Dom Mintoff was elected to government for the second time 50 years ago, on June 16, 1971 and his first few months in office were a whirlwind of activity best remembered for his negotiation of a new, more generous defence agreement with Britain, the historic opening to communist China, and his intransigence at the Helsinki security conference.

Mark Montebello in his biography The Tail that Wagged the Dog describes the events as a political earthquake.

These are extracts of his book, published recently:

“That very first day in office Dom Mintoff worked non-stop well into the night. Subsequently he would work straight on from about 9.30am till 3pm, then from around 5.30pm till 2am. In civil service terms it was a strange and rather incomprehensible schedule to abide to. In the afternoon of his first day in office Dom even made time to manage a sprint visit to Gozo.

“Despite the huge electoral effort made throughout the Maltese islands with the impeccable propaganda machine the party had set in motion, Labour’s 1971 electoral victory was far from a landslide. Truth be told, but for just one parliamentary seat in the fifth ‘Nationalist’ district (comprising Dingli, Żebbuġ, Siġġiewi and Qormi), carried by only 21 votes in the ninth count, the election would have been lost. Had these few votes gone to the other side the Nationalists would have won the election by the all-important parliamentary majority despite losing the popular vote. Whatever, the turnout was a massive 93%.

“District gerrymandering and all, at the end of the long-winding single-transferable-vote count which took more than two whole days to indicate the winner, it transpired that Labour, now with an absolute majority of 50.8%, had been the beneficiary of a 7.6% swing from PN to Labour across board from the previous 1966 election, and a substantial overall 15.5% swing when taking into account all the other parties too.

“Considering this was a do-or-die moment for Dom, one might be almost sickened by the thought of just how close he had come to perhaps permanently exiting history as a screw-up. He would have been over sixty years of age at the next elections of 1976 if he had contested at all.”

A time of rapid change

“The first change, immediately after Dom’s swearing-in, concerned Police Commissioner Vivian De Gray who had been on Dom’s black book since the 1958 disturbances of 13 years previously. De Gray accepted to resign right away.

1975. A cartoon by Richard Cole which appeared in London’s Times showing Mintoff in the guise of Napoleon Bonaparte kicking the British bulldog out of Malta. Photo: Richard Cole1975. A cartoon by Richard Cole which appeared in London’s Times showing Mintoff in the guise of Napoleon Bonaparte kicking the British bulldog out of Malta. Photo: Richard Cole

“The day after saw Independent Malta’s first governor-general, the British 69-year-old Maurice Dorman, leave too. He was replaced by the 62-year-old lawyer Anthony Mamo. On the very morrow of Dorman’s exit Dom dissolved the financial interest of the British Tyneside firm Swan Hunter at Malta’s dockyards. It had begun over seven years before in 1963. The plan was to have the workers themselves be the docks’ owners.

“After this, by the end of the week a possibly weightier decision came along. It was the abrupt expulsion as persona non grata (unacceptable/unwelcome person) of Admiral Gino Birindelli, NATO’s chief of naval forces in the Mediterranean. This expulsion sent shockwaves in the West’s international community.

“If this was not enough, immediately afterwards Dom requested that US naval ships stop visiting Malta. This caused NATO great consternation. Such earth-shattering changes came, as one historian put it, like ‘a gale sweeping through a musty house’, and even struck fear in many a political onlooker…

“Dom’s actions were not fortuitous. Nor did they come out of the blue. Newly-elected Dom was not simply flexing his muscles or showing his teeth. ‘When elected to government in 1971,’ Dom had said during a mass meeting many years later, ‘we weren’t at all sure whether the British government would allow us to make reforms. We had to appear fearless,’ he added soundly. ‘We were prepared to wear boxing gloves in case the British government so chose.’

“Nonetheless, Dom had spoken about these changes, and publicly pledged every single one of them, many times before and during the electoral campaign; these and much more.” 

The nail-biting renegotiation

“For it was with much dignity, an almost impudent pride, nerves of steel, and an unwavering whip hand that Dom wrangled with the British and NATO for a renegotiation of a defence agreement, and a financial assistance agreement dependent on it, which were made by Malta’s government prior to Independence up till 1974.

‘There is nothing in these agreements for us Labourites,’ Dom declared on the eve of the 1971 election. ‘Whatever persists in them does so solely for the Nationalists. Once elected,’ he vouched, ‘we’ll have a mandate from the people to scrap them and hammer out a new deal.’

“And so he did, taking nine nail-biting months, till March 1972, to bring about almost single-handedly Malta’s momentous breakthrough. The talks with Britain and three of its NATO partners, namely, Italy, West Germany, and the United States, were extensive, intricate, serpentine, and gruelling, for all involved.

A man of complex character, shrewd but impulsive, liable to outbursts of temper, Mintoff leads with the authority of a despot- British Foreign Office memo

“For the Maltese people, its entire future was at stake; for the British and NATO just a transient defence conglomeration. Dom played all his cards dexterously, shrewdly mentioning Libya and the USSR as possibly drawn to Malta’s strategic geographical location and harbours. To this America’s CIA responded with a resolve not to allow Malta become hostile to NATO’s interests. Throughout weeks and weeks of high tension, with talks having rounds in Rome, Malta, and London, Dom unbendingly kept his cards tight to his chest while boldly raising the stakes more and more.

“A precious insight into ‘the extraordinary [and] positively operatic experience of doing business with Mintoff’, as John Carrington, the UK’s secretary of state for defence three years Dom’s junior, and Britain’s main negotiator in these talks, attested, was proffered by Carrington himself in his 1988 memoirs: ‘Mintoff’s personal style – perhaps his unescapable temperament – was to alternate between periods of civilized charm and spasms of strident and hysterical abuse. The most modestly phrased criticism [...] would bring his voice to a shrill scream of temper in response. At times it even seemed that his mental balance was in danger. [...] On the other hand I realized that there was also calculation in every Mintoff mood. [...]

“Mintoff’s technique – his negotiating as opposed to his personal technique – was based on the military principles of shock and surprise. He liked to produce some sudden démarche [political initiative], to throw everyone else off balance and start again on his own terms. [...] Yet, oddly enough, I formed the opinion that Mintoff, despite the impossibility of his behaviour, was a genuine patriot who wanted to do the best for his Maltese people and cared deeply about them. And through it all I liked him.’…

April 1972. A cartoon by Eppo Doevein Amsterdam’s Elsevier Magazine. ‘Dom Mintoff (Malta)’ appears right in the middle of other heads of state (from: third from left). His score repeats ‘poen’ in Dutch, meaning: Money, money, money, money. Photo: Elsevier MagazineApril 1972. A cartoon by Eppo Doevein Amsterdam’s Elsevier Magazine. ‘Dom Mintoff (Malta)’ appears right in the middle of other heads of state (from: third from left). His score repeats ‘poen’ in Dutch, meaning: Money, money, money, money. Photo: Elsevier Magazine

Not all, however, were so appreciative of Dom’s idiosyncrasy. The Dutch Joseph Luns, NATO’s general secretary who was also part of the talks, was not impressed. He was five years Dom’s senior, and more than an entire foot taller than him. ‘I have negotiated with Sukarno,’ Luns told Carrington about Dom, ‘with Nasser, with Krishna Menon, yet never have I met such a bastard!’ Luns must have been disconcerted by discovering just how out of Dom’s league he was. In the final reckoning he proved to be less steadfast than Carrington or anyone else.

“In short, amongst other matters, the new deal stipulated that for the next seven years, till March 1979, Malta’s facilities would be rented out to Britain for more than £15m a year (over US$ 700.5M in today’s economic value), an amount exceeding that of the previous agreement each year by over US$500m.

For anyone watching from around the world, whether politicians, entrepreneurs or both – and many were – this was truly astounding. It was as if Mintoff had floored a mighty bull by the horns with his bare hands.”

The historic opening to China

“If this deal came as a surprise for all, in just four days’ time Dom had another in store which would stupefy everyone further. On 30 March 1972 he became the first European leader to visit the Communist People’s Republic of China; in the West second only to US President Richard Nixon’s visit just a month before. Dom’s visit was replete with meaning both symbolic and commercial.

“While Malta now necessitated to open up and diversify its economy, for the first time ever it needed no British blessing to do so or to forge relationships with other countries of whatever hue and to strike dealings with any of them. Dom’s notion of approaching China seems to have been hatched by Romania’s president Nicolai Ceausescu, whom Dom had visited with Moyra the previous November.

“Mindful of the visit’s PR value to the West, and eager to pursue his “opening up” policy of China, Premier Chou En-Lai welcomed Dom with extended arms and made sure that the visit would be a memorable one. Malta, he further promised, will henceforth always be extended preferential treatment. Though China was as yet not so technologically developed, and was still steeped in poverty, as Dom always recalled later, the visit began a warm and propitious relationship between the two countries which persists unto this very day.

“The Chinese refused any payment from Dom of the huge ‘loan’ given to him, only later accepting to be repaid, and in small annual instalments. Many large projects in Malta were magnanimously financed by the Chinese government. Two of the most outstanding were the 1975 ‘Red China Dock’, the largest dry-dock in the Mediterranean, and the 1988 Malta Freeport, the first transhipment hub, and currently the third largest, in the Mediterranean region.

“Of course, in stark contrast to what the British and the Nationalists had always done, China was part of Dom’s new foreign policy to cast a net much wider than just around the Western pool. This was not done for merely ideological but also for pragmatic economic reasons since in such manner Dom exponentially broaden untapped commercial possibilities.”

Muammar Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff outside Auberge de CastilleMuammar Gaddafi and Dom Mintoff outside Auberge de Castille

A special relationship with Libya

“Libya held a special place in Dom’s estimation perhaps for its proximity to the Maltese Islands. Dom’s friendship with its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, just twenty-nine years old in 1971, was almost legendary.

“ Of over 60 countries around the globe which Dom called on during his lifetime mainly for government business reasons, Libya was the most visited after England and Italy. He went there for the first time as prime minister during King Idris’ time in 1955, and again in 1960. Barely two years after the 1969 revolution, while newly-elected Dom was engaged in negotiations with the British, Gaddafi came to Malta’s aid by unconditionally making good for the lack of funds available to pay civil servants.

“At least until the 2011 Arab Spring of 40 years later which toppled Gaddafi just a year prior to Dom’s own death, the closeness between the Maltese and Libyan people was not only geographical but also political, cultural and commercial.

“Though a low in the relationship was reached in the summer of 1980 due to a dispute on the dividing line of the continental shelf between Malta and Libya related to offshore oil rigging, the rift was mended soon enough, prior and beyond the US bombing of Libya on 15 April 1986, of which Gaddafi and his family were saved thanks to Malta’s forewarning.”

Europe of Abel and Cain

“‘No co-operation [between nations] is possible without security,’ Dom stated in more sophisticated words while addressing an international conference. ‘Security must therefore be achieved before economic co-operation, cultural exchanges and social understanding can take place.’

Dom’s view of world affairs was really very Manichean, though fluidly so, for to his mind switching from one side to the other was always possible.

In November 1978 he expressed this dichotomy in graphic terms with the analogy of the Biblical brothers Abel and Cain. Dom was speaking in Malta’s parliament about his recent experience in Stockholm, Sweden, where he addressed a plenary session of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly at which Malta held the chairmanship:

“There are two Europes. Europe has two inheritances: that of Cain, and that of Abel. The Europe with Abel’s inheritance is generous and has opened up for the world new avenues. It is the progressive Europe. The Europe with Cain’s inheritance is mean, posing as liberty’s champion, solely craving to dominate today’s world. This Europe will come to an end. To this Cain the Maltese people says, ‘Out of the way; it is not with Cain’s Europe that I desire to adhere; it is Abel that I want as an ally’. When Abel is brought before us, the sincere Europe, the clean Europe, the progressive Europe, we shall bond with him. This might have been the basic rationale behind Dom’s adamant position with regard to Malta’s neutrality and non-alignment, terms considered quite synonymous in the 1960s.

First reference to Switzerland of the Mediterranean

“Dom had announced this policy since his ‘New Plan for Malta’ back in January 1959. It was in this context of ‘neutralisation’ that he spoke of Malta being ‘a little Switzerland in the heart of the Mediterranean’, an expression not so in vogue in the 1970s, but revived by Labour Party leader Alfred Sant in the 1990s.

“Neutrality somewhat led to Malta’s relationship to the Non-Aligned Movement, the international forum established in 1961 by 25 heads of state including those who had founded AASPO six years previously. Currently the movement has a 120 member states, making it the largest worldwide grouping of states after the UN.

“Having joined in September 1973, it eventually withdrew more than three decades later in 2004 when it became a member of the European Union.”

The Helsinki conference

“One classic example of Dom’s uncanny diplomatic skill working on the highest of international levels within his power-struggle vision of world affairs came during the East-West summit held at Helsinki, Finland, between 1972 and 1975. This marked the very beginning of the Cold War’s end by a détente between the East and West.

“Though the superpowers at first accepted Dom’s tenet that there could be no peace and security in Europe without peace and security in the Mediterranean, they later thought they could nonchalantly brush the principle aside together with its main proponent. Dom would not have it and dug his heels.

“Finally, his fortitude won the day and also perhaps a dash of admiration from the big fish. While US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example, went so far as to suggest in jest that Mintoff could only be conquered by assassinating him, USSR Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko called Malta’s formidable little man ‘Mintoff the Terrible’.

“Though this occasion seems to have boosted Dom’s international fame immeasurably, the British never ceased taking him, perhaps aptly, with a grain of salt, as a hard-nosed if candid secret memorandum drawn in March 1977 by the Foreign Office suggests: ‘A man of complex character, shrewd but impulsive, liable to outbursts of temper, [Mintoff] leads his Party and his Cabinet with the authority of a despot. Strongly anti-clerical.’

“He is a skilled negotiator, able to screw the maximum concessions from his opponent by an unscrupulous mixture of reason and emotion. He is no diplomat and some of his displays of temper, intended to score points in negotiation, have done him permanent harm by unnecessarily antagonising others. He is a bad winner, tending to gloat over his opponent, and a bad loser ready to blame anyone but himself.

“He is vindictive and quite unprincipled in his dealings with people, believing that the end justified the means. Mintoff has an inflated idea of his own importance as an international figure and resents any sign that foreign statesmen do not take him at his own valuation. His hatred of colonialism makes him ultra-sensitive to any suggestion of a patronising or a condescending attitude [...]”

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