The easiest way to write about former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff is to play the usual game between the messianic and demonic.
To Labourites, Mintoff represents the leader and the visionary who lead the Maltese Labour Movement through the troubles of the 1950s and 1960s, defying Empire and Church alike, to then lay the foundations of the Welfare State and a neutral and non-aligned Malta.
Yet with the same passion, to the average Nationalist, Mintoff’s name represents the early 1980s and what is often described as the dark times when, under his watch, hardly anything was done to stop an assortment of idiots, thugs and bullies from wreaking havoc with Maltese democracy.
For sure there are those who could not but loathe the man, especially if under his governance they suffered discrimination of one sort or another.
But then there are those who see Mintoff as the only politician who represented the only hope for many Maltese who were disenfranchised by an Establishment which sustained its quasi-imperial power thanks to a society that, bar that of a caste system, had become unbearably discriminatory, particularly after the misery and sacrifice of the second World War.
As I look closely at Maltese politics today, I often wonder whether many more would miss Mintoff. Those who would miss him now may well not be his devotees but his foes. I often wonder what Mintoff would say about today’s managerial kind of politics, which seems so alien to the “war of ideas” that he continuously intoned in his lengthy speeches, which even today give me goose bumps when I listen to them.
I often wonder what Mintoff would say about today’s managerial kind of politics, which seems so alien to the “war of ideas” that he continuously intoned in his lengthy speeches...
The man who defied Monsignor Gonzi and his church bells in an attempt to get the Maltese to imagine what a secular and fair state would look like, where state and church would be separated yet fair to each other, did indeed mesmerise everyone.
I remember how surprised I was hearing Eddie Fenech Adami say when Mintoff passed away, that as a young man he used to slip into crowds during Mintoff’s mass meetings to listen to the man whom he would face as his political adversary.
But was the Mintoffian creed just rhetoric? I grew up admiring Mintoff as a child whose parents were decent Labour voters. Mintoff was not our Saviour, but he was the man who gave my family hope.
My father was the typical Labour man, a skilled and educated worker who was always saying what a sad day it was when Labour split. My dad also admired Boffa and though he supported Mintoff after the split, he still disapproved of how they treated Boffa.
But what also struck me about my father’s politics was how as someone who defied the Church and voted Labour, even though he was and remained a devout Catholic all his life, he was also respectful and taught me to be respectful of Mintoff’s opponents — especially Dr George Borg Olivier whom I vaguely remember as Prime Minister when I was a wee lad in the 60s.
I have come to believe that my father’s generation was real in its political understanding of principles and respect. They were indeed “soldiers of steel” but they remained true to their principles because they really believed in social justice.
What happened in the 1980s had nothing to do with my father’s generation, and many of them have disapproved of what happened, even though their party loyalty remained untouched because they grew up to believe in what Fernand Braudel calls “history’s longue durée” the long run of history.
Today, the 1960s seem like ancient history. Yet it was a time when politics was based on principles and both sides were engaged in a serious ideological contest...
Today, the 1960s seem like ancient history. Yet it was a time when politics was based on principles and both sides were engaged in a serious ideological contest, which ultimately saw both parties come together in 1974 to form a Maltese Republic — which even detractors like Dr George Borg Olivier humbly accepted as a consensual moment in Maltese history where Nationalists and Labourites came together.
Again, here we find Mintoff’s paradox playing on our historical consciousness. Mintoff the objector to Nationalist Independence in 1964, manages to pull consensus in 1974 to form a Republic.
Likewise it was Mintoff’s same intransigence, which in the late 1980s, seeing the country going to the dogs, manoeuvres his own party, defies the thugs and the bullies who almost ruined us all, and approaches Nationalist heavyweights like Guido deMarco to break the most dangerous impasse that Maltese democracy has seen.
Mintoff was neither the messiah nor the devil incarnate. He was a man who had principles, who dared challenge the Establishment, and who wanted to see radical change where none of our current politicians would ever dream to even try.
Mintoff’s methods were awkward and sometimes dangerous. He managed to reform his party and steer it, but he also lost control of its base, which ultimately turned against him and called him a “traitor”.
I often think of Mintoff as a Maltese Eamon De Valera — loathed and loved in equal measure, a political gymnast and contortionist who was a real politician and who would dare fate.
A hundred years from his birth, as one looks back at Mintoff’s political legacy, one does wonder whether we will ever see a politician who could speak his mind eloquently and stir everyone by his rhetoric like him.
I do wonder whether we will ever find another politician like Mintoff, who stands high for what he believed, rather than try to please everyone, appease the Establishment, and go with a world where politicians look more like CEOs than inspirers of generations to come.
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