Sant memoirs: Mintoff’s watery stew, cheap plonk, and his Gang of Four

Alfred Sant’s political tell-all casts a ruthless eye on Dom Mintoff  and his confidants, a much-needed sober view of the man Labour loved before he brought down the house in 1998

Bertie Mizzi’s wisdom is solicited by Dom Mintoff, standing next to his works minister Lorry Sant
Bertie Mizzi’s wisdom is solicited by Dom Mintoff, standing next to his works minister Lorry Sant

In Alfred Sant’s tell-all on the 1980s, the novelist’s keen eye for detail generously embellishes the mundane world of a political era that few people had access to, or even read about in the staid press of yesteryear.

The anecdotes come thick and fast from the former Labour leader, who from the 1970s worked in the Maoist-sounding Ministry of Parastatal and People’s Industries – Mintoff’s plan to centralise state enteprises geared at job creation and the production of consumer goods. In his second volume of ‘Confessions of a Maltese European’, Sant’s memoir comes with astute historical analysis and a ruthless dissection of events and personas: chief among them Dom Mintoff, the Labour patriarch who two decades later in 1998 would force Sant into calling an early election.

In Malta’s early days of economic development, Mintoff was busy keeping the industrial peace with the General Workers Union by his side, and with a corporatist model of friendships with the capitalist class to attract industry to Malta. The young Sant, a product of a new generation whose skills were honed in Brussels diplomacy as well as at Harvard University, could see the limits of Mintoff’s ‘management’ style. An inside view came at two of Mintoff’s lunches in his Delimara farmhouse, a place where Mintoff welcomed “a heterogenous clutch of guests, from his buddy-buddies at different past-times, to close collaborators to sundry diplomats, dignitaries and businessmen.”

Sant recalls the uncomfortable experience – guests at l-Għarix ate in a “long wide hall flooded with light”; Mintoff’s invitees “did not mix well”; his habitués appeared to speak only when spoken to. “There seemed to be a liturgy followed regarding how to do things, with the PM presiding, partly making sure the big pot being prepared with stew was getting on well (but two other fellows at least were looking after it), partly indulging in chit chat with people around. Most of the (local) topics raised and discussed went over the top of my head.”

Also present at this Mintoffian refection was Archbishop Joseph Mercieca, equally uncomfortable. “We exchanged inanities,” Sant remembers. “The stew was rather watery, the wine was execrable. Seeking to bring him in the flow of conversation, the PM ragged the archbishop gently, to which the archbishop replied cautiously and as usual with him, nicely. He succeeded in deflecting the conversation towards somebody else.”

Sant noted the absence of Castille’s inner circle at the two dinners he witnessed, what he says insiders mercilessly called ‘the Gang of Four’ – aptly styled for the purged faction that held sway in the disastrous Cultural Revolution (they included Mao Zedong’s all-powerful wife, rid of soon after after Mao’s death). “They relished their role and would not have liked others to share in it – so I then thought,” Sant said of the men with paramount influence on Mintoff, namely Marsovin owner George Cassar and magnate Albert Mizzi, attorney general Edgar Mizzi, and Maurice Abela, head of the Foreign Office.

“Fast-talking at the right moment, direct and assertive, Albert Mizzi could still be a good listener as like Valhmor Borg he chomped on some cigarillo or other. He enjoyed the huge prestige of having piloted Air Malta towards a successful launch and had then established it as a profit-making unit, when others had predicted doom and gloom for it.”

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Mizzi’s widespread interests in importation to production, put him in good stead for Mintoff’s industrial base. As scion of the Alf. Mizzi Group, Bertie not only gave his advice ‘gratis’ to Mintoff; he was an instrumental part of a corporatist model in which his businesses profited by expanding national production and tourism development, the ultimate aim being the creation of jobs and balancing Malta’s trade bill. Mizzi’s capitalist pedigree still had him pegged as a Nationalist by hardcore Labourites, Sant suggests. “Mintoff relied on him to assess how his ideas would bounce in or off the business community though that would not necessarily mean he would take his advice. Mizzi took any rejection of his ‘advice’ coolly. ‘Off the record’ he could make it clear that the PM had taken an unwise route, though he always expressed his judgements in business, never in political terms.

“At times, he criticised both political parties for positions they took which he held were mistaken. In all this, nobody was fooled into believing that Mizzi was failing to take good care of his own. Yet there is also no doubt that throughout, in the Mintoff administration, he fulfilled a very useful function that was in the national interest.”

Mizzi’s positioning with Mintoff was such that he could partner his family’s contacts with government’s international reach: Sant says he used Chinese funds to convert the state enterprise producing the unpalatable Maltese Deserta chocolate, switched production to biscuits through a licence from the McVities brand, obtained via a Trinidadian technical partner. Then it went private under the name of Consolidated Biscuits, producing the McVitie’s and Crawford’s brands for the local market on two biscuit lines. It also developed its own Devon brand. Millions of Bourbon biscuits and custard creams treated generations of Maltese, none the wiser about the sugary seduction of State capitalism.

Out of the ashes of the dreaded Desserta... came the beloved Bourbon biscuit
Out of the ashes of the dreaded Desserta... came the beloved Bourbon biscuit

Edgar Mizzi, who before the 1971 Labour victory was a top advisor to Prime Minister Borg Olivier, fulfilled the same function for Mintoff with the latter’s full confidence. Sant remembers him as suave yet forthright, clinical, economical with words, and dispassionate, “only influenced it seemed by his beliefs about what the government should be doing. He was what the French would call an ‘homme d’état’ for whom state interests should prevail over all others.”

Mintoff recognised this, such that even when Mizzi contradicted something the PM had put forward with conviction, he was spared the high-voltage response. “You would see the premier look down at some writing pad he had before him, scribble something on it, then look sideways at Mizzi, then back at his pad and the discussion would go on. This did not mean that at times, Mintoff did not insist to proceed with the way forward that he had proposed. Yet, his decision did not feel for those present like it was a defeat for the attorney general.”

As for Maurice Abela, Sant says his former boss at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had come in from the cold after having been deemed responsible for the PN’s failed attempts at gerrymandering electoral boundaries in their favour for the 1971 election. “He had bounced back with gusto from his initial position of disgrace with the incoming Labour administration. Indeed, he was the hardest working person in the civil service that I ever knew, being available at all times to do what needed to be done.”

Despite his prowess inside the belly of government, Abela “sometimes got bawled out by the premier when there was nobody else to take the brunt of the PM’s furious reactions to whatever was being said.” For Abela, it was all water off a duck’s back, Sant says, for he appeared able to absorb the Mintoffian invective.

“I frequently wondered what was in his mind while all this was happening – he was too intelligent not to anchor his own opinion to the assessment he had made about the facts he knew. This however should not be taken to mean that Abela was somehow in frequent clash with the premier. To the contrary, on many issues their views were very close, and Abela would then sound like an effusive echo chamber for what Mintoff would have already said.”

Sant says Marsovin’s Cassar was wary of Mizzi’s “designs and moves”, perhaps the only one who managed to weather the give-and-take of his relationship with Mintoff.

Then Sant draws a link between political power and capital, upon which the mighty in the business world always can count on with a twitch on their long thread.

It was a few weeks before 1981, and Mintoff was placing hard conditions on a private buy-out of government’s shareholding in a Mizzi-run textile factory, CIM, which had been losing markets and making losses. “It had been giving Castille the impression it was on top of the world. When it was discovered that this was not the case, Mizzi got his share of flak.”

As he willed it: Bertie Mizzi always wished to see Tigné turned into a luxury development
As he willed it: Bertie Mizzi always wished to see Tigné turned into a luxury development

But the farsighted Mizzi made his calculations, Sant surmises: setting his eyes on the Tigné peninsula early in the day. The Malta Development Corporation at the time had set up a company to renovate the Tigné Barracks into a housing estate. Mizzi took the young and upcoming contractor Angelo Xuereb with him to a meeting with Sant, asking that he be placed in the government company tasked with the housing project.

“Interestingly, even while he did this, Mizzi was volubly critical of the Tigné project as a whole, believing it to be misguided. In his view, rather than lay out a new housing estate, development at Tigné should be based on converting the whole area to an upmarket commercial plaza, backed with luxury residential and recreational facilities. In this way, the whole layout of Sliema would be radically changed.”

And indeed, years later under the Nationalist administration of Eddie Fenech Adami, Angelo Xuereb and Albert Mizzi would face each other off in the public competition for the private land transfer of Tigné. Mizzi’s MIDI plc won the day, perhaps expectedly...

“To be sure, Mizzi’s approach was noteworthy because it focussed on getting things done, of course in his own way... That was the priority, an attitude which I respected and rather liked,” Sant recalls.