Love and hate: the Brits and us

Today Malta is a successful EU member state providing the livelihood of some 40,000 foreign workers. Who would have believed this way back in September 1964?

With nearly 55 years gone since Malta became independent, this may be a good time to sketch a realistic assessment of the relationship of this small island state and Great Britain.

Some say the British presence was the best thing that happened; others – like me – believe that it was a love and hate relationship.

For starters, one has to keep in mind that Malta was not one of those colonies where the exploitation of the resources was the main objective of the colonialist. All the British were interested in was the military advantage Malta gave them: the naval base.

Nothing new, really. With the arrival of the Knights of St John in 1530, Malta no longer remained a typical Mediterranean island, inhabited by 20,000 odd farmers and fishermen and a few pirates. By the time the Knights left, Malta had a population of 100,000, with relatively few farmers and fishermen though the piracy vocation continued to prosper. Being mercenaries was very much the only thing the Maltese could do well. Luckily, very often the interests of the Maltese and those of what some called ‘our mother country’ coincided.   

The British employed a large number of Maltese and were generally fair and benign, but nevertheless, a dictatorship

Most historians agree, rather appropriately, that it started with a plea from Lady Hamilton to her lover Lord Nelson – made on behalf of Catherine, Queen of the Kingdom of Naples – to go to the aid of the Maltese who, egged on by their prelates, had revolted against the French.

Lady Hamilton was the youngish wife of Lord Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples, and she knew Catherine well – some say very well. One can never be sure of this romantic background, but the first British troops that landed in Malta came on behalf of the King of Naples, to whom Malta was to revert should the Knights ever have to leave.

Actually, Malta became part of the British Empire 14 years later. The deal was simple, pragmatic but rather unholy. The British allowed the Catholic Church and its parish priests to run the country with an iron fist, and the Bishop allowed the protestant British to use the naval base as they pleased.

The British employed a large number of Maltese and were generally fair and benign, but nevertheless, a dictatorship. “Would you give a constitution to a battleship?” asked Lord Wellington when he was reminded of the political promises made to the Maltese.

After the opening of the Suez Canal Malta prospered even more and by 1950 the Maltese population was well in excess of 350,000.

Yet the typical arrogance of the colonialist was always lurking behind the scenes. To a large extent, they practised a pink apartheid that, perhaps, suited both sides, particularly the medieval Church that had to contend with a more liberal British community giving a rather bad example to its flock.

The British just pursued an unholy alliance with the local Catholic Church. They understood well where the real power was.

They were happy to let the Maltese play with their fireworks, festas and bandclubs as long as these did not interfere with their military intrerests. Sometimes, they even joined our Catholic fun, as the names of The King’s Own or Duke of Connaught band clubs witness to this very day. Not to mention that the Bishop of Malta had the rank of Brigadier General of the British Army and that in the civil hierarchy Sir Michael Gonzi came second only to the Governor, ahead of the democratically elected Maltese Prime Minister – when there was one, that is.

The Imperial interests always came first, even when this was not in the interest of the Maltese. When Britain was fighting for its survival, it considered actively the possibility of handing over Malta to Mussolini, if he kept out of the war.

Worse still, when at the height of the siege in WWII, London asked our governor if it was possible to keep all the food for the garrison, which meant letting the Maltese population starve. The Governor said that this was not possible as half the troops were Maltese… and that this would also offend British public opinion. This ‘happy’ scenario lasted until the 1950s when Britain could no longer afford to keep its side of the deal it agreed 150 years earlier.

And so we stormed through the turbulent fifties, with the naval base closing down, massive unemployment, with the uneducated masses kept in their place by a medieval Church with a unique cocktail of fireworks and superstition.

Dom Mintoff’s first shot at lifting the masses from their misery was to propose Integration with the UK as this would have meant rapidly rising social conditions, which in reality could not happen if the Church continued to call all the shots.

This plan came to grief for two very good reasons. The British continued to run down the base and Archbishop Gonzi did not like to lose the privileges of the Church. Add to this the fear that an impoverished independent Malta would have to sell its military facilities to the Russians.   

Given this, the British and the Bishop set up an unholy alliance and opted to retain the status quo. By now both George Borg Olivier and Dom Mintoff were asking for independence. The unholy alliance countered with the old ‘Divide et Impera’ tactics. The British somehow convinced Toni Pellegrini to split the Labour vote whilst the Bishop somehow persuaded the head of his Catholic Action, Herbert Ganado, to split the PN vote.

Meanwhile 100,000 Maltese, a fourth of the population, had to emigrate… and it would have been much more if the British kept their hold on Malta

Of course, the British kept their base until 1979.

Perhaps they thought that we could never do without it. They did not help Borg Olivier much when – to their surprise – emigration had petered out and Malta was doing quite well. They went as far as insisting that the few millions that they had agreed to pay as post independence aid were to be a loan rather than a grant. When Borg Olivier lost the 1971 election the British had to deal with Dom Mintoff. He knew them well and called a spade, a spade… and eventually ‘convinced’ the West to pay a fee for British defence facilities in Malta.

And so, by hook or by crook, this small island did very well and became independently sustainable. Today Malta is a successful EU member state boasting of the best performing economy in Europe and providing the livelihood to some 40,000 foreign workers.

Who would have believed this way back in September 1964?

I had the opportunity to meet some of the northern Europeans who visit Malta as part of innumerable EU delegations. Seeing how we do things, most are very pleasantly surprised whilst a few are bewildered. Unlike what happens in other Mediterranean states, they can very well feel at home to strike a deal.

Then it hits them like a thunderbolt: Ahh.. but you were a British colony!

Perhaps this says it all.




Best wishes for a Happy Easter to the editor and staff and to all the readers of MaltaToday

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