Politics as a public service

A life dedicated to serving others, mainly the most vulnerable, is Guze Ellul Mercer's legacy and should still be an inspiration to us who believe in politics as a public service

Guzè Ellul Mercer (second from left) – ‘his vision is still relevant’
Guzè Ellul Mercer (second from left) – ‘his vision is still relevant’

I have read the political writings of many philosophers and politicians living in different eras and holding different worldviews.

But one short article that I discovered over 40 years ago and still resonates with me was written by Maltese author Guzè Ellul Mercer, who wrote some of the best literature with a social conscience that we have in our language. The article is called: ‘Why I am in the Workers’ Party’, and was written in May, 1929. It is very simple and straightforward but very deep and inspiring.

In it Ellul Mercer lays out his vision for the Labour Party, born eight years earlier. His vision is still very relevant. He envisaged a non-sectarian party: very inclusive and made up of a coalition of workers, people in the professions and businesspersons. The values to bring this wide movement together were freedom, justice, dignity, work and education for all. He believed that everyone should have the right to a decent life, irrespective of the social class in which they were born.

Guzè Ellul Mercer was born in Msida in 1897. He was educated at the Gzira elementary school, at Flores College and the Lyceum. During the First World War, he joined the civil service as a clerk, reaching the grade of Chief Clerk by 1950.

He became involved in politics when he was 22, before the establishment of the Labour Party, declaring that politics “is a dirty game, but necessary”. In the article he describes how he joined the committee of the Labour Party Club in Msida in 1924, becoming assistant editor of the Labour newspaper Il Cotra (The Crowd) in 1928 and its editor in 1930. He became president of his local Labour Party club in 1931.

Ellul Mercer says that when he joined the Labour Party, he had no illusions that the Labour Party was going to make perfect humans living in harmony. He says he did not join the Labour Party because of its leader or because he hated the Nationalist Party or because he despised lawyers and people of other professions: he joined the Labour Party because he believed in its values of equality, freedom and education and employment for everyone.

In his 1929 article he explained why he formed part of the Labour Party, because “the party is not built on the foundations of its leader’s skills but on a higher ideal – the belief that he who is born human should live as a human, work as a human and eat as a human being, irrespective of whether he is born to a rich or poor family”.

Ellul Mercer wrote that party leaders and members come and go, but the party and the principles on which it was founded, stand forever if they are good. He added that this was a party for all, a party for the future and above all a party that stands for the elimination of poverty, and for job creation and the promotion of education.

Ellul Mercer stresses that above all, he joined the Labour Party because he saw it as the only party that can guarantee that the people get what they ultimately deserve – a dignified life and an abundance of education. At the time, 86 years ago, Guzè Ellul Mercer wrote that poverty in education was greater than material poverty.

After the Second World War, Ellul Mercer was involved in the drafting by the National Assembly of the new 1947 Maltese self-government constitution. He was one of the main speakers for the Labour Front, made up of the General Workers’ Union and the Labour Party. The main achievements of this Assembly were the return to self-government on 5 September, 1947 and universal suffrage for those aged 21 and over. Before that only literate males with property, a profession and money, had a vote – a tiny minority.

Ellul Mercer unsuccessfully contested the 1950 general elections, but he was elected in a subsequent election in 1951, as well as in the successive two elections, in 1953 and 1955, contesting the seat for the fifth electoral district, made up of Gzira, Msida, Sliema and St Julian’s. Following the electoral victory at the 1955 general elections, then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff chose Ellul Mercer as Minister for Public Works and Reconstruction. On 9 March, 1955, Ellul Mercer was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party following Joseph Flores’ resignation, who became speaker of the Assemblea Legislattiva.

On New Year’s Eve 1956, as deputy prime minister, he broadcast the traditional message of greetings to the Maltese people. Ellul Mercer stated that the Maltese can look both to their future and their past with satisfaction, and that the country had managed to close the first, and most difficult phase, of the post-war reorganisation of its social and economic life. This would ensure the security, education and better living conditions for the whole Maltese islands.

For the first time in Maltese history, children were to be provided with full-time education, which became free. Technical education was introduced, with unskilled adults receiving training. Ellul Mercer said that the country’s industrial progress would be ensured, with an improved Grand Harbour, a secured adequate water supply and afforestation plans. Ellul Mercer closed his speech by referring to the proposed integration of Malta with the United Kingdom.

As Minister for Public Works and Reconstruction between March 1955 and April 1958, Ellul Mercer completed a number of projects, such as the widening and reconstruction of traffic links at Portes des Bombes, Floriana, and the reclamation of land leading to improved linkages and road-infrastructure in Msida. He was also instrumental for the extension and construction of schools. By March 1957, 18 schools were built, with extensions constructed in many others. Eleven new schools were planned for in 1957, with the extension of the Zebbug school, and a new girls’s secondary school in Blata l-Bajda.

Ellul Mercer saw that his vision laid out in 1929 had been turned into a practical programme improving the lives of many people. Guzè Ellul Mercer died in 1961, during the political-religious conflict between the Labour Party and the Maltese church, when to be a Labour politician, to vote Labour, to read Labour newspapers was a mortal sin and you deserved eternal damnation.

As a member of the Labour Party executive, Ellul Mercer was interdicted by the church, so was not allowed to be buried in the sacred grounds of the Addolorata Cemetery. He was buried in the area known as “the Dump” ‘Il-Mizbla’, where rubbish was discarded. A life dedicated to serving others, mainly the most vulnerable members of our society, is his legacy and should still be an inspiration to all of us who still believe in politics as a public service.

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