The Gospel according to Dom

Mintoff often resorted to parables in explaining the new 'Gospel' of Maltese socialism.

Archbishop Michael Gonzi (left) feared that Mintoff's 'six points' would lead to a Communist coup.
Archbishop Michael Gonzi (left) feared that Mintoff's 'six points' would lead to a Communist coup.

In one of his speeches, Dom Mintoff famously compared the State to the sun, the capitalist class to the sea, the welfare state to the rain and the workers to plants.

Like the sun which takes some water from the sea by turning it in to rain, the socialist state taxes the wealth of the rich to help the workers.

By effectively modelling his speeches on the Christian parable, Mintoff was able to mould the common sense of the people through a narrative with which they could clearly relate.

In fact Mintoff's place in history is associated with the strengthening and expansion of the Maltese welfare state during the 1970s, which became deeply ingrained in the Maltese psyche in a way that its tenants were accepted by the opposition Nationalist Party.

But contrary to popular perception the pillars of the welfare state; the Old Age Pensions Act of 1948 and the Income Tax Act of the same year were introduced by the first post war labour government led by Sir Paul Boffa.

The National Insurance act passed by a Mintoff-led government in 1956 laid the framework of the present welfare system.  While the new system ensured a life of dignity for a new class of prosperous pensioners, the future sustainability of the system was compounded by the absence of a specific fund for the money saved for pensions.

During Mintoff's term in government between 1971 and 1984 the web of social protection was extended through the introduction of a minimum wage, the children allowance and benefits and parental leave.

Mintoff championed the idea of a universal welfare state without any means testing; even if benefits like children allowance were limited to the first three children while stipends were tied to a patronage system, where students were required to get sponsors.

The national insurance system Mintoff also introduced Malta's first home ownership schemes, which turned thousands of working class families in to property owners. These schemes came at a great cost for the Maltese natural environment, but contributed to the consolidation of the Maltese middle class.

While some of these responded with undying loyalty, the combination of higher expectations and lack of consumer choice pushed others towards an increasingly centrist Nationalist Party.

Mintoff vs. Gonzi: The battle for souls

In 1974 under Mintoff, Malta became the last Western European country to introduce civil marriage. But under Mintoff in 1973 Malta not only decriminalised homosexuality 20 years before Ireland... but unlike most European countries of the day, the Labour government introduced the same age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts.

Except for the justification of violence in certain cases, the six points advocated by Mintoff in the 1960s had all the hallmarks of Church-State relations in modern European democracies.

These included the separation of Church and State; the acceptance of Civil Marriage and that censorship of films and books should be carried out exclusively by the Government; and the Church should be unable to interfere.

At the root of Mintoff's conflict with the church was Archbishop Gonzi's belief that Mintoff was a closet communist.

Ironically the same Gonzi had opposed Mintoff's integration proposal, which would have seen Malta firmly anchored in the anti communist camp due to similar fears of Protestantism.

The 1958 riots - following Mintoff resignation as Prime Minister - could have contributed to Gonzi's growing antipathy towards Mintoff.

The last of Mintoff's 6 points, stating that violence could be legitimate in certain circumstances, helped to conjure fears of a communist style revolution.

Neither did Gonzi like Mintoff's association with the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization, which included third world liberation movements, some of whose leaders flirted with the communist block.

This was the impression given to Daniel Micallef - a promising young doctor from Rabat, when capuchin priest Felicjan Bilocca knocked on his door a few months before the 1962 election asking him to contest with the Christian Workers Party.

The CWP was an attempt to thwart Mintoff's ambitions by the creation of a rival Labour Party, loyal to both Queen and Church.

Micallef recounted this episode in an interview with MaltaToday published in 2007: "Patri Felicjan told me that he was an envoy of Archbishop Gonzi. He also told me that they had reliable information that Mintoff was a Communist who wanted to destroy the Church and to put Malta behind the Iron Curtain."

It was in this climate of mutual suspicion that the Church's Diocesan Commission issued a circular read  in all churches in 1961 which declared it a sin to read of Labour newspapers  and the attend MLP meetings.

Surprisingly the imposition of moral sanctions against Labour supporters contrasted with the new climate of openness in the global church after Vatican Council II.

Gonzi still belonged to the old school whose luminaries were Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XII who was still around when Gonzi was having his initial skirmishes with Mintoff.

But by than the winds of change of Vatican Council II were blowing.

Charter 76 of the Constitution of Vatican Council II makes it clear that the Church 'does not place her hopes in privileges offered by the civil authorities but, on the contrary, renounces certain rights legitimately acquired, where it could be considered that their use could place in doubt the sincerity of her testimony'.

This stood in marked contrast with Gonzi's claim for the privilegium fora.

John XXIII, whom Mintoff always referred to as the "saintly pope", was in sharp contrast with his predecessor Pius XII.

But it took six years for the Vatican to persuade Gonzi to lift moral sanctions amidst covert negotiations between Mintoff's envoys and prelates like Mgr Gerada.

By making peace with the church on Good Friday of 1969 Mintoff managed to surmount his last obstacle.

Even in 1966, right in the middle of the interdett the MLP had increased its voting share by 11,000 votes. It had also increased its presence in parliament by 6 seats-three of which at the cost of Pelligrini's church aligned party.

Despite getting 6% of the vote, Pelligrini's party failed to elect a single MP.  This signalled an end to the last attempt to create a parallel labour movement to Mintoff's anti colonial brand of socialism.

Yet the Good Friday peace did not heal the wounds in the young nation's soul.

The wrath of Labour supporters against the Church establishment re-erupted periodically, especially during the Church school question in the 1980s when the curia itself was ransacked by Dockyard workers in 1986.   

Ironically, one long-term consequence of the 'interdett' was Mintoff's attempt to create a parallel structure to that of the Catholic Church through the setting of party clubs in every locality, and organisations like the Brigata Laburista.

Founded during stormy times after the sudden resignation of Dom Mintoff from his position as Prime Minister amid violent riots against British colonial rule, the Brigata was an attempt by Labour to create parallel social organisations to the existing ones dominated by the Catholic Church's hierarchy.

"You cannot understand what the Brigata meant for us without actually having lived in those times," Labour MP Joe Debono Grech told MaltaToday in 2008.

"At that time, Labour children were ostracised from other organisations like the scouts or the MUSEUM. They were scorned even when they went to church."

In the long term the interdett helped to boost Mintoff's cult of personality which Mintoff cultivate through the use of Christian imagery.

As Dutch anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, observed in an interview with MaltaToday in 2005, Mintoff's rhetorical techniques included peppering his speeches with religious undertones served "to warm the audience up and to show his defiance."

In a mass meeting in Zabbar in 1961 Mintoff set the tone for his bland of anti clerical but still Christian socialism.

"We worked and still work in the interest of workers, just as our Lord Jesus Christ taught us. We put these teachings in practice."

The 1958 riots: From integration to independence

The 1958 riots left a strong mark on the collective memory of the nation, increasing the defiance of Labour supporters against British rule while conjuring up fears of a violent insurrection within the ranks of the colonial and clerical establishment.

Ironically just two years before Mintoff's Government organized a referendum about the integration proposal, which would have seen Malta, become effectively part of the United Kingdom with its own representatives in Westminster. The British Government did not accept the positive outcome of the referendum. To rub salt in the wounds the British Government announced that it was discharging employees from the Naval Dockyards.

The Maltese Government resigned from office as a protest action against the British on 24th March 1958 and a few days later the British revoked the Constitution. At a mass meeting in Floriana on 6th April, Mintoff, inflamed the masses with anti colonial rhetoric insisting that there was no longer any space for negotiations and that the Maltese should struggle in the streets where "voices [would be] rising up from the streets and squares"

Eventually a historic general strike was held on April 28th, in the midst of violence and intimidation by the police and military forces.  A number of Labour activists including Agatha Barbara, who was later appointed President by Dom Mintoff, were arrested during the riots.

Public meetings and demonstrations were subsequently banned and direct rule by the British was introduced, following the Nationalist Party's refusal to lead a minority government.

The Malta Labour Party was now to start demanding Independence for Malta. In November 1958, a Malta Labour Party delegation led by Mintoff flew to London, making its first official request for Malta's Independence.  Independence was granted six years later but it was not Mintoff but Nationalist leader George Borg Olivier who signed the historic document.

The nationalist battle cry: 'Malta first and foremost'

Mintoff's lasting achievements included the establishment of a republican system of government through which a Maltese head of state replaced the British monarch and the closing of the British military base in 1979.  

But contrary to popular perception the pragmatic Mintoff actually prolonged the British stay in Malta by renegotiating the defence agreement for a further seven years, ending in 1979, rather than in 1974, under the terms of the ten-year agreement signed by his predecessor George Borg Olivier.

Seen in its context, Mintoff's "Malta first and foremost" a battle cry dating back to 1958, represented the aspirations of a young nation led by a young leader influenced by other post colonial authoritarian leaders like Nasser, Makarios and Nkrumah.

Unfortunately as happened in many of these former colonies the process of nation building through active state intervention in the economy degenerated in to cronyism.

Ironically, it was Mintoff who first envisioned Malta's future as a neutral member in the European Union, whenproposing 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 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.

During the Labour era between 1971 to 1987, Malta's economy was effectively transformed from one depending on military expenditure to an export driven economy where manufacturing and tourism were the major earners of foreign currency.

Malta's Development Plan 1973-80 emphasised the need to attract foreign, industrial, export-oriented investment, which would benefit from a disciplined workforce kept in line by Mintoff's assimilation of the General Workers Union and very competitive local wage levels. SGS-Thompson was one of the companies to invest in Malta at that time. 

@torquemada - Ironically, during those dark and troubled times people still managed the Lm400 fee for a tv set when the basic minimum wage was Lm22 a week. Now I wonder how? As for the military corps, they guaranteed a basic wage for a family to live decently...look around you torquemada; for every luxury car on the road there is at least a family living on the edge of the poverty line, for every inflated salary paid by the government for some-blue eyed darling sitting on so many numerous boards, there are dozens of chambermaids cleaning other people's shit for a paltry 3 Euros an hour. Yes, Malta under these who purport to be the 'giants' of democracy is like the mythical apple in Snow White; all glossy and fragrant on the outside and rotten and gangrened inside...but who cares as long as we can dupe the people into believing...
iva possibli int ser tibqa ma tikber qatt james?.kont ghadek u mid dehra ser tibqa pupu tal lasktu tal partit nazzjonalista sabih.
Religious persecution due to fear of losing priveledge, in contradiction to the 2nd Vatican Council.
@ torquemada - kieku l-hmerijiet li jinkitbu jistghu jissarfu, kieku int miljunarju. Jidher li ma ghext dawk iz-zminijiet ghax qadt tirrepeti l-hdura li kien jghid in-Nazzjon ta' dak iz-zmien (u li ghadu jirrepeti sal-lum). Punt wiehed se nohodlok mill-hmeijiet li ktibt. Ghall-informazzjoni tieghek l-ebda' amministrazzjoni ma rnexxilha ggib investiment u xoghol daqs il-gvernijiet ta' Mintoff tal-1971 u 1976. Tiftakar l-Oqsma Ndustrijali ta' Malta u Ghawdex kollha okkupati mill-fabbriki barranin? Anke llum ghadna ngawdu frott il-politika ta' Mintoff f'zewg fabbriki ewlwnin: ST Mictoelectronics (qabel kienet SGS Thomson) u Baxter Limited (li bdiet topera bhala Medical & Hospital products Limited).
@torquemada: Illum mhux ghat TV trid tittallab...imma biex tghix dicenti b'xoghol u kundizzjonijiet tajbin! Jew int komdu? Tiehu penzjoni int? Children's allowance? Jew blajt tal-20000 impjieg? Nies bhalek (inkluz Debono) ilabalbu jafu biss. Kompli dur fl-ghira tieghek siehbi...nittama illi tmur tibla l-ostja il-Hadd filghodu. Jaqghu ma tigix minn DCG hux? Tista tirrispondi kemm trid ghax mhux se tiehu risposta lura.
@ torquemada, Ikolli nghejd li int l-anqas int nazzjonalist, ghax b`dak li ktibt qeghed turi li int gej min xi pjaneta mill boghod. Lit tallaba nehhihom mit triq u teffahom fil housing estate li bena f`kull belt u rahal.Irdoppja il paga minima, ghamel il bonuses, kull beneficcju sacjali, sptar b`xejn,medicini b`xejn edukazzjoni b`xejn, children allowances, hareg lil dawk anqas ixxurtjati minnha mill kantini, hareg lin nisa min gol kcina, u taghhom id dinjieta,bena fabbriki, lukandi banek, u kull intrapriza li tista timmagina...fuq kollox ta il vot lin nisa u ghamlu min 18 sabiex il poplu ikollu id dritt li jigudikah..u mela it TV u it telefon.Bil haqq il korpi ghanke illum issibhom fit 2012. Ghax jekk tkun ilek tirregistra ghal 5 snin trid tahdem mal kunsill.
James, How could you not even mention the tens of thousands of Maltese, myself amongst them as a small boy, who had to go on exile abroad because a failing nation, corruption, religious persection, and poverty in the sixties, and who were officially carted of.
ar James, "DeIronically, one long-term consequence of the 'interdett' was Mintoff's attempt to create a parallel structure to that of the Catholic Church through the setting of party clubs in every locality, and organisations like the Brigata Laburista." Honestly, you must be really mistaken or joking here, can you prove this in any way?
Mintoff qata t-tallaba mit toroq u xehithom fil kazini laburisti jittalbu t-telephones, it TVs il jobs i l-postijiet! TV tal kulur LM400 wara li tkun mort tikkampja wara l-bibien ta xandir malta biex tibbukkja u wara li jaraw min int tiehu karta minghand is segretarju tal min istru jghidlek li gejt moghti TV! 16 il sena bil korpi militari biex taqbad tahdem. Darba Mintoff stess stqarr li kellu bzonn kien jaf igib ix xoghol daqs kemm kien jaf igib il flus (minn barra)L-hekk imsejjah jum il helsien ma kien xejn hlief l-gheluq tac cens tal bazi li suppost ghalqet 10 qabel. Wara li telqu l-inglizi dahlu l-libbjani li ghamlu malta taghhom.
@ xprun...heqq l-istorja tirrepeti ruha, mhux hekk! ALL IN THE FAMILY !!
Dak ir-ritratt klassiku. Dom Mintoff, is-Salavatur ta' Malta li refa' l-gzira mill-hefa, faqar u mill-medjoevu, u Michael Gonzi, l-aktar bniedem fl-istorja ta' Malta li ghamel hsara lil knisja kattolika maltija u li gab tant firda u dannazzjoni ghal eluf ta' Maltin. il-fatt li gonzi fl-ahhar induna li zbalja bl-ikrah u ghamel apologija, ma jhassar xejn mill-fatti tal-istorja tas-sebghinijiet.