Death of a patriarch: Dom Mintoff

Few politicians have succeeded in embodying so many instant contradictions as Dom Mintoff.

Dom Mintoff was the longest serving politician in Maltese history.
Dom Mintoff was the longest serving politician in Maltese history.

As much adored as abhorred, feared as revered, Dom Mintoff remains arguably the most divisive yet iconic figure ever to have emerged from Malta's traditionally confrontational political landscape - a landscape he himself helped to shape, for better or for worse, over a political career spanning almost 70 years.

He died yesterday the 20 August, a few days after being admitted to hospital.

As Prime Minister between 1955 and 1958, and then again between 1971 and 1984, Dom Mintoff walked a tightrope between statesman and a pariah, liberator and autocrat, an enlightened (Fabian) socialist and Malta's own version of his personal friend, Robert Mugabe.

Architect of the Maltese Republic and a self-styled 'professor of democracy', Mintoff's sweeping reforms changed Malta.

But his vision of modernity was ultimately overshadowed by his proverbial parsimony, leaving Malta both 'richer' and 'poorer' for his own particular brand of Socialism: richer, in that Mintoff's far-reaching social reforms elevated the standard of living of a previously impoverished and barefoot working class; poorer, because the same Mintoff's distrust of technology and quasi-pathological caution in spending public money starved the country of a number of key infrastructural developments.

On an international level, Dom Mintoff remains arguably Malta's best known export: occasionally crossing the line several times by courting dictators like North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Romania's Nikolai Ceaucescu, while earning a certain notoriety for his brinkmanship in dealing with a Western world pitted against the eastern bloc at the height of the Cold War.

On the domestic front, he was all too often accused of harbouring dictatorial tendencies of his own - manifesting themselves in the excesses of overzealous 'Mintoffjani' thugs, as emblemized by the attacks on the Opposition leader's Birkirkara home, as well as the Times building in Valletta, in October 1979.

Ultimately, however, Mintoff always sought legitimacy from the ballot box... although when even that failed him in 1981, he was visibly stung but still managed to hang onto the seat of government for six years.

And ironically, it was Mintoff the statesman who first envisioned Malta's future as a neutral member in the European Union, when proposing his vision for Malta as a 'Switzerland in the Mediterranean' in an article entitled A New Plan for Malta, penned for the New Statesman in 1959. Even his plan to integrate Malta with Great Britain was animated by a desire to make Malta a part of continental Europe. Perhaps, it was his attempt to undo the country's insularity with the stroke of a pen.

In the same reformist zeal, it was Mintoff who modernized the country by introducing civil marriage and decriminalising homosexuality - two measures opposed by the Church and the Nationalist Party in opposition - in the early 1970s.

His 1971 electoral manifesto was full of enlightened proposals such as the pledge to introduce an Ombudsman and to give citizens the right of petition the European Court of Justice: two promises he completely ignored after winning power. He also modernized the country's social structures, giving dignity to the working-class and contributing to the very social mobility which would ultimately undo his hegemony over society a decade later.

Tragically, it was Mintoff the autocrat who prevailed after 1971 and even more so after 1976: ushering in a period of turbulence characterized by political violence, arbitrary policing and human rights violations.

It was Mintoff, too, who crystallized the country's endemic polarisation the country through his reverberating battlecry, "whoever is not with us is against us."

Despite his pretensions of being Malta's liberator he was often accused of exploiting the worse aspects of the Maltese psyche for his own political ends. Anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain noted that Mintoff behaved "like the traditional Maltese father - aloof, mainly harsh and looked after his own. The authoritarian figure was familiar to all Maltese. Most of them had grown up in and formed part of families dominated by such fathers."

And yet, these same characteristics arguably stood him in good stead in his various negotiations with the British colonial administration, at a time when authoritarianism was perhaps necessary to buttress the relative weakness of the local (and limited) government. 

At the other end of the pendulum, the same Dom Mintoff was hailed as "saviour" by those who felt they owed him their entire livelihood, their homes and jobs. These were to become his tribal followers, and in time - arguably the most enduring myth of Mintoff's questionable legacy -

they came to believe that the State owes them and their children a living.

It was Mintoff, too, who succeeded in alienating the middle class and even the progressive intelligentsia, which elsewhere in Europe was gravitating leftwards, provoking them to unite against him under the unlikely banner of 'Xoghol, Gustixxja, Liberta'".

Instead of a socialist intelligentsia dominating the arts and national culture, Malta was regaled with 'run, rabbit, run' vulgarity: the enduring image of the national broadcaster's subservience to the State, marking the pinnacle of cultural depravity.

Unable to withstand almost any form of resistance, Mintoff closed the Faculty of Arts altogether, supposedly the hotbed of free and critical thought. Rather than attracting intellectuals, he stood accused of allowing his party to slide towards mediocrity: a mediocrity epitomized by a slavish adulation of the leader he himself actively encouraged.

Elsewhere, Mintoff's schizophrenia between liberal Europe and Maltese autarky was immortalized in his clash with eminent sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, whom he invited to become chairman of the Commission of the Royal University of Malta shortly after his election in 1971.
But Dahrendorf soon fell out with Mintoff, denouncing the workers-students' scheme as one producing "either unhappy workers or under-qualified students, or both."

Ironically it was Mintoff's authoritarian streak which paved the way for Eddie Fenech Adami's broad church. Despite courting a clique of big businessmen and speculators, in his speeches Mintoff emphasised his party's appeal to the working class.

Just a year before Fenech Adami's investiture, Mintoff underlined the exclusive working-class identity of his party. "Everywhere he goes, [Gorg] Borg Olivier says: we are everybody's party and when we will be in government we will be everybody's government. And I tell him that we are not everybody's party and we are not everybody's government. We are not a government of thieves, whoever steals votes against us... We are a working-class government."

In reality, Mintoff's whole project of economic modernisation hinged on the creation of a new breed of Maltese capitalists assisted by docile unions and protectionist measures.

Some of these even owed their new riches to the expropriation of property belonging to less loyal businessmen: a case in point being the deliberate dismantling of the Bical group of companies, when it was taken under controllership, or the nationalization of the National Bank of Malta. Others even thrived on criminal extortion, which the police force failed utterly to control..

Yet the gulf between ideology and reality widened to the extent that on the eve of the 1981 election, the Nationalist Party presented a formidable critique of Mintoff's brand of state capitalism.
"The Mintoff Government tends to run the country very much in the manner of a private capitalist, managing his own privately owned property, and seeking to maximize his own profit and not that of the country's citizens."

Even in his dealings with the wider world, Mintoff alternated between statesman and a pariah. Money-wise his tactic of playing of east against west, and north against south, can be seen to have paid off. While Nationalist prime minister Gorg Borg Olivier only managed to snatch Lm9 million in foreign aid following independence, Dom Mintoff managed to squeeze an unlikely Lm129 million from foreign powers.

Mintoff not only managed to make the British pay dearly for the use of the military base prior to 1979, but also diversified Malta's foreign aid by getting Lm2 million from Libya in 1972 and Lm6 million from oil-rich Kuwait, Qatar and Abu Dhabi in the aftermath of 1979.  He can also be credited with becoming the first Western leader to forge diplomatic ties with Maoist China, a full year before US President Richard Nixon claimed that honour for himself.

Still, the country's reputation was somewhat dampened by his flirting with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, Ceaucescu and Kim il Sung. Yet he also managed to win the friendship of the likes of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. For despite expressing a preference for the "Europe of Abel" (the Communist east), Mintoff was still intent on gaining Cain's money and protection.

Ultimately, in a way not dissimilar to Chavez today, Mintoff's brand of socialism, although intrinsically authoritarian, ultimately owed its legitimacy to the ballot box. When elections produced a Nationalist majority in the country and a Labour majority in parliament, Mintoff was so uncomfortable that he appointed a new leader three years later, while working in the shadows to reach a constitutional agreement with the Nationalist Party.

From 1987 onwards Mintoff could never reconcile himself to being a secondary figure in the political landscape, condemned to watching fro the sidelines as both the country and 'his' party changed beyond recognition. His final serious contribution to Maltese history was that of bringing a Labour government down in 1998 - a traumatic act which lost him the respect of the many who revered him.

Ironically, the slavish discipline towards the party leader created by Mintoff had by then turned against him. From then onwards, his incursions in the political landscape bordered on the grotesque and the ridiculous. His clash with television comic James Bondin during a live Xarabank programme opened people's eyes to the man's ageing frailty; his paranoid claims that he was under CIA surveillance; his letters full advice to a disgraced Mugabe, and his televised incursion in Evans Building on the eve of the last election. indicated that he was not all there.

For all his mistakes, it was a demonstration of life's unfairness, an unfitting end to a statesman who changed Malta's history: a 'someone' in an island of nobodies.

For Mintoff may yet prove to be the only Maltese politician whose antics, like that of holding up the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe for 52 days as he stubbornly insists on a special insert on Mediterranean peace and security, will go down as a footnote in world history.

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Come on James. You can do better than this. this is what I call a history twister. At least give two versions if you are not able to remain unbaised. Your part on the university is total rubbish.
'It was Mintoff, too, who crystallized the country's endemic polarisation the country through his reverberating battlecry, "whoever is not with us is against us." 'These were to become his tribal followers, and in time - arguably the most enduring myth of Mintoff's questionable legacy -' I assume that today's article doubles up as a cathartic write up on your part James, fair enough. The above two quotes can however be challenged by anyone over 75 years of age. Laying polarisation and tribalism at Mintoff's door is erroneous . That charge should be laid at the door of those who aggressively resisted change since the 1920's.With regards to Helsinki, I guess the CSCE/OSCE took the Mediterranean footnote a bit more seriously than your assessment James.
Micheal Bonanno
A very biased article by the usual suspect. But I will answer for only one part. The "Run Rabbit Run" bit. James, that song was sung on the day that Labour won constitutionally the general elections and was never played again! Oh, as for the university, Mintoff's idea of a university was one that suited the country's need not the individual. Forward-looking. Mintoff was a technocrat.

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