I spent last weekend in Malta, down by the dockyard. Thirty years before on exactly that spot working class history was made, the mighty HMS Ark Royal was blocked by the dockers from entering that which they once called home on the grounds that they might be carrying nuclear weapons.
Blacksmiths, shipwright’s laborers and deckhands became admirals for the day as they tugged defunct rust-bucket, the “Copper Mountain”, into the middle of the harbor. Being refused entry into their former warm-water fortress reduced the Royal Navy’s rear admirals to helpless apoplexy.
My host at the weekend was the then-leader of the opposition Labour Party, who had called on the workers to take direct action. A one-time prime minister of Malta, Dr Karmenu Bonnici was acting in the tradition of independent Malta’s first prime minister Dom Mintoff.
Mintoff was a major figure in the politics of the 1970s, more remarkably so because his country then had a population smaller than many individual cities in the surrounding countries.
On his FIRST afternoon in office, in 1971 he was sworn in by the British governor who he promptly ordered to pack his bags and prepare to leave. He then summoned the head of NATO in Malta, an old Italian fascist by the name of Admiral Birindelli, declared him persona non grata and ordered him to leave the island immediately. Not bad for a first day on the job.
Mintoff was the first European leader to recognize and build close economic relations with China, breaking all connections to Taiwan. The Red China Dock, built by Chinese labour, was the very dock from which the workers would later block the Ark Royal.
When Mintoff later leased naval facilities back to the Royal Navy, it was on condition of the primacy of Maltese sovereignty and a signed copper-bottomed guarantee that no attack on any Arab country would ever be launched using Malta’s land sea or air.
I visited the tough streets of the appropriately named Bastion district in Valletta, from which he came and gained a deeper appreciation of the background to the anti-imperialist politics with which Mintoff imbued the Maltese labour movement. Malta’s constitution, amended by Dom Mintoff, asserts the country’s neutrality and commits it to peace.
The Red China Dock is not what it was and not just in nomenclature.
The one thousand dockworkers of thirty years ago are now just 100. The Tito-ist “Worker-self-management” which used to see the dockers run the business has been forced by EU competition rules to permit its takeover by a foreign commercial outlet. The General Workers Union no-longer calls the shots, or can stop them.
Despite its neutrality clause in the constitution Malta undoubtedly collaborated with the NATO destruction of the country’s neighbor Libya just 200 miles away. French NATO war-planes continue to fly from Malta on war duties over Libya today. Labour are back in power in Malta, but is not the same Labour and not the same Malta. If I tell you that Tony Blair is the new best friend of the Maltese Labour PM Joseph Muscat you will be able to read the short-hand.
Unspoken defiance of Malta’s constitutional commitment to peace and neutrality is one thing but brazen acts to the contrary are something else, especially if they are sails in the wind.
The refusal of a Russian “request”, which actually had never even been made for refueling its battle group led by the Admiral Kuznetsov in Malta, was a slap in the face for Russia and a display of open partisanship towards the NATO war on Syria. An attack on an Arab country Malta now evidently does support.
The Maltese Prime Minister Muscat followed through with an evidence-free allegation that his country had been targeted for “cyber-attack” from Russia, and a fanciful claim that Russia had mounted a “disinformation campaign” against the country’s government.
Russophobia has not stopped the Muscat government selling Maltese (and thus EU) passports to Russian oligarchs however, at 1 Million Euros apiece. Malta sells 1800 passports a year, a handy piece of business right enough bringing in nearly 2 Billion Euros a year to the treasury.
Though just 44, but 5 years in office, Prime Minister Muscat – known universally as Malta’s Tony Blair – has announced that he will retire before or at the country’s next general election, sparking speculation about what the avowedly “pro-business” PM will do next? Make a pile of money, like his British hero, is obviously one possibility. But others wonder if a position on the international stage might not be more likely? With a fair bit of Western political capital in the bank, the former MEP might even be a refreshing transfusion for the tired sclerotic leadership of the EU itself.
The question on everybody’s lips in Malta however, is will the prime minister go for broke, break with the party of Mintoff’s Labour and trade Malta’s non-alignment neutrality and commitment to peace in exchange for a glittering new crown.
Malta is fast becoming the gambling capital of Europe. But taking on Dom Mintoff’s legacy would be a very high risk game of chance.