Dom Mintoff, who has died aged 96, was Malta's leading politician during the period when it moved from seeking integration with Britain to non-aligned independence as a republic. The country's socialist prime minister from 1955 to 1958 and 1971 to 1984, he was a thorn in the flesh of successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour, and never shied away from controversy at home.
Though the entire island of Malta, whose population now numbers just over 400,000, had been awarded the George Cross in 1942 for its wartime courage, the indigenous hierarchy, fiercely Catholic, had strong pro-Italian sympathies. These had been suppressed of necessity during the war, but by the time Mintoff became deputy prime minister in 1947, the upper classes were leaning towards Italy again.
There was at first no need for Britain to fear that the young Mintoff would pose a danger to its strategically vital base in the Mediterranean. Born in Cospicua, on the other side of the harbour from the capital of Valletta, he was one of nine children from a working-class family, and his father was a cook in the Royal Navy. Dominic – always known simply as Dom – went from architecture and engineering studies at the University of Malta to a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, worked as a War Office-appointed garrison engineer in the Midlands (1941-43), and had just married a British admiral's daughter, Moyra de Vere Bentinck. He had an impregnable power base in the General Workers' Union (which effectively controlled the dockyards), was personally charming, and was said to have the approval of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, significant players in postwar colonial policy.
Soon after becoming his deputy, he quarrelled with the Maltese prime minister, Paul Boffa, and in 1949 resigned from the government. Over the next five years, he built up his faction within the Maltese Labour party, becoming its leader and then prime minister in 1955.
Malta's postwar constitution, granting the island self-government in everything but defence, foreign affairs and security, was popularly perceived as unjust. Mintoff was elected on the platform of integrating the island within the UK, with Maltese representation in the British parliament. These aims were welcomed by Anthony Eden, then Conservative prime minister, and by the Labour leader, Clement Attlee.
Three years later an acrimonious Mintoff had resigned, swearing to fight for Malta's complete independence, and Britain had suspended the island's constitution. The ostensible wrangling had been about the terms of integration: Mintoff insisted that the same level of social services should be introduced in Malta as pertained in Britain, since his government, earning the wrath of the island's prosperous classes, had introduced similar levels of taxation. He was offered about a quarter of the sum, reflecting the island's much lower wage levels.
Then, too, Malta's importance in British eyes fluctuated: when, as in the late 1950s, nuclear deterrence was seen as the main arm of defence, the island's significance was negligible. The threat of closures of admiralty work on the dockyards was an obvious danger to the island's economy, and to Mintoff's supporters above all.
But perhaps most significant was the diminutive (he was 5ft 5in) Mintoff's failure to show the proper deference to Britain: he was effectively labelled a liar by the Conservative colonial secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, rebuked by the latter's opposite number, James Callaghan, and denounced for his bad manners by Callaghan's colleague Richard Crossman. Reports of the time are redolent of the pained disappointment at a man who simply did not understand the rules.
With the increased Soviet presence in the Mediterranean over the next few years, Malta's international stock rose again, and in 1962 Britain restored the island's constitution. Mintoff's opponents won the elections and signed a new defence agreement, with Malta becoming a Nato base. The island was granted independence – with a British governor-general – in 1964. During this period, while growing increasingly anti-British and excluded from direct political power, Mintoff brought off another kind of political coup. The venerable archbishop of Malta, who in the 1940s had excommunicated anyone who voted Labour and denied burial in consecrated ground to party officials, mellowed towards Mintoff and lifted the excommunications.
When Mintoff was returned to power in 1971, he annulled the defence agreement, dismissed the British governor-general and sacked his own police chief. For the next decade and more, Mintoff was Malta, though his parliamentary majority ranged from one to three. He seemed to have two aims: to rid his island of all military bases, and to exploit Malta's strategic and geographical position as much as possible to his country's advantage. Both the Soviet Union and America were denied the use of a base in Malta (only the US had ever had one), the Nato headquarters were closed down, and Britain was forced to buy the right to station forces on Maltese soil. With these measures and his leanings towards alliance with Libya and enthusiastic encouragement of links with China, Mintoff became for a time a hate figure to rival Fidel Castro.
In his first administration in the 1970s, Mintoff took the airlines, shipping, telecommunications and the bulk of banking into state hands. While tourism received an unexpected boost as a consequence of the Cypriot troubles of 1974, the Libyan connection failed to provide cheap oil, even though Mintoff had backed the Arabs in the 1973 Yom Kippur war and unemployment rose. Nonetheless, in the 1976 elections in the Republic of Malta (as it had become in 1974), Mintoff won again. The on-off affair with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya continued, and in 1980 the USSR was allowed to open an embassy on the island. But this administration was chiefly taken up with battles at home. Enraging the middle classes and church alike, all state schools were made comprehensive and church schools were forced to freeze their fees, in an attempt to close them down.
For a brief moment in 1978, Mintoff's daughter Yana acquired a notoriety to rival his when she bombed the chamber of the House of Commons with manure in a protest against the British military presence in Northern Ireland.
Mintoff won the election in 1981, the result, said his increasingly bitter opponents, of gerrymandering. In this administration he continued his battle with the Maltese church, particularly through trying to prevent their charging fees at all for their schools, while at the same tine wooing the Vatican by representing the island clergy as adherents of an unenlightened, retrograde Catholicism. Malta's neutrality, which often seemed to boil down to a seesaw between Italy and her former colony Libya, was once more much in play. But to the British public at large, Malta was increasingly seen as an extension of the Costas rather than a second Cuba.
Just before Christmas 1984, at the age of 68 and said to be personally wealthy, Mintoff resigned as prime minister and Labour party leader, telling parliament that he had rescued the island from spiritual and material slavery and created a healthy, independent nation. It was perhaps fitting that he should deliver his own eulogy, since the volatile and energetic man had never shown much willingness to listen to anyone else. He continued as an influential backbencher till 1998 - his vote against Alfred Sant's Labour government bringing it down – and in 2003 campaigned, on the losing side, against Malta joining the European Union.
Moyra died in 1997, and he is survived by Yana and his other daughter, Anne.
Source: The Guardian