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MALTA: Penny-Wise

3 minute read

In an age of never-ending colonial demands for independence, few things have so touched and intrigued Britons as the political yearning of Malta, the rocky little Mediterranean isle whose 320,000 inhabitants earned a collective George Cross for heroism under Axis air assault during World War II. Instead of independence, the Maltese under the leadership of fiery, 41-year-old Prime Minister Dom (for Dominic) Mintoff have asked for complete integration into the United Kingdom and the right to send three M.P.s to Britain’s House of Commons in London.

But Mintoff and his compatriots are unpredictable folk. Just how unpredictable the British learned last week when Mintoff rose in the paneled chamber of Malta’s Legislative Assembly and proposed a resolution that “representatives of the Maltese people in Parliament declare that they are no longer bound by agreements and obligations toward the British government…” The resolution, seemingly a declaration of intent to secede from the British Empire, was passed unanimously.

“He’s Mad.” Cause of Mintoff’s wrath was an Admiralty decision to fire 40 workmen at the Royal Navy’s dockyard, which, together with a NATO naval headquarters constitutes the chief source of employment in the island. Keenly aware of the declining utility of naval bases in a missile age, Mintoff had vastly complicated his integration negotiations with Britain by insisting that whatever becomes of the dockyard, the British must not only agree to maintain full employment in the island, but must also promise to raise Maltese economic standards within twelve years to the same levels enjoyed by the British Isles itself.

In Mintoff’s eyes, the prospective firing of the naval dock workers was a “pregnant symbol” that Britain did not intend to meet his demands. He seemed cheerfully oblivious of the fact that his threatened break with Britain would mean that not just 40 but all 13,000 dockyard workers would be out of work. Mintoff shouted to cheering crowds: “If Britain comes against us with hydrogen or atom bombs…they will not be able to govern Malta against our people’s will.”

In London the first reaction was: “He’s mad—stark, staring mad.” Mintoff’s next move was to fire off a cable to Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd proposing a “truce,” and urging that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan intervene with the Admiralty to get the dockyard firings canceled. A day later came news that the firings had been cut from 40 to 30, and that alternative jobs would be offered all 30 discharged workmen.

British Jib. Mintoff had won his point, but his tactics had aroused cold hostility in British officialdom. From the start, Britain had jibbed at Mintoff’s costly economic conditions for integration. In a 1,000-word cable Lennox-Boyd bluntly warned the Maltese leader that he had “recklessly hazarded” the whole integration plan. Snapped the London Economist, hitherto a cautious partisan of integration: “Let Mr. Mintoff be left in no doubt that he is demanding from Britain too high a price for something that Britain does not much want.”

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