Closing Uncle Dom’s books | Wenzu Mintoff

Wenzu Mintoff attributes his uncle's reluctance to stand up against criminal and violent elements in the party in the 1980s to his sense of loyalty towards those who stood by him in the anti-colonial struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.

Wenzu Mintoff
Wenzu Mintoff

Wenzu Mintoff vividly recalls his experience as child who directly witnessed the "reverence" of common people towards his "influential uncle" who for three years shared the same house in Santa Lucija.

"He was always surrounded by people who adored him."

Wenzu Mintoff recalls being in the same car with his uncle and watching people paying homage to the politician in the late 60s and early 70s - a moment of transition for Mintoff from opposition leader and practicing architect to prime minister.

"As a child, I used to enjoy seeing people 'time' him by waiting on their doorsteps to salute him as he was on the way to work or for a swim. There was a very powerful sense of recognition on the part of these people... they felt they owed him a lot for changing their lives, and they showed it."

Wenzu Mintoff attributes his uncle's hold over the masses to the "power of persuasion" which was linked to his combative spirit shaped by his personal experience of climbing the social ladder from dire poverty to academic and political success.

"Whoever climbed a rung of the social ladder at that time required a combative spirit."

According to Wenzu Mintoff, his uncle fought against the odds: "a child born in the slums of Cospicua who greaw up in a poor family with many mouths to feed" who not only continued secondary school after primary but went on to study at University...  something which is still rare in Cospicua today.

Eddie Fenech Adami - Mintoff's nemesis during the turbulent 80s - surprised many when he declared that "overall, Mintoff's place in history is positive, although critics may find his methods debatable".

For Wenzu Mintoff, Fenech Adami's observation is "fair and honest" and reflects the mind frame of a statesman who is no longer conditioned by political ambitions and a sense of partisan calculation. 

"He is no longer concerned with what staunch Nationalists would say."

Neither is Fenech Adami concerned with the political calculations of those who ask:  "How can we say that a person who has been demonised for so long did more good than harm, when all accounts are closed?"

Wenzu, himself an outspoken critic of the post-1981 Labour government (he resigned from the party in 1989 in protest against corrupt and criminal elements within the PL), agrees with Fenech Adami's overall assessment, but insists that drawing up a comprehesive assessment of a political career spanning from the 1940s to the 1990s is a complex process.

He warns against judging Mintoff on the basis of single events, especially those which happened at the end of his political career.

"This is like judging a film after watching only its ending. One has to watch the entire film, even when its ending leaves you with a bitter taste."

Wenzu Mintoff insists that his uncle must be seen in the context of his time, arguing that his character was moulded by the realities of British colonial rule.

"He was the leader of a national liberation movement in a country under colonial military occupation with a very limited democracy... the idea was that since parliament was so limited in its power, change could only come from the streets and squares."

Yet despite the circumstances, Malta was spared the bloodshed which characterised the history of many other colonies aspiring for independence.

"The country closest to our experience was Cyprus, which is physically divided up to this day and whose post-colonial history was much more turbulent than Malta's ... with the exception of the 1958 riots which were perfectly justified, Malta's struggle for independence was relatively peaceful."

But despite being spared the bloodshed characterising other anti-colonial struggles, "Malta was a military and dictatorial regime" especially between 1958 and 1961, when self-government was withdrawn, something which could have contributed to create a "a dialectic of violence".

Mintoff's mentality was shaped by his experience of dealing with colonial rule. According to his nephew, this could could go some way towards explaining Mintoff's authoritarianism and heavy-handed tactics against those who stood in his way, in the latter part of his political career. "It is not easy to disentangle yourself from this conflict-ridden environment..."

Wenzu points out that for a time, Mintoff's Labour Party had two parallel structures: a democratic and open one and a system of "clandestine cells".

"We should not forget that at that time, Labour was facing a regime which was threatening its leaders with imprisonment and which was censoring its message by controlling the Rediffusion."

To make matters worse, Labour also faced the wrath of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which according to Wenzu Mintoff  "was even better than the British when it came to mind and thought control".

Dom Mintoff then started to present himself as an anti-colonial leader in the mould of other leaders like Nasser in Egypt Mintoff had aspired for integration with Great Britain. Wenzu explains Mintoff's ease in shifting from full integration to full self-determination as an example of the politician's pragmatism. For his nephew, this sense of pragmatism is the greatest proof that Mintoff was far from a doctrinaire ideologue.

"Mintoff believed that Malta could not emancipate itself from colonial shackles as long as it was not economically free... Political and economic independence went hand in hand... He was always aware of the fact that a strong welfare state needed an economic back up, integration for him was one way of securing this back up."

Mintoff was so pragmatic in his approach to reach the goal of economic independence that following his split with Boffa, he threatened the British that he was willing to offer the military base to the United States if they did not give us our due from their share of Marshall Aid. 

Another example of his pragmatism was his article in New Statesman in 1958 where he proposed membership in the Common Market for a neutral Malta, which would act as a "Switzerland in the Mediterranean".

"His long-term goal was that Malta should be as dignified a country as Britain. Whether the road to achieve this was through integration or independence was not so important. His aim was to secure enough money from Britain to create the basis of economic independence. The means to this end changed according to the circumstances."

While Wenzu Mintoff's reflection on Mintoff in the 1950 and 1960s are based on the books and newspapers he read, his experience of the first Mintoff administration between 1971 and 1976 was a direct personal one.

"It was a phenomenal and dynamic government... it was focused with clear targets,  especially with regards to plentiful investment from abroad, not just from the east but principally from western European countries like Germany."

It was also a government which liberalised social mores, decriminalising homosexuality and introducing civil marriages. Moreover, the welfare state was substantially strengthened through increases in pensions and the introduction of a minimum wage.

But Wenzu Mintoff sees a sharp contrast between the reformism and dynamism of the 1970s and a subsequent degeneration in the 1980s.

For Wenzu Mintoff, the turning point after which the Labour government started losing its focus was 1979 when Mintoff achieved his ultimate aim - the closure of the military base.

Another contributing factor to increased tension in the country was the intransigence of the opposition, especially after the ascent of Fenech Adami.

"Faced with this kind of opposition, Labour transposed the mentality acquired in its struggles in the 1950s. According to this mindframe, anyone who is putting spokes in the wheel has to be resisted by force."

On the other hand, the Nationalists were more "shrewd" and "cunning" in exploiting the various social conflicts taking place. One case where Mintoff resorted to heavy-handed tactics was the doctor's strike. Wenzu Mintoff believes that even in this case, Mintoff was right in principle, noting that the principle that doctors have to contribute for some time to the national health scheme is now a sine qua non. But at that time, this created a divisive conflict, which went out of hand.

One of the greatest failures of Dom Mintoff after 1976 according to his nephew was his inability to adapt to the social changes he had brought about himself.

"Many of those he emancipated from poverty and joined the ranks of the middle class could no longer feel at home with his rhetoric and antics. They wanted to be more like the people whose social class they had joined and no longer identified with the class in which they were born."

Moreover, Dom Mintoff's frame of mind remained that of an anti-colonial leader who treated dissenting voices in the same way as he treated the church and the British Empire.

Still, despite Mintoff's reputation as a strong man, he failed to stand up against corrupt and criminal elements in his party who were damaging his reputation of his party.

Wenzu Mintoff attributes this weakness to Dom Mintoff sense of obligation towards those who fought by his side in his struggle for national liberation.

"Some of these people were people who had gone to prison in the most crucial moments of this struggle because of their commitment. He was loyal to the people who had been loyal to him... it is possible that he found it difficult to control them."

According to his nephew, Mintoff was not disposed to tolerate corruption but his position was compromised because of past loyalties of people to whom he owed so much in terms of loyalty.

While most other Labour exponents remained silent, Wenzu Mintoff never resigned himself to this state of affairs, resigning from secretary general of the Ghaqda Zghazagh Socjalisti after environmentalists were beaten by thugs against building permits in a protest in 1984.

"I personally suffered because of these elements. I, a product of Dom Mintoff, could never accept these things and I actively resisted them."

Another factor which contributed to the degeneration was the fact that in his later years, Mintoff allowed himself to be surrounded by "yes men".

"In the 1960s and his first term in office after 1971 he was more aware of what was happening on the ground... he used to mingle more socially, he was more approachable, he would eat in restaurants and he listened to people. He received plenty of feedback."

At that time, Mintoff was courageous enough to embark on policies which brought him in conflict with some of his ardent supporters. He recalls one of Mintoff's most ardent supporters who stopped speaking to his leader after the introduction of the first laws regulating hunting and trapping.

"Most of his forward-looking policies brought him in conflict with some of his most ardent supporters."

A clear example of this was the fact of people who worked with the British services and who happened to be  among the most ardent Labourites... but who faced the prospect of losing their job once the British base was closed. Yet, against all odds, Mintoff managed to retain their support through his sheer power of persuasion.

But all this changed in 1980s when Mintoff's inner circle was somewhat restricted to yes men on whom he relied for feedback.

"They used to present him with a distorted picture of reality and the things he liked to hear, which left him ignorant of various realities."

Prior to 1987, Wenzu Mintoff had worked internally in the Labour Party for the acceptance of the principle that the party, which gets a majority of votes, should have the right to govern.

According to his nephew, Mintoff was "very uncomfortable" with the 1981 result, and wanted early elections.

Wenzu Mintoff recalls that various Labour ministers of the time resisted any changes in the constitutions to avoid a repeat of the 1981 result. But after the tal-Barrani incidents and the murder of Raymond Caruana, Dom Mintoff was crucial in resisting this opposition and unblock the situation.

Beyond the adulation, which characterised the past days, the Labour Party is still coming to terms with the historical legacy of a former leader who ended up bringing down the only Labour government since 1987. Yet Mintoff's death seems to have contributed to what Wenzu Mintoff refers to the "closing of accounts".

"When someone dies one does not judge someone on the basis of a particular episode. People are more likely to judge him on the merits of his legacy." Wenzu Mintoff recognises that he himself was for a some time estranged from his uncle.

"There were long periods in which I was in disagreement with him... we had a difficulty in communicating. One also has to resist the tendency of seeing only the good in the person who died which is somewhat inevitable in moments like these. But overall one has to evaluate a historical figure like Mintoff on the basis of his accomplishments."

In the final instance, Wenzu Mintoff reiterates his agreement with Eddie Fenech Adami's historical verdict that the good outweighs the bad without ever forgetting that the Labour Party has paid big time for his mistakes losing a number of elections.

But ultimately, "if someone like Fenech Adami comes to this conclusion, what can one expect from someone who militates in the Labour Party... I cannot but agree with him that there the positive side of Mintoff by far outweighs the negative side."

It's true that Wenzu Mintoff and Toni Abela were expelled from the party in 1989 and in fact they joined another party but it is also true that they were both reinstated under Dr Alfred Sant.
Ian Sammut
Though I never supported Dom and his party I have to sincerely state that this is a very balanced account of Dom Mintoff. Well done Wenzu
'.....who not only continued secondary school after primary but went on to study at University... something which is still rare in Cospicua today.' Rare but not impossible. I have two kids a girl and a boy both of them born and bred in Cospicua and both of them did University, the elder graduating in 2011 and hopefully the younger will graduate next year. I have written so much not to praise my children but to show that if given the right upbringing even Cospicua's children can make the grade. In fact there are others from Cospicua who entered university even in the recent past and made the grade notwhitstanding they being pushed around by other kids from other areas who must think they come from California or Paris!
"Wenzu Mintoff attributes this weakness to Dom Mintoff sense of obligation towards those who fought by his side in his struggle for national liberation." History has the habit of repeating itself as we see gonzi protecting those ministers who have sent Malta to the dogs, protecting those who were beside him in the leadership race a much more mild excuse than for those who suffered by going to jail for their beliefs, not that makes their actions any more acceptable. As regards what people say about those who die it is only human to realise that one of these days people would be saying things about when it is us who kick the bucket.