Men’s greatness is not measured by the length of their obituaries, nor by the intensity of the hatred of those who rejoice at their death.Men’s greatness is best measured by the positive and lasting change they bring to society around them. By such measure no one stands taller than Dom Mintoff who this week passed away aged 96.
Mintoff’s unforgiving critics make false judgement by using the wrong compass of where history starts. Often such criticism is based on events that happened late in the second Mintoff’s legislature of the seventies and his performance after that. That is wrong. Mintoff’s history should start from the post war period when Mintoff practically took into his hands the physical reconstruction after the devastation of war and pledged to dedicate his political career to redeem Malta from the chains of colonialism.Those who have not lived through the misery of the fifties and the sixties can never appreciate the dimension of change that Mintoff brought about. Before he imbued the nation with self-confidence to believe that we can stand on our own as a sovereign state, the general thinking was that we were too small to dream beyond the confines of colonialism or neo-colonialism, with theoretical political statehood but inevitable economic submissiveness. We were conditioned to think that Malta had no economies of scale to keep itself economically sustainable so we should be eternally grateful to our colonisers or neo-colonisers for taking us under their patronage. We were forced to believe that the imbalance between the supply of labour and work opportunities could only be addressed through mass emigration rather than home grown economic development.
We were trained to think that it was a privilege to live in a confessional state where the Church decided whom we should choose as our civil leaders and how much education we should have access to, in small doses, as excess of it, like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, could surfeit the appetite for materialism and kill the spiritual fervour of the soul.Before Mintoff showed us that there is another way if we truly believed in ourselves, it was considered the natural order of things that most of us were poor, that a very select few had a God given right for untaxed riches that can last several lifetimes, and that the interest of the Church and the privileged were the only things that the coloniser needed to bother themselves about, as these would take care to ensure that the general population would remain happy with the few crumbs that fall off the table without any 1919 Sette Giugnio type of insurrections.
It takes baby-boomers like me to recall how I had to drop out from 6th form in 1969 to take the first job that was offered to me at age 17 as my family could not support me with the expenses of pursuing a university degree. Don’t I remember my father and elder brother being persistently chastised within the family to the point of persecution for daring to use their brains and back Mintoff’s ‘sitt punti’ rather than blindly accept that Archbishop Gonzi knew best as he was in a direct link with the Almighty who was giving him the inspiration to impose mortal sin on whoever gave Mintoff’s views a fair chance?
Mintoff changed all that by the sheer force of his character, bringing about lasting change against all odds and against the stiff resistance of those who were well-served by the status quo. He eradicated material and intellectual poverty and changed us from a confessional state to a democracy where the Church has freedom to teach but not to impose its ways on those who voluntarily have moved away from its teachings.So how is it that even in his death there are those who see Mintoff as a villain rather than as a political giant? There are three reasons for this.
Firstly Mintoff’s character was honed by the stiff resistance to change that he had to overcome in his struggles. He was rough at edges, though for those who really took time to get to know him, he remained always sweet and genuine at the core. His negotiating tactics were hard and possibly vicious. He created or bluffed alternatives even when he had none. He was a brinkman to the extreme willing to stick to his principles rather than settle for patched-up easy compromises. His losing two elections rather than seek any compromise with the Curia bear witness. Such roughness often rubs people the wrong way and they never gained enough time to taste the sweetness at Mintoff’s core.Secondly the change process even when perfectly successful leaves behind a few losers. Those who were well-served by the status quo, those who had to give up their privileges and those who were exposed to competition based on competencies rather than birth rights, tend to carry persecutory grudges verging on the thirst for revenge, rather than see change as a worthwhile process for achieving broad based development leading to social cohesion and true moral values.
Lastly it is true that after the military base closure in March 1979, Mintoff has achieved all he had worked for in his political struggle since 1945. Following a struggle spanning 34 years Mintoff had a very common problem that missionary type leaders often face. Once the mission has been accomplished such leaders should logically ask themselves what’s next, what are the leadership skills needed to achieve the next objectives and do they have the skills necessary to reach the new objectives?Even if they manage to define new objective ( which is difficult in itself as often they tend to presume that protection of the accomplished mission should remain a sufficient and permanent objective) such missionary leaders rarely have command of the skills necessary to face new challenges. The skills needed to achieve change are different from the skills needed to prosper in the stability that follows it.
Having achieved all that he worked for by March 1979, and this refers not only to closure of the base, but also to economic progress which eradicated poverty, to building a robust social services structure, to gaining nearly full-employment and dismantling obsolete structures like war ration of basic foodstuffs, Mintoff became a sort of rebel without a cause. It is not without reason that many criticise the Mintoff era between 1979 and 1987 ( he had resigned leadership and Prime Ministership in 1984) without giving credit to the first thirty four years of Mintoff’s political career.One could argue that the end did justify the means. The end for Mintoff was protecting his major achievements by entrenching neutrality and freedom from military bases in the Constitution. He sacrificed everything else that stood in the way, and achieved the entrenchment just before dissolution of parliament in 1987. Was it worthwile? Though I thought differently at the time, now with the benefit of hindsight I think it probably was. It avoided the risk of Labour falling into a post-Mintoff leadership struggle while still in executive power and offered a smooth alternation of power in 1987 which was not quite possible in 1981 based on the Constitution as it then was.
And in the end, knowingly or unknowingly, Mintoff more than anyone else shaped up Malta’s entry into the EU in 2004. Without his revolt against his own government in 1998 Malta would have never made it to join the EU in 2004. In spite of his contrarian pronouncements Mintoff would have liked nothing better than being a Prime Minister attending EU country leaders’ summits where decisions needed majority approval. If Mintoff was in favour of integration with few seats at Westminster and equality in social services, how could he have been against EU membership giving disproportionate rights to small countries and preparing a clear road map for achieving economic harmonisation throughout the EU.For me there is no one like Dom. Rest in Peace, Leader.