A number of former British Colonies relate with pride the bloodshed and heroic feats of their nationals in the struggle for Independence. Not in Malta’s case though and 52 years after the Union Jack came down from Maltese flagpoles to be replaced by the Malta national flag – George Cross medal emblazoned on it for good measure – the political and human relationships between Malta and Great Britain remain as thick as that of thieves.
Reciprocal admirations remain on both sides. For Brits who know and follow their national history, Malta will always have a fond place in British hearts for its heroic participation in two World Wars; the Maltese bear the British no rancour at any level, in fact are still grateful for the smooth transition, for enabling practically all Maltese to be bi-lingual (a great asset), for a democratic system of Government very much based on Westminster and a British sense of humour, among many other things – not forgetting Association Football!
At midnight on 21st September 1964 in the presence of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by Malta’s then Prime Minister Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier and British Governor General at the time, Sir Maurice Dorman, signatures were put on bits of paper, brass bands played, flags went down and up and fireworks painted the night skies (where would Malta be without its fireworks?) – and that was that.
People woke up the day after very much in the same mode as they went to bed the night before.
Mind you, not all was straight and plain sailing. As early as the 1920s, Maltese political parties began clamouring for a measure of ‘Self Government’ which was finally granted. The Nationalist Party then began to campaign for Malta to adopt ‘Dominion Status’ on a par with Australia, New Zealand and Canada but this was never granted.
During World War II Malta took a frightful battering with substantial loss of civilian lives and those who joined the British Services (mainly Royal Navy), and widespread demolition through continual Nazi and Italian carpet bombing.
From the ruins emerged the young architect Dom Mintoff, a Malta Labour Party stalwart with staunch nationalistic fervour. In the early 1950s and his election for his first term as Prime Minister in 1955 he initiated a campaign for Integration, whereby Malta would become a part of Great Britain with equal rights to British citizens and representations at Westminster. Initially this found a measure of British support, but it came at the wrong time.
By the late 1950s the British economy began to leak like a sieve with military commitments still relevant (awareness of a WWII revival and the Russian ‘cold war’ threat), but the finances not following through resultant from the economic debilitation of WWII.
Westminster began releasing its colonies in the late 50s/early 60s.
The integration proposal having failed, Mintoff veered to the other extreme – total Independence. He resigned in 1958 amidst widespread protests and demonstrations and some riotous physical engagements with Malta Police and the British Authorities. His slogan was a very simple one – “Pay Up or Go Home”; that is, pay us our dues and start paying rent for using our facilities or pee off and leave us to manage ourselves.
A power vacuum followed between 1958 and 1962 until the Nationalist Party under Borg Olivier was returned to Government, largely as the Catholic Church interdicted the Malta Labour Party accusing it of “Communist” intentions and “anti-clericalism”.
Independence talks began immediately, the date set and duly accomplished.
However, Westminster had pulled a fast one. The Maltese Government was straddled with responsibility for internal affairs like unemployment, the civil service and the national economy. Britain continued to use Malta as a military base for its three military services – as well as NATO forces. Aerial, marine and territorial rights remained strictly under British control, including the airport at Luqa, all marine facilities, foreign policy and the choicest territorial properties for its barracks to house services families in comfort, and of course all the sports facilities at Marsa. National broadcasting (cabled radio and later television) also remained solely in the hands of British company Rediffusion – the only broadcasting media at the time.
On the Opposition benches Mintoff was furious at what he termed to be a ‘sham Independence’.
However, PM Borg Olivier strode valiantly on and a transition began to establish Malta as a tourist base, to incentivise industrialisation and develop agriculture and fisheries and of course create and maintain employment.
The toll was a heavy and burdening one with thousands of Maltese finding their only alternative to be mass emigration mostly to Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Now, let’s jump forward 52 years which Malta will celebrate on 21st September. Malta is now totally independent and thanks to endeavour and hard work over the 52 years, it currently has the most stable economy in Europe, the lowest unemployment rate in Europe, the greatest growth in GDP in Europe and a record number of tourist arrivals. Last week, Malta International Airport reported a day of record aircraft movements with 130 arrivals and departures in 24 hours. It has five star hotels and a wealth of four star hotels, lodgings and apartments and restaurants offering every style of international cuisine.
The airport has substituted military for civilian, the Grand Harbour is full of cruise ships instead of NATO warships and former military barracks have either been converted or rebuilt anew with luxury villas and apartments. The Government Primary School at St Paul’s Bay has pupils of 25 different nationalities where the common linguistic thread is English.
There has been much development since the horse and cart days of the 1950s!