Today is the 70th anniversary of the death of my grandfather, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, known as il-Gross. After 70 years, what remains of his legacy in thought, in principle and in example?
What strikes me most and stands out from what he wrote, what he said, as recorded primarily in the Debates of the Malta Legislative Assembly, and what other people wrote and said about him was his authenticity. He said what he meant, he believed in what he said.
He was loyal to his beliefs, loyal to his faith and his Church. Elected to serve the public interest, he served the public interest, not his own. His patriotism was loyalty towards his country and people.
He was a Maltese patriot. He held dear the Maltese people, collectively and individually, Maltese traditions and the Maltese language, as well as the history of Malta.
In his profession he was loyal to his clients, as a university professor he was loyal to his students. He was, above all, loyal in his married life. People trusted him and his word. He was never fake: even in caricature, his truth was evident.
Secondly, what I note is the breadth, indeed the eclectic nature, of his cultural interests. He was not only well read in Italian and English, but also had an expansive appetite for world literature, even if he read in translation. So he spoke and wrote not only about Dante, Manzoni, Carducci and D’Annunzio, Byron, Scott, Coleridge, Thackeray and George Bernard Shaw, but also about Goethe and Tolstoy.
He was interested in the history of art and music. Of course he also studied history, political science and the humanities, aside from his beloved discipline, law. He was interested in natural history and especially the studies by Maltese naturalists Giuseppe Despott, Alfredo Caruana Gatto, Sir Temi Zammit and John Borg.
My grandfather’s political ideology was broadly that of the Christian Democrats: he saw every man and woman as unique, without any bias or prejudice of class, nationality or religious persuasion. He was, however, interested in what the State could do for the less privileged.
Among his achievements one should mention, as minister for the treasury, his fulfilled programme for the building by the government of ‘workmen’s dwellings’ in Birkirkara, Ħamrun, Blata il-Bajda, Cos-picua and Paola. Almost all these blocks of houses still exist. They withstood the test of time. People still live in them. This was one of the first such schemes in 1920s Europe, immediately following the one by the Christian Social Party in Vienna.
His goodness of heart at times eclipsed his talent and intellectual gifts
Also of note is his bold introduction of the widows’ and orphans’ contributory pension scheme for government employees. In the very brief periods (1926-27 and 1932-33) in which he was minister for the treasury and the police, besides looking at the ‘technical’ art of government (piloting the very first Maltese Treasury and Audit Act) he also tried and managed to introduce ‘humanity’ in the style of government.
Indeed, my grandfather excelled in his attitude of ‘friendship towards all’. He held no anger or bitterness towards his political adversaries. Although he was and has remained the only member of Parliament to be sent to prison over breach of privilege, he held no grudge against those who moved the resolution and voted for it.
He was also a poet, writing both in Maltese, his own language, and in Italian, the language of his culture.
His academic contributions to the history of our laws are notable.
He was endowed with a beautiful baritone voice, which he used to eloquently and persuasively address the crowds in mass meetings, often without a microphone, to convince panels of jurymen in the criminal courts and his fellow members of Parliament in the legislative assembly.
In Opposition his criticism of the government was fair but became severe when exposing arrogance or high-handedness. When in government his defence was as convincing as it was logical and sound.
His goodness of heart at times eclipsed his talent and intellectual gifts. His brilliant oratory at times might have led people to forget his essential humility and attachment to principle.
In politics as in most things in life, there are constants and variants. The constants are mainly in ethical values. I seek to keep in mind the examples in the ethical values he always strongly upheld.
Carm Mifsud Bonnici is a Nationalist MP and a former home affairs minister.
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