President, historians, mark 100 years since the landmark 1921 Constitution of Malta

In 1921, the Maltese were allowed to have a form of local government, while under the British imperial rule.

President George Vella addresses the virtual conference
President George Vella addresses the virtual conference

President George Vella has inaugurated a virtual conference, marking 100 years from the drafting of the landmark 1921 Constitution.

The conference, which is being broadcast live on Facebook, was also attended and addressed by several academics. Keynote speakers were Prof. Ray Mangion, Professor at the Faculty of Laws in the University of Malta, Prof. Joe Pirotta, retired Head of the Department of International Relations, Prof. Frances Camilleri Cassar, Professor at the Faculty of Laws, Prof. JosAnn Cutajar, Associate Professor at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing and Rev. Dr Nicholas Doublet, Lecturer at the Faculty of Theology.

President Vella said that the event was being marked because it wasn’t an event that happened without context. The Maltese had had enough of constitutions favouring the British government. In 1921, the Maltese were allowed to form a local government under the imperial rule to deal with local affairs.

Besides the historical aspect, there was a social aspect, as well as the political, constitutional and religious context. The havoc wreaked by the Spanish flu and the poverty brought by World War 1, language disputes, the place of the Catholic religion in the Constitution, all had to be taken into account. “The British started to recognise the wisdom of the Maltese leaders who asked for what was rightly theirs from the British.”

“Today should help us recognise who we are and be proud. To show our youth how we became a nation. The role of parties, trade unions and religion. I want to show that unity is always important to get where we want to go, despite the differences we have,” said the President.

Vella said he wanted the day to be an opportunity to show how we obtained our rights and democracy and how our country was a victim of the circumstances of colonialism.

1921 Constitution led to trade unions

Prominent academic and legal historian Prof. Ray Mangion spoke of the giant steps made in the field of workers rights and social services since, and thanks to, the 1921 Constitution.

“It had several dispositions which led to the formation of several groups and societies who worked together so that their rights, not just as individuals and as trade unions.”

He gave an overview of the historical and socio-political background to the Constitution. Maltese families were large, the Maltese had no education and would work in the fields. “Many had to travel to Australia working in the docks of Melbourne of Sydenye or the mines of Perth. They were very hardworking people.”

The Maltese were recognised as some of the best workers in the Commonwealth, he said.

The so-called Amery-Milner Constitution led to the first initiative for trade unionism in Malta.

Under the 1921 Constitution the British maintained control of defence, security telecommunications and other important areas, Mangion pointed out. Maltese governments had no power over reserved materials such as defence and security. They united where they could and gave power to trade unions.

“The close of a 120 year long chapter”

Historian Prof. Joe Pirotta pointed out that many Maltese “do not know how crucial the 1921 Constitution is. It is the close of a chapter 120 years long.”

In the struggle with revolutionary France the British had to dominate the Mediterranean, Pirotta explained. They recognised Malta’s strategic importance, but only wanted Malta as a fortress and therefore everything had to be in the hands of the military, leaving the Maltese excluded. The Maltese were not happy with this arrangement and had insisted on a local Maltese government, always under the supervision of the British crown. “The British needed an excuse to avoid this situation and declared that there wasn’t a people in the world that was as incapable of taking care of themselves as the Maltese, and so it was doing a favour to them.”

“Maltese wasn’t an established language and had no political prestige. One of the things the British did to reduce Italian influence in Malta was to promote the use of Maltese. The language was considered as an Arabic dialect. The Arabs were treated by the French and English as second-class citizens in their own countries. But the Maltese argued that they were a European country...In the eyes of the British, the Maltese were good for nothing”

This attitude, and the war, led to the Maltese proving that this was not true. But wages were low. After the war the Maltese expected things to improve but instead, faced mass redundancies from dockyard and commerce trouble. Hunger was one of the causes that led to the infamous 1919 Sette Giugno riots.

For the British, Sette Giugno was a small affair. But it was a shock because the British had not wanted to have the people unhappy to the point of revolt. This led them to see that they could not carry on like this.

Even before Sette Giugno, the British were trying to see how power could be devolved to the Maltese without losing control of the fortress island completely. “The riots sped the process up but didn’t cause it,” Pirotta said.