Fifty years young

Today there are practically no differences between the PN and Labour on Malta’s status as a valid EU member, on foreign policy, on the importance of creating productive jobs in a social liberal economy and on the vital part that our education system plays in this goal

'Joseph Muscat went as far as to describe Labour’s resistance to acknowledge the importance of the enormous constitutional achievement of 1964 as ‘past nonsense’ that Labour supporters should put aside.'
'Joseph Muscat went as far as to describe Labour’s resistance to acknowledge the importance of the enormous constitutional achievement of 1964 as ‘past nonsense’ that Labour supporters should put aside.'

Fifty years does sound as if it is a long time, especially for those who were not even born 50 years ago. No such luck for me, though! On the other hand, for someone like me, this year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Malta’s independence brings back a flood of memories.

Malta’s adventure into statehood has been an unqualified success – not that the many mistakes made could not have been avoided, but because we are where we are in spite of these mistakes.

This adventure was born of the realisation that whatever they do, Maltese political leaders will always take decisions in Malta’s interests – or in what they perceive to be Malta’s interests – rather than having important decisions affecting Malta in so many ways being taken by a foreign country in the interests of that foreign country. It was born of the determination to overcome the immense difficulties ahead: the conscious transition of our economy so that the country no longer depended on British Forces spending that, in turn, depended on the whims and decisions of the British Exchequer.

Those who opposed independence in 1964 were worried about the lack of financial security and insisted that this was a step in the dark as Malta could not survive without the income from British services spending, little realising that this income would one day stop, in any case. Britain’s defence budget was never aimed at sustaining Malta’s economy and therefore the ‘security’ that those who opposed independence spoke about was an illusion.

When George Borg Olivier made his formal request for Malta’s independence 50 years ago, he insisted that things would be better off if all decisions affecting Malta are made by the Maltese in the sole interest of Malta. Today we can say that he has been proved right. All the scare-mongering about the value of our currency, about the impossibility of providing so many jobs, about the improbability of raising our standard of living, of not succeeding as a small island nation proved to be unjustified.

In 1963, Austrian born economist Wolfgang F. Stolper, a United Nations economic advisor, had concluded that the ‘multiplier effect’ of the British services rundown ‘could only be counter-balanced by a major injection of capital investment in manufacturing industry, tourism, and to a lesser extent in agriculture.’ In what became known as the ‘Stolper report’, he recommended that emigration had to be stepped up substantially and predicted that per capita income would have to fall as Malta’s absorptive capacity could not be expanded beyond what had been achieved during the previous five years. Going by this report, Malta’s economic future as an independent state was indeed bleak.

Malta moved ahead defying those grim predictions and, against all odds, succeeded to do what was considered to be impossible. It moved on, becoming a republic in 1974, seeing the end of the British presence in 1979 and becoming a fully fledged EU member in 2004. Malta is now a normal European country where people agree to differ and respect each other for it, where they exercise their right to change their government as they wish, without fear or favour.

Today there are practically no differences between the PN and Labour on Malta’s status as a valid EU member, on foreign policy, on the importance of creating productive jobs in a social liberal economy and on the vital part that our education system plays in this goal.

On the way there were many pitfalls, of course. Mintoff’s attempts to change the way of doing things by an emphasis on state-owned industries that were destined to fail before they were born; by limiting opportunities in tertiary education; and by imposing a ‘siege economy’ apparently oblivious of what was happening elsewhere in the world; are today acknowledged by everybody as having been completely in the wrong direction and the current Labour administration would have none of this.

Indeed last Sunday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat went as far as to describe Labour’s resistance to acknowledge the importance of the enormous constitutional achievement of 1964 as ‘past nonsense’ that Labour supporters should put aside. In spite of the surprising way in which Muscat sometimes takes many controversial decisions, this break from the pointless piques of the past should be welcome.

I have gone on record to state that the efforts of the post-1987 PN governments to bring about the much heralded ‘national reconciliation’ failed in practice, even though the situation became less polarised than it was in the times of the 1971-1987 Labour administrations. Have we now arrived at the point where we are really – once and for all - out of the partisan rut?

It takes two to tango, of course: both sides of the divide must agree that they want the country to get out of the partisan rut and not just pay lip service to the notion. Have both sides come to terms with the past and accepted what has happened – irrespective of who is, and who is not, individually or collectively guilty?

We cannot have politicians who keep denying the past and pretend that the wrongdoings of yesteryear have never happened. One hopes that the younger post-independence generations, to which both Joseph Muscat and Simon Busuttil belong, will succeed in helping the country to overcome this attitude. If they succeed, Malta would be eternally grateful to them.

I would like to think that, finally, Malta has come of age: a mature European state with a vibrant democracy where political differences are no longer tantamount to being the unbridgeable chasm they were in the past. Core supporters of the two main political parties remain and it is important that they do so as they are the motors, the impellors, behind the thrust that political parties need to move ahead. Competition is healthy and even fruitful, more so when it is without venom and hatred. Those who think that all that the ‘other party’ does is wrong, while whatever ‘our party’ does must be right, still exist, of course. One hopes they are a dying breed.

Fifty years ago, Malta looked at its future with trepidation, aware of the enormous difficulties ahead, while being plagued with excessive partisan pique and not knowing where the new adventure of statehood was going to lead us. Today Malta looks at its future with much more confidence: we know where we stand on most issues and acknowledge that we can even build further on our success while doing our best to avoid the mistakes that we foolishly rushed into in the past.

Malta is 50 years young and its future is bright.

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