Many remember Dom Mintoff as having headed a government that managed to cling to power despite not winning a majority of votes in 1981. But the fiery Labour leader had actually resigned his post 23 years earlier.

It happened in the wake of the referendum on Mintoff’s proposal for integration with Britain and his insistence on greater British aid for Malta.

Mintoff resigned in the hope of a snap election and a stronger mandate – for independence instead of integration.

But in what biographer Mark Montebello called “one of his greatest political miscalculations”, Mintoff ended up in the political wilderness for 13 years, Malta was put under direct colonial control for four years and independence was eventually achieved by his Nationalist Party rival George Borg Olivier.

This excerpt from Montebello’s The Tail that Wagged the Dog takes up the story:

“Many in Malta each time took the impression that the British had put the integration plan out to dry. In Britain, on the other hand, not a few would again suspect that Dom had had one of his usual quirks.

"‘This sudden transformation from furious threats to apparent sweet reasonableness,’ as the Daily Mirror’s commentator, William Connor, put it, cut no ice with the British. ‘[Mintoff’s] cardboard dagger,’ he continued, ‘is a poor instrument with which to conduct high politics.’ It might not have been so phoney, though.

“Nevertheless, to most foreign observers Dom must have appeared incomprehensible at best, barmy at worst. To them he must have seemed jittery, for sure, jumping hither and thither as if chaotically. Perhaps this is way The Sphere, a popular London illustrated newspaper, dubbed him ‘the Maltese cat’ (rather than a Maltese dog, one would presume).

“British conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan too was rather exasperated with him, jadedly confiding to his diary that his Maltese counterpart was ‘intransigent’, ‘extravagant’ in his claims, ‘not very encouraging’, ‘behaving very badly’, ‘impossible’ and a ‘bully’.

"The poor chap finally decided that Dom was no better than ‘a low, blackmailing type, but very clever’. Maybe, however, Dom was more coherent and equable than anyone assumed. He was simply playing his cards as best he could.

Dom Mintoff with his wife Moyra in the 1950s.Dom Mintoff with his wife Moyra in the 1950s.

Mabel Strickland not impressed

“Mabel Strickland, for one, was not impressed at all, insisting that Dom and his government were steadily ‘on a spending spree’, and unswervingly intent on ‘putt[ing] over the greatest hoax of modern times’.

"Perhaps Borg Olivier was more dismissive, inexplicably styling the integration plan as ‘the basest form of colonialism’.

“Of course, doing his utmost not only to pull off the best financial deal possible but moreover the most equitable politically, over the 24 apprehensive months subsequent to the referendum, Dom travelled to London 12 times to conduct discussions with the British government, mainly acted for by Secretary of State for the Colonies Alan Lennox-Boyd.

“The House of Commons discussed Malta’s case in two major debates, one on 26 March 1956, and another two years later, on 1 April 1958, with many sporadic PQs in between.

"While during the former debate the recommendations of the round table conference in favour of Dom’s integration plan, including the three Maltese-elected Westminster MPs, had been unequivocally endorsed in toto, and seemingly could have attracted serious political and financial investment, in the latter the outcome was less plain, with members wavering on both sides. During the same period, the British cabinet dealt with Malta’s economic and constitutional issues, including various memoranda, 11 times.

“In Malta, Dom’s main pronouncements were of course done in parliament but also during mass meetings which to Malta’s standards were truly gigantic. Up till the integration referendum of February 1956, Dom is estimated to have addressed some 80 major indoor or outdoor gatherings; afterwards, the number went up to a total of a hundred or more. Ever the unobtrusive little man, he unfailingly addressed the crowd with stupefying vehemence.

“This impressed a visiting a New York Times journalist. ‘Although Mr Mintoff can be as fiery as any Mediterranean orator in the Semitic Maltese language,’ he observed, ‘his [personal] manner is customarily amiable and his conversation quiet and cultured’.

“A British counterpart, Norman Hillson, was likewise swayed. ‘He has all the passionate conviction of the Latin,’ he commented, ‘but underneath the flow of oratory there is a streak of wise statesmanship’…”

Independence alternative to integration

 “By August 1956, barely in the initial stage of the final fourth-phase talks, Dom was already seriously waving the independence flag up high. Dom saw independence as the only alternative if the plan for an integrated Anglo-Maltese responsibility of local reserved matters failed.

"It meant Malta having sole responsibility of all matters concerning her present and future. This Dom had made abundantly clear again and again from day one of his leadership, and had it unequivocally stated black on white in the 1950 MLP first electoral manifesto Malta First and Foremost.

“It is probably safe to say that, but for his supporters, none in Malta, in London or elsewhere believed – as continuously harped upon by Mabel Strickland and the Nationalists – that the Maltese Islands could possibly survive for long without clinging to some greater nation. Not for Dom.

“Far from seeing independence as an impossibility, he believed that it could easily become an actual probability at any given moment. The integration plan was an all-round package deal which could not be acceded to from any one side yet rebuffed on another. It was either all in or all out. Dom was quite adamant and earnest about this. He had no intention whatsoever of beating about the bush in any way.

“This is perhaps why he had absolutely no qualms, if any part of the integration plan foundered, at resigning his premiership in order to call a general election in which he would seek a new mandate from the people for the independence alternative.

“True to his word, always with the Labour Party’s executive backing him roundly, in the few months between mid-December 1957 and end-April 1958, Dom evoked his resignation four times.

Agriculture Minister Johnny Cole addresses party supporters as Mintoff speaks to Danny Cremona.Agriculture Minister Johnny Cole addresses party supporters as Mintoff speaks to Danny Cremona.

Mintoff threatens resignation four times

“On the first occasion he actually did resign due to a seemingly impertinent letter from the GWU, an essential government ally, which showed lack of confidence in his leadership. He could not afford vacillating loyalty, and only withdrew his resignation once the letter was retracted and a formal apology made.

“Shortly afterwards it was the British side which defaulted. Dom’s political integrity and survival could not brook this; it would have justifiably meant that his word stood for nothing.

"The main reason seems to have been that the British government was showing itself incapable of acting as one mind and one body, allowing departments, particularly the royal navy admiralty, and the ministry of supply, to take decisions which conflicted, at least in relation to the integration plan, with those of the colonial office, the cabinet, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

“The second incident, in March 1958, involved the retention of funds which Malta absolutely needed to balance its public commitments. The prior occurrence, of much greater import, occurred three months previously, at end-December 1957, when many dockyard workers had their employment put on the line by the admiralty.

“In agreement with the opposition, Dom recalled parliament from its Christmas recess to put forward a motion, seconded by none other than opposition leader Borg Olivier, proposing what came to be known as the ‘Break with Britain Resolution’.

The Times of Malta front page of April 28, 1958 – the day the GWU had ordered a general strike.The Times of Malta front page of April 28, 1958 – the day the GWU had ordered a general strike.

“It resolved that the Maltese people ‘are no longer bound by agreements and obligations towards the British government’. The motion was carried unanimously by acclamation, and Dom threatened to resign and call an election if the British proved obdurate.

“The sheer epic effrontery of this move sent Britain’s imperial government into spasms of confusion. Eventually Dom’s ploy pulled through three times.

“On the fourth, however, things went badly. When he resigned in April 1958 his mathematical prescience failed him horrifically.

“It all started dubiously on Easter Sunday, 6 April 1958, a day unquestionably ill-fit for political dingdongs in Catholic Malta, when for an hour-and-a-half Dom addressed thousands gathered at the island’s greatest square, Il-Fosos. Placards crying out, “Englishmen, pay up or go home!” could be seen everywhere.

‘Refuse our hand, and it shall strike you!’

“In order to balance Malta’s budget and avert any dockyard discharges, the British were being demanded a one-time bailout of £7m (almost today’s US$ 1bn). ‘Again I tell the British government,’ Dom shrieked to a fired-up throng, ‘Refuse our hand, and it shall strike you! Play dirty, and this movement shall rise to fight for its independence!’

Dom protested most vehemently, going all the way by writing directly to the queen, an action which sent the colonial office people off their rocker

“The fight in Dom’s plan had to commence with his government’s resignation and the calling of new elections. This had been decided a fortnight before the Easter meeting at a joint session of the parliamentary group and the party executive on 24 March 1958, and even announced in parliament on the morrow.

“Most Nationalists would have misunderstood such a course of action, with some contriving that Dom must have feared shouldering the unpleasant responsibility of discharging workers, while others inversely assuming he was trying to be magnanimous by sacrificing the party for some abstract ideals. Anyhow, the dice was cast.

"Of course, earnest negotiations between Valletta and London never ceased. All to nought, though.

“Almost a month to the day, in a message over the cable radio on 21 April 1958, the queen’s birthday, Dom announced that he will advise the governor to dissolve parliament for the holding of general elections. He did so that very evening.”

Mintoff with supporters.Mintoff with supporters.

One of Mintoff’s greatest miscalculations

“It was one of the greatest miscalculations of his political career. Dom might have been correct in wagering that he still enjoyed the support of the majority of the electorate. Just days before his resignation the Labour Party and the bishops happily reconciled, and Dom even struck a propitious deal with the touchy doctors’ union. All seemed plain sailing.”

“Apparently, however, neither his sharp mathematical mind nor his ever-vigilant cleithrophobia pondered all contingencies sufficiently well. What if an immediate election would not be called by the governor?

"What if the British displaced the local government? What if, more crucially than anything, the church did everything in its almighty power to keep him out of government? What if independence would indeed be granted... without him?

“If all this had seemed far-fetched on that star-crossed spring evening it might have been because Dom was unwisely carried away by his own alacrity.

"This time his instincts had betrayed him. He and his comrades would have surely thought better had they known that their ill-fated decision was to put them out of office for more than 13 years. It would be Dom’s insufferable long wait, and perhaps Malta’s greatest loss.

“Dom was not officially superseded as prime minister for the next three days, up until 24 April 1958, when, following an abortive meeting with the cabinet, Governor Robert Laycock finally dissolved parliament, and six days later assumed total control of the government’s administration by direct rule.

"Had not this been according to Malta’s constitution, article 59, some would have been more than justified in calling it a coup d’état. In the meantime, all hell broke loose.

Pawlu Boffa and Mintoff.Pawlu Boffa and Mintoff.

“No Labour adherent would or could accept to form a government without Dom at its head.

"Borg Olivier contended that he had no mandate to do so either. Street incidents, especially against innocent British and American-looking people, became worrying. It was disturbingly rumoured that Dom will be exiled Makarios-style.

“In the House of Commons back in London, Secretary of State for the Colonies Alan Lennox-Boyd was given a rough ride, and even later received a piece of Dom’s mind.

"Meanwhile, in and around Valletta loud and aggressive mass demonstrations became an almost daily occurrence, with the police on one occasion charging the crowds with truncheon and horse, injuring many.”

Police commissioner ignores Mintoff’s orders

“Commissioner of Police Vivian De Gray, who was appointed to the office by Dom two years previously, was ordered to restrain his men.

"Though Dom was technically still prime minister at the moment, De Gray disobeyed, implying sole loyalty to the governor. Dom had to demand his immediate resignation, and did so, but was rebuffed. If anything, this was a serious breach of Malta’s constitutional rights by the governor.

“Dom protested most vehemently, going all the way by writing directly to the queen, an action which sent the colonial office people off their rocker.

The situation was unnecessarily escalating. To avoid any further clashes, the governor henceforth banned all meetings, gatherings and demonstrations, especially from Valletta and its surrounding areas.”

Riots break out

“Matters, however, did get worse. Particularly when the GWU ordered a general strike for Monday, 28 April 1958. ‘I don’t think there’s anything I can do at this stage to stop riots,’ Dom stated in an interview to Britain’s Sunday Mirror. ‘We don’t like bloodshed and we don’t like riots. But the Maltese people are very angry.’

“Dom might have been somewhat frank in this since he seems to have been unable to dissuade some Ħamrun Labour stalwarts from preparing to hijack the strike to stir up trouble. To thwart them Dom seems to have made sure to prime his moles within the police force and get ready for the eventuality. On the night before he uncharacteristically must have slept very little, if any.

“Come Monday he left his Tarxien residence at four in the morning, cursing at a voluntary driver who dared arrive a few minutes late.

"Then he insisted on being driven from one locality to another in great haste apparently trying to anticipate disturbances, relaying information to the police as he went along, and whenever possible urging people to quietly return home. Governor Laycock had issued stern warnings that disorders would be ‘dealt with firmly’.

 “The general strike was an almost 100 per cent success. The police were out in force and in full gear purportedly to keep law and order but, as infallibly happens, they must have inadvertently triggered off disturbances mainly around the Cottonera area, where some skirmishes with the police occurred, and three police stations set on fire.

“Later it was affectedly claimed by Labour hagiographers that for a day the workers took control of Malta, which they certainly had not. The pictures, however, never fail to impress, especially the ones where youngsters, some mere boys, can be seen assailed by the police, particularly at Paola, and today form part of Labour lore.

“Nevertheless, though the whole rumpus seems to have been greatly improvised, the governor apparently was convinced otherwise. ‘I have definite proof,’ he later insisted with a British journalist who was on the spot, ‘that the mob is highly organised [by] a few hundred and their organisation and planning of incidents is extremely efficient.’

“He might have been trying to overstate the situation to paint Dom blacker than he was. Anyway, in the aftermath of the disturbances, a hundred persons between 15 and 56 years of age were arraigned in small groups. Almost three-quarters of them were awarded prison sentences ranging from a few days to over seven months.

“The most conspicuous of them were three ex-Labourite ministers, including Agatha Barbara. Despite the thrill of the moment, the political point of the disturbances, if ever there was one, seems to have been wretchedly lost.

"For the hullabaloo defeated Dom’s aspiration of having elections as soon as possible. This could not happen because the governor declared a three-month moratorium on all public meetings and demonstrations in which, of course, no electoral campaign could take place.

“On the one hand, the governor desired early elections since, as he told the secretary of state for the colonies in London, ‘the longer Mintoff has to prepare, the more effectively will he perfect his electoral platform and organise his party’. On the other hand, however, he did not want to rush matters since ‘it is too soon yet to assess Mintoff’s probable plan’.

“Eventually no election would be held for almost four years. Dom himself emerged the worse from the whole affair as the lawlessness did not endear him to anyone but his partisans.

“The tragedy in the present position, wrote the editor of The Birmingham Post, ‘is that the demagogue in Mr Mintoff has destroyed much of the genuine spirit of goodwill towards the George Cross island that existed in this country.’ While the British Daily Mirror called him ‘a petulant politician with a violent temper’, the Daily Herald slammed him as ‘rash, excitable and even tiresome’.”

Mintoff's two daughters have distanced themselves from the biography, describing it as "profoundly unethical and immoral".  

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