We arrived in Malta on 1 April 1997. The ‘Royal Service’ flight on a Boeing 757 had been full and not very comfortable. The small, but impressive airport was crowded, to my surprise, with east German tourists. We were efficiently transferred to the coach for the 30-minute drive to the Mellieha Bay Hotel.
Impressions of Malta
Our room was very basic with no TV or proper radio, no stationary, no shampoo or other toiletries [except for soap] and rather worn-looking towels. The redeeming feature was the magnificent sea view. We had dinner at 6:06pm. The restaurant was inviting and the meal excellent – cannelloni followed by baglioni [rolled stuffed meat], washed down with a bottle of good local wine, Marsavin Special Reserve. Gateau followed. Rather full, and very tired, we went to bed at 8:30pm to the sound of Maltese march music. The radio was centrally controlled and close down was 11:00pm.
The following day we tried the indoor swimming pool but it was just too crowded – with seven or eight guests! Later we looked in the hotel’s Limelight Club where dancing and singing were offered – ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?’ and ‘We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line.’ It was not quite what we expected in 1997! The newspapers stocked – from the Times and the Guardian to the Mirror and the Sun indicated that people from all walks of life were expected at the hotel.
On the following days, as the weather improved, we took an old banger to the capital, Valetta. It had little to offer in the way of shopping but much to offer in history. I called at the Azad Institute, but its director, who had written to me about the Stasi, the east German secret police, was not in and did not respond to my subsequent letter. Later, we had a light meal in the lounge of the magnificent Forte Grand Hotel.
Meeting Dom Mintoff
On one of our several bus journeys we talked to a Malta couple who were strongly anti-Labour and even more anti its former leader, Dom Mintoff. After a meeting with another Labour figure, Benny Borg Bonello, we all drove to Delimara Point where Dom Mintoff had an old, rundown, villa. It was next to a power station and, he explained, for this reason he did not use it much.
He greeted us warmly and talked about his life and the struggle for independence. He was incoherent part of the time for which he apologised. Our conversation was washed down with glasses of his own wine which we did not find to our taste. For a short time after our meeting he kept in touch, phoning us in Nottingham.
The son of a chef for the Royal Navy, Mintoff must have been lucky with his teachers in interwar Malta, and showed guts and determination as well as academic ability, to succeed graduating in architecture and engineering. He went on to gain a Rhodes Scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford. He earned a Master’s in science and engineering in 1939. It was at Oxford that he met his wife, Moyra de Vere Bentinck, daughter of Lt. Col. Reginald Bentinck. Of Dutch and British noble lineage, they were related via the Cavendish-Bentinck line to Queen Elizabeth. The couple married in 1947.
Although Mintoff put his studies to good use in the Malta property market, he had a passionate interest in politics leading the Labour Party from 1949 to 1984. He was the eighth prime minister of Malta from 1955 to 1958, when Malta was still a British colony, and again, following independence, from 1971 to 1984.
Mintoff’s political career
In his early years, Mintoff advocated the full integration of Malta, a crown colony, into the UK. Why? According to the official British Gazette:
“The people of Malta, 270,000, were on the brink of starvation in 1945, and spent so much time in underground shelters that health standards declined, and malnutrition and scabies became widespread. Medical supplies were also scarce […] it took several decades to rebuild the economy.”
Mintoff expected integration would lead to the Maltese eventually reaching the standard of living of the British. They would have retained government for internal affairs. This plan was opposed by the powerful Catholic Church and nationalists. Yet in a 1956 referendum a majority voted to join Britain. Eventually, it was the British government that rejected integration because of the likely costs and the falling value of the island for defence.
After Mintoff’s failure to gain integration with the UK, he resigned in 1958 and became a strong advocate of decolonisation and independence. Once back in government, in 1971, he immediately started renegotiating the defence treaty with Britain. After hard bargaining, British forces departed in 1979. This left a big hole in Malta’s finances. Mintoff then sought to use the West’s rivals, including Romania’s Ceausescu and Libyan dictator, Gaddafi, to improve the situation.
He opposed Malta’s EU membership claiming this would damage Malta’s neutral position. Labour remained opposed to joining the EU but on 1 May 2004 Malta became the smallest EU member and joined the euro zone in 2008 on the initiative of the Nationalist Party. It benefitted greatly from increased tourism especially from Germany, Italy and France, and foreign students. In 2022 it had a higher per capita standard of living than the majority of EU members.
Labour’s James Callaghan, then at the Admiralty, regarded Mintoff as able, mercurial and warm-hearted who wanted the best for his people. Lord Carrington, as British Defence Secretary, negotiated with Mintoff over British bases, and found his behaviour impossible but Mintoff, he believed, was a genuine patriot who cared deeply about his people, and said: “through it all I liked him.”