the grey-list’…

Never mind, of course, that there isn’t even the Constitutional infrastructure in place for that to even happen legally (last I looked, the President’s powers to appoint ‘emergency governments’ only kick in once a government has, de facto, already ‘collapsed’… and there is no existing provision for ‘technocrat ministers,’ either…)

… no, the problem is that the proposal itself takes us almost directly back to the outbreak of World War Two. The FATF’s verdict is a crisis, yes… (albeit, let’s face it, hardly on the scale of global warfare)… and it is also very much a crisis that was imposed upon our country, by an international political force over which we have no control whatsoever…

… but that also makes it a ‘crisis’ that can be exploited, to achieve the very political result that the democratic system itself has not so far permitted; and doesn’t look very likely to permit in the near future, either.

In other words, the ‘total elimination’ of the present government…

And OK: unlike Enrico Mizzi, Robert Abela would not exactly be ‘deported to Uganda’. (Or at least, I doubt it: but you never know, the FTAF might actually have the power to do that, if it so chooses)… but still.

If Repubblika’s proposal were to actually be acted upon… it would only illustrate the sheer extent to which the scars of our Colonial experience have never really healed. And while I somehow doubt that was the full point Prof. Fenech was really trying to make… it emerges all the same: even if just from his closing remark.

Some things never change…