Malta’s great leap in the dark | Ugo Mifsud Bonnici

Independence may be taken for granted today, but there was a time when it was mistrusted or even feared. President Emeritus UGO MIFSUD BONNICI re-lives the tensions of Malta’s moment of uncertainty

Ugo Mifsud Bonnici photographed by Ray Attard
Ugo Mifsud Bonnici photographed by Ray Attard

To those of us who – like myself – were born into Independent Malta, the very idea of not being an independent country may be hard to fathom. Yet as we celebrate 50 years of existence as an autonomous, sovereign state, it is worth remembering that the circumstances of the day involved quite the opposite dynamic. Many people back then simply couldn’t conceive how such a tiny island, with little or no resources of its own, could even survive on its own steam.

One person who certainly remembers this is President Emeritus (and former Education Minister) Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, who was a young lawyer and member of the Nationalist Party when the terms of independence were being negotiated under Prime Minister George Borg Olivier.

Sitting in the living room of his impressive residence at the heart of Bormla – once the motor of Malta’s pre-independence economy – Mifsud Bonnici recalls that part of the difficulty involved convincing a sceptical public of the benefits of taking a leap in the dark.

Mabel Strickland always considered independence to be a disaster. When Malta became independent, one of her close circle of friends said it was ‘a black day for Malta’

“Some people had misgivings. Not just economic misgivings, but also of a political nature. For some people in Malta, (Labour leader) Mr Mintoff was viewed as a threat to their way of life. Some thought that when he would eventually achieve power, with independence there would be no restraint on what were deemed to be his excesses. Ganado. Pellegrini. Mabel Strickland... these were all apprehensive about the prospect of Mintoff coming into power.”

Instantly we are transported back to a time when Maltese politics was very much a multi-partisan affair: when (unlike today) decisions had to be taken in the context of multi-party negotiation.

“The situation was complex. Ganado and Pellegrini always affirmed they were in favour of independence… but not then. Mabel Strickland, on the other hand, always considered independence to be a disaster. In fact, when Malta became independent, one of her close circle of friends said it was ‘a black day for Malta’. Things have turned out completely different, in the sense that when Mr Mintoff did achieve power…”

He pauses as if searching for the right word. I point out that some people, even today, would argue that those predictions did at least partly come true…

“It was a little bit… turbulent,” he admits. “Mintoff’s time in power was in some ways difficult. But the country itself was able to return to full and normal democracy.”

At the same time, back in the early 1960s there was no actual guarantee that Malta would, in fact, always remain democratic. How seriously were these considerations taken at the time?

Borg Olivier knew Mintoff from university. They had a special rapport. Mintoff liked Borg Olivier. He once told me ‘Why do you want to change him? He’s the best man you have... Borg Olivier really loves Malta…’.”

“The position was that you never have a guarantee. I can say that George Borg Olivier knew at the time that he was taking a risk. But he also had trust in Mintoff not becoming a dictator. He always said that Mintoff would go to the brink, but never in fact become completely… a despot, let’s call it that.”

Here the former President reminds me that despite the fire-and-brimstone nature of 1960s Maltese politics, there was also an understanding between Malta’s two foremost politicians.

“Borg Olivier knew Mintoff from university. They had a special rapport. And Mintoff liked Borg Olivier. In fact, when there was the problem of Borg Olivier’s succession [in 1976], he once told me in the lobby in parliament; ‘Why do you want to change him? He’s the best man you have.’ And he added: ‘Borg Olivier really loves Malta…’.”

He smiles. “So I told him: ‘Listen: we all love Malta. Not only Borg Olivier. And not only you…”

Other political forces were however less trustful of the Labour leader’s democratic credentials.

“The bourgeoisie was afraid,” Mifsud Bonnici acknowledges. “And that is why a splinter Nationalist Party was formed: Ganado’s party. But the rank and file of the PN still followed Borg Olivier. They still believed in his trust in the destiny of Malta…”

Meanwhile the entire discussion was underpinned by another dynamic which simply no longer exists. Before independence there was another, alternative political vision for Malta – ‘Integration’, pushed by Mintoff when he became prime minister in 1955. How realistic was that scenario, and how did the existence of an alternative model impact Malta’s independence negotiations?

Borg Olivier wanted to ask for a loan from the World Bank. He couldn’t do it with the Constitution of the time; he had to ask Britain for permission

Mifsud Bonnici explains that Mintoff’s vision of integration was not necessarily shared even by the island’s pro-British sectors.

“The Constitutional Party in the 1950s did not favour integration. They wanted to continue with what was effectively a subordinate role for Malta within the British Empire. They wanted Malta to be a state, they used to say; but always under the sovereignty of Britain. The CP was a pro-British party, in the sense that they were happy within the British scheme of things…”

This also points to one of the paradoxes of Maltese political history. The Labour Party – which would eventually campaign under slogans such as ‘Britain Go Home’ – originally grew out of the pro-British Constitutional Party.

“It grew out of both. You can say that Mintoff was not only a Labour politician, but also, in many ways, a Nationalist. There was ambivalence: he had a British wife, but he conducted an anti-British campaign for a long period….”

The picture that begins to emerge is that of a confluence of many seemingly contradictory factors. Pro-independence parties arguing against independence, and pro-British parties resisting further integration with Britain.

“It was a complex scenario. First of all, you had a difficulty between Mintoff and the Church. So the fact that the Constitution, as proposed by the Nationalist government, provided certain guarantees for the Church, also won the support of the three parties who were not for independence immediately. They sided with Borg Olivier in Parliament when the Constitution was proposed, despite their misgivings.

"Borg Olivier therefore managed to pass the Constitution through parliament even though he had no real majority. In fact he had the same number of seats as the Opposition combined, and he could govern only because one member of the Ganado party crossed the floor. But when it came to the Constitution, it attracted the votes of the four members of the Ganado party, the four members of the Pellegrini party… even Mabel Strickland, albeit with some reservations.”

But Borg Olivier also had another trump card up his sleeve. “Mr Mintoff, though voting no to the Constitution in parliament and even in the referendum, was still declaring ‘we want independence now’. He was in favour of independence, but against the Constitution. So in negotiations with the British government, Borg Olivier added his own ‘yes’ votes to the ‘no’ votes of Mintoff, on the grounds that he [Mintoff] was in favour of Independence in principle. So Borg Olivier’s negotiating platform was: ‘Look, I have a majority for the Constitution, and I also have a majority for independence in general…”

Too many people depended on the British defence establishment... The complete hold the British system had on our country had to be detached slowly, gradually. It couldn’t have been done in another way

The argument seemed to work, also because Britain had interests of its own. “The British government was relinquishing its role as protector of Western interests in the Mediterranean; they wanted to relinquish the burden of the defence establishment in Malta. They could no longer afford to keep their position in the Mediterranean as it was at the time. They kept Cyprus, they kept Gibraltar. But they thought that Malta was no longer that important…”

This had a decisive impact on the nature of Malta’s independence debate. “It created a substantial unity between the Nationalist and Labour parties. In fact, when Mr Mintoff’s government [1955-58] tabled a motion called ‘Break with Britain’, it was passed unanimously.” He lays particular emphasis on the last word: suggesting that both PN and Labour had gravitated towards the same position, albeit for different reasons.

“While negotiating integration, a point came when Mintoff suddenly realised that the British wanted him to shoulder the burden of de-mobilisation of the defence establishment. He realised that if he pressed ahead with integration, it would mean that the dockyard would be closed, resulting in massive unemployment. He also wanted full equality – in wages, pensions, and so on – which the British were reluctant to concede. Mintoff understood that there was a sleight of hand going on here. So he switched from demanding integration to demanding independence. And when he proposed this motion, the PN backed him: I remember they all started singing the Maltese anthem in parliament.”

Borg Olivier would eventually confide in Ugo Mifsud Bonnici the reasons for his controversial support for Mintoff at the time. “He told me, years later, that he had supported Mintoff’s motion because that motion buried integration. It was the beginning of a common front – even with all the polarisation between the two principal parties – asking for independence from Britain.”

And yet, when it came to the referendum just a few years later, the same basic fears were still in place. Many people were concerned that Malta would simply not be able to survive economically without the British military presence here. How did Borg Olivier manage to persuade a sceptical population to take the plunge?

“It was a common fear at the time. We depended on the expenditure of the defence establishment, and there was no visible way of meeting our balance of payments in any other way. But this was a strange situation; you have to understand that we couldn’t develop our economy when we were almost exclusively an island fortress. The interests of the three services were paramount; everything was decided on the basis of whether it harmed the interest of defence or not. You couldn’t build an economy on that foundation. This was Dr Borg Olivier’s and Mr Mintoff’s intuition. They understood that even though it would be difficult, independence was the only way it could be done.”

Nonetheless, he admits that it proved hard to impart that sense of optimism to the wider public.

“Malta’s business community, at the time, was a little bit more timid. They were not very enthusiastic about the prospects, because you couldn’t say what would happen. But Borg Olivier and Mintoff… and, I must say, myself at that time… we all saw that it was impossible to have a proper economy while we were a British base. Even tourism: I remember when, before independence, Borg Olivier was trying to get foreign investment. The first foreign investment was in the Hilton hotel in 1963; which was, I think, vital. Also, a new power station…”

These exigencies underscored the fragility of an economy dependent on foreign rule. “Borg Olivier wanted to ask for a loan from the World Bank. He couldn’t do it with the Constitution of the time; he had to ask Britain for permission. In 1963, it was realised that you couldn’t industrialise, you couldn’t have a tourism infrastructure, without the energy to supply these hotels and other places. Everything had to be built up from scratch.”

At the same time there was also growing cognisance of the fact that retaining the status quo was simply no longer an option. “Everyone realised that the British base would be closed down anyway. You couldn’t just continue under the British as we were before. Independence became not only desirable, but inevitable.”

Progress was impossible under the British for another reason, which Ugo Mifsud Bonnici confesses interested him keenly and personally.

“Education, when Malta was a Crown Colony, was always kept back. I can show you a document, signed by [British governor] Charles Bonham Carter, saying succinctly this: that though it was ‘deplorable’ that a substantial number of children in Malta did not have the opportunity of even attending primary school… it would be a ‘burden’ if we were to introduce elementary education for all. Secondly, Bonham Carter saw no use having more secondary schools – at the time there were very few – because there was no prospect for employment for even those with higher education.

"And by ‘higher education’, he meant secondary education. Forget tertiary education, university and all that. So the British government was looking askance at education itself. It was a burden they couldn’t shoulder. How can you advance or progress, in a country where education is kept on the backburner?”

Mifsud Bonnici here produces a yellowed document, bearing the seal of the British government and labelled ‘SECRET’, and shows me the signature and date – Charles Bonham Carter, 2 December, 1936.

It was a briefing of the Council of Ministers. He proceeds to read out the relevant paragraphs (adding his own asides), culminating in the following, stark declaration: “‘I think it desirable to place on record the dangers, which experience has shown in other countries, are likely to arise by providing a high standard of education regardless of the employment that is going to be available for the products of this education. Education must be regarded as a means to an end…’ – can you believe this? – ‘and if we have an educational system which turns out pupils for whom there is no reasonable end, already we are failing in our duties.’…”

Mifsud Bonnici puts the document aside and gives me an exasperated look. “This is the sort of obscurantism we were dealing with at the time. And I must tell you: when I became an MP in 1966, I began trying to persuade my government that we should have not only elementary school for all – which by the way had been achieved by then – but also secondary education for all. But [former director of education] Ms Marjorie Mortimer tried to persuade me not to pursue that line. She was still convinced of what Bonham Carter had said 30 years earlier…”

All this, he adds, fuelled a thirst for independence, because it was not possible to achieve a higher standard of living under the colonial regime.

“This is one of the great achievements of Maltese governments of whatever hue. Before the war, when we only had limited self-government, the drive was to build primary schools. This was done in the 1920s. After independence in 1964 – and this is something I brag about – importance to secondary school for all meant that there was a great change in the educational profile of these islands.”

One would, in fact, be hard pressed to find anyone today who would argue that independence was a mistake. Still, there were (and to an extent still are) critics of the actual independence agreement itself. Labour argued that Malta sold itself short: that even though we became an independent country in September 1964, large swathes of the island remained under British rule. We still had a British governor, the Queen was still head of state; and the defence agreement meant that Malta continued to depend on British services for its survival anyway…

Mifsud Bonnici however defends the independence treaty as the only one realistically possible at the time. “Borg Olivier realised that even economic independence meant a very gradual process. Money, for example. One of the things he wanted from the outset was to have a Maltese central bank: to begin to detach the system from the British system. And in all other spheres it had to be a gradual process. Borg Olivier was also criticised for allowing the British a continued foothold on Malta as a British base, through a defence agreement until 1975. But he did it because he knew it would be impossible otherwise.

"Too many people depended on the British defence establishment. Not just the dockyard: the Air Ministry, the War Department, the Royal Engineers… they all had so many Maltese employees. You couldn’t just say ‘British get out’… as Mintoff was bluffing at one time. It was our way of getting money into the economy. In fact even Mintoff – who had criticised the defence agreement – found himself having to extend the same agreement until 1979. The complete hold the British system had on our country had to be detached slowly, gradually. It couldn’t have been done in another way.”