Brinkmanship, bluff and Freedom Day

When I think of Freedom Day, social justice comes to mind: we must conserve the achievements of the 1970s in light of the strong wave of austerity politics being implemented across Europe 

Getting business done with the Brits... Dom Mintoff
Getting business done with the Brits... Dom Mintoff

Professor Dominic Fenech made a very interesting critical point during the launch of my recently published book, “Il-Ħelsien: il-Mixja lejn il-31 ta' Marzu.” Fenech criticised my use of terminology with regards to Dom Mintoff's diplomatic manoeuvres vis-à-vis the British, and pointed out that my term “bluff” was misplaced. Instead, according to Fenech, “brinkmanship” was more suitable a word to describe Mintoff's actions.

I used the term “bluff” to describe Mintoff's indirect threat to the British in making a deal with the Libyans should the British fail to meet all of his demands. On March 2nd 1972, while Mintoff and the British Government (then led by the Tories under the premiership of Edward Heath) were discussing the terms on which the British had to close and dismantle their base in Malta, the British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home sent a telegram to NATO and the US Government, claiming that he had received information from a pro-Labour source and a pro-Nationalist Party source, that Mintoff was going to strike a deal with the Libyans if the British did not meet his demands.

The telegram stated that the Libyans were offering the Maltese Government £180 million sterling in ten years, and were going to effect the payment via a Swiss bank.

Apart from this telegram, there is no documented evidence that the Libyans were actually offering such a staggering sum in return for a Maltese base and it is for this reason that I am quite confident that in this case Mintoff was in fact bluffing.

Mintoff knew quite well that, although the British were dismantling the naval and military facilities in Malta as part of their modern defence strategy based on missiles and aircraft (as outlined in Duncan Sandys’ defence White Paper in 1957) NATO, the UK and especially the US, still considered Malta as an integral component in their geo-political sphere of influence and by no means did they want it to be utilized by their ideological rivals i.e. the USSR and the emerging independent countries forming part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nowadays, we’re even in a position to prove this with President’s Richard Nixon messages to Edward Heath, in which he urges him to come to an agreement with Mintoff even if this meant increasing Britain’s financial offer.

The voluminous file PREM15/1704 of the UK National Archives, is quite revealing on the discussions leading to the final agreement signed by Lord Carrington and Mintoff on March 26th 1972. In very simple terms, we witness Mintoff dealing with political forces much bigger than himself, while pushing NATO and the UK to pay a high price for making use of Malta as a base.

At the time, Malta was still largely considered to be a developing country by the World Bank. The vision of the Malta Labour Party was to turn Malta into a developed country with a diversified economy: a free country which needed not depend on the returns of its use as a military and naval base.

The fact that the British base was finally marked for total dismantling by 31st March 1979, rendered Malta free to officially join the Non-Aligned Movement and secure lucrative deals with countries outside of the Western sphere of influence, such as China. When the official date of the closure of the British base came to be, on 31st March 1979, the day marked as Freedom Day, Malta was identified by the World Bank as one of the richest nations amongst small states.

There can be little doubt of the MLP’s success in implementing its vision.

Of course, making the British pay a hefty £14 million sterling per year as rent for their use of Malta as a base, played an important part in Malta’s economic development in the 1970s, but simply saying that Mintoff negotiated a new lease agreement with the British and NATO is an under-statement.

Mintoff had successfully forced NATO to accept the fact that, according to the new agreement only Britain could make use of Malta as a base, while NATO’s financial contribution was only being considered simply as payment NOT to allow the use of Malta as a base by its ideological rivals.

More than anything else, this agreement shows Malta’s utmost geo-strategic importance. Mintoff was tactful in playing this card so effectively in the worldwide political scenario. His negotiating skills and tactful manoeuvres put Mintoff on a par with ‘the big boys’ (his foreign counterparts) and, moreover, cemented him in the local annals as the tough negotiator and larger-than-life political character that he was; a true mover and a force to be reckoned with.

All things considered, I cannot but feel that in our collective consciousness, Freedom Day provides for a much more tangible concept than other national holidays, for it is not only the day on which we celebrate Malta as an independent state free from the clutches of foreign bases and wars which do not pertain to us; but it is also the day when we can truly celebrate the realization of the working-class dream – that of living in a free and democratic society which offers job opportunities and a decent standard of living.

This was by no means simply the dream of the Maltese working-class, it was also the dream of the European class and today’s dream of emerging working classes in developing countries, most notably those of the Arab World.

The first thing which comes to my mind when I think of Freedom Day is social justice. I propose that the best way to celebrate Freedom Day is to conserve the achievements of the 1970s in light of the strong wave of austerity politics being implemented across Europe. We simply cannot allow to be robbed of the gains that the working class made in the name of modern European capitalism – the same brand of capitalism which is increasingly jeopardizing the very workers’ rights that resulted from long years of struggle and revolutions.