1964 and all that

One always has to keep in mind that Malta was not a colony like India or some African territory to be exploited economically but rather, a military base that was a necessary cost for the UK to keep exploiting its jewel in the crown that was India – especially since the opening of the Suez Canal

Prime Minister George Borg Olivier announcing the date of independence to a crowd in St George’s Square on his return from London
Prime Minister George Borg Olivier announcing the date of independence to a crowd in St George’s Square on his return from London

The recently published fourth and last volume of Prof. J. M. Pirotta’s series ‘Malta: Fortress Colony – The Final Act 1945-1964’ has struck me as a monumental piece of scholarship – painstakingly researched and documented from many sources, particularly in the UK – that sheds new light on the turbulent events of the years that led to Malta’s achieving Independence. Even more importantly, Pirotta adopts an objective stance without passing judgement on the protagonists, leaving this to his readers.

One always has to keep in mind that Malta was not a colony like India or some African territory to be exploited economically but rather, a military/naval base that was a necessary cost for the UK to keep exploiting its jewel in the crown that was India – especially since the opening of the Suez Canal. The economic impact on Malta brought about during the 179 years of British military presence was massive.

It is enough to note that the economic fallout resulted in the Maltese population trebling to more than 350,000 from the 100,000 that the British found on their arrival to help the Maltese get rid of the French. One has to keep in mind that the revolution by the Maltese against the French was organised by leaders of the Catholic Church that – as the British immediately recognised – was the sole real power on the island. And so it came to pass that Protestant Britain formed an unholy alliance with the Maltese Catholic Church to ensure that their military task on the island would be left undisturbed.

The main protagonists in the period covered by Pirotta’s publication, were the British, who were not prepared to subsidise 350,000 Maltese after 1945; the Church, trying hopelessly to hang on to its mediaeval privileges; Dom Mintoff, the Fabian reformer who was always in a hurry; and George Borg Olivier. Borg Olivier was the astute politician, who finally managed to engineer a constitution appeasing Archbishop Michael Gonzi and the British, and he succeeded to foist it on an unhappy Mintoff.

Nevertheless, this irrefutably paved the way to make it possible for Dom Mintoff to take Malta into a new era in 1979, leading to the final closing down of the military base that Malta had been since 1530.

On reading this massive book one can also gain some inside knowledge on the smaller protagonists; Toni Pellegrini and his pseudo Christian Workers Party, Herbert Ganado, the unsuccessful political arm of Archbishop Sir Michael Gonzi, and Mabel Strickland – the incurable anglophile – trying to hang on to a world that did not exist any more. Also involved were the Protestant Church in England, trying hard to eliminate the discrimination in favour of the Catholic Church imposed on a small minority in the independence constitution, and NATO with is southern command based in a country that was – as luck would have it – not a NATO member.

All, protagonists, whether major or minor, tried to protect their interests. In the case of Toni Pellegrini, he used his stance to advance his own personal interests when – as documented for the first time to my knowledge – he asked for money from the British to split the Labour vote and to scuttle independence for this small island of ours.

Mabel Strickland, who had previously opposed Mintoff’s integration proposal on being told by the English Catholic Church that the position of the Maltese Catholic Church would no longer be privileged as it was in a colonial Malta, was against anything that distanced Malta from Britain. On the other hand, Herbert Ganado, the former president of the Catholic Action, who split the Nationalist Party vote, took his orders from Archbishop Gonzi who preferred the status quo: better priveleged in a colony than losing privileges in an independent state!

There is some evidence that the British had a tacit informal understanding with Sir Michael Gonzi, to divide and rule, in an attempt to maintain the status quo that suited them both.

Underlying all this, was Malta’s fickle economy based on the spending of a British defence behemoth just about to go under; a massive emigration outflow; a low level of education, and a lack of faith of the Maltese in themselves, the result of 2000 years of colonial history. Most seriously doubted whether Malta could make it.

After Independence, the British expected a strong fall in the Maltese standard of living. This did not bother them much, were it not for the fear that an independent Malta would become, in modern terms, a failed state and that its politicians, possibly a Dom Mintoff led administration, would eventually settle for a soviet military base for money – and this during the height of the cold war.

What a mess… But George Borg Olivier somehow ‘squared the circle’. Not that it was easy to please the Church, the British, and to survive economically at the same time, while keeping Mintoff at bay. He convinced the British to accept clauses in the Maltese constitution that were demanded by Gonzi to enshrine the privileges of the Catholic Church, even though actually unacceptable to British thinking. At the same time, the defence agreement would guarantee the British their military base in Malta for as long as it mattered.

Yet – as Pirotta’s work clearly shows – it was still touch and go. In 1964, the independence date was delayed three times until the date was set for the 21st September. Suddenly the British started to get cold feet. Nasser was pressuring King Idris of Libya to close down the British and American bases in Libya and Idris had asked for the relevant defence treaties to be renegotiated. Since the strategic value of Malta was rising, the British attempted to hang on to the airport as a sovereign base – like they did in that part of the island of Cyprus that is still British territory to this very day.

Maybe it was too late, or – as some opined – once the British had a defence agreement with Malta they could do what they wanted anyway – even if Malta become independent. And in the longer run – they believed – there was no hope that Malta could ever be viable and subsist without the UK financial assistance.

And so we muddled through... deeply disappointing the British Gods of those days, who, seeing Malta was doing so well after 1964, went as far as stopping their petty financial assistance.

This was a mistake as they eventually found out when they had to deal with Mintoff in 1971. This time Mintoff was the PM of an independent Malta – thanks to Borg Olivier – and not of a colony as he was in 1958 when he decided to resign. But in 1964, those were pleasures yet to come!

On reading this book, I asked myself, how much we need to recall all this to our younger generations. 54 years later, Malta is a full member state of the EU, with the best performing economy in Europe, and even providing work to some 42,000 foreign workers.

What a fairytale and a dream come true for George Borg Olivier and Dom Mintoff – undoubtedly political antagonists, but ‘true’ allies when facing perfidious Albion, in their quest for an Independent Malta.

More in Blogs

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition

Subscribe