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How close was Malta to being part of the UK?

In the early and mid-1950s, there was a burning issue on the future of Malta. Would Malta be able to rule itself and create opportunities of its own, or was it better off forming part of the far more developed UK and immediately benefiting from the existing opportunities?

The idea of Maltese integration was first brought up by Mabel Strickland, editor of the Times of Malta and daughter of the former Maltese prime minister, Lord Gerald Strickland. In an April 1943 editorial, she wrote:

"This war has shown that Malta is as much a part of Britain as Portsmouth or Croydon. The one tolerable practical solution to Malta’s constitutional and economic post-war problems would be full political unity with Britain… Let Malta be a county of England, as an integral part of the United Kingdom represented in Parliament at Westminster, and enjoying local government, with all the advantages and responsibilities that this would entail."

Integration was taken up by her principal political opponent, the Malta Labour Party (MLP) leader, Dom Mintoff. It made its first appearance in an election manifesto in 1950 and became a key aspect of party policy. MLP's success at the 1955 general election allowed Mintoff to pursue his integrationist ideas.

In the immediate aftermath of WW2, similar to other nations of the British empire, Malta, which had just fought on the side of the victorious allies, had certain expectations that the constitutional situation was bound to improve, with increased political autonomy. However, WW2 left behind a devastated Malta, with its infrastructure in ruins, huge housing problems, and many dockyard workers (one of the biggest industries in Malta at the time) facing increased prospects of unemployment and reluctant emigration.

There were also disagreements on how Malta would benefit from the Marshall aid provided by the US to help rebuild the economy. Britain considered Malta as a ‘British possession’ and, therefore, was rebuilt by British money and not directly through the Marshall plan. The money spent on war damages ultimately proved insufficient, as evidenced by the Royal Opera House in Valletta, which remained a ruin until well into the 21st century.

There were several post-war British reports on the economic future of Malta, including an important one by Sir Wilfred Woods. Woods argued for reduced dependence on British assistance, a move towards greater economic and political autonomy, lower importation and greater exportation thanks to greater industrious activity. He also argued for greater economic diversification from one of a fortress economy to a more productive and self-sustainable economy. Other reports followed, for example, the Schuster report by Sir George Schuster, a British politician who also had a good relationship with Dom Mintoff. Schuster was in favour of Maltese integration with the UK, mass migration and infrastructural development, but only in the context of maintaining the close relationship between Malta and the UK.

Indeed, most of the reports presented in the 1950s and 60s were quite pessimistic and had little faith in the success of an independent Malta but were of great influence on the Maltese political discourse. This made the Maltese political class realise that a new political reality was in front of them, one which was no longer focused on cultural and societal debates, but now also on serious and complex issues of economic planning.

Dominion Status

The Nationalist Party from the early 1930s argued for dominion status for Malta. This meant that Malta would no longer be treated as a crown colony and be subject to the decisions of the British government and the island governor’s veto, but rather be a quasi-independent country, similar to Australia and Canada, with the Queen remaining the head of state. This position of the nationalist party was carried forward into the 1950s. This proposal was not well-liked by the British, who, in fact, when it was first proposed in 1932, reacted by retracting the Maltese constitution and the ruling Maltese government.

Sympathisers of dominion status cited that Malta would retain its own character, history, culture and ethnicity, which were very different from that of Anglo-Saxons.

What were the advantages of integration that the Malta Labour Party was seeing?

After the war, movements towards the anglicisation of Malta were gaining favour with the Maltese, particularly in cultural aspects, while the influence of Italian culture was ever diminishing. This resulted from the increased mingling between the Maltese and British people living on the island, and the strong bond built when the Maltese and British were fighting side by side against a common enemy during WW2.

The MLP proposal presented for the 1955 elections was that of ‘integration or self-determination’, with a clear preference towards integration. The MLP argued that forming part of the UK would afford Malta to immediately benefit from several advantages in terms of standard of living, better wages as Maltese would be treated on par with the British, improvements in social services and communications, increased opportunities in education, with a vast array of British educational institutions made available to Maltese citizens, and a certain degree of political integration in the sense that integration would give Maltese citizens the right elect its own MPs to the House of Commons, thus giving a political say to the Maltese parliamentarians on par with that of British MPs. This approach would assimilate Maltese MPs to the political privileges allowed to Irish MPs, which unlike colonies such as India and Malta itself, had the possibility to raise their concerns directly in the British parliament.

It is possible to draw parallels with the French départements d'outre-mer (overseas départements) such as Réunion, which became a départements d'outre-mer of France in 1946. The citizens of Réunion enjoyed vastly higher living standards than their independent neighbours through the transfer of the social welfare system enjoyed by metropolitan France.

Naturally, with advantages of integration, there came certain obligations in taxation and conscription, and these were matters which those who opposed the integration proposal would often emphasise.

The Church and Other Opposition to Integration

The Maltese Catholic Church was also very sceptical, to say the least, of the integration proposal. Archbishop Gonzi feared that if Malta were to be absorbed by the UK, the Church would lose its position as the dominant church in Malta and become secondary to the Anglican Church, therefore losing a position of high privilege and influence allowed by the British due to its influence on the local population. Other fears came from other bodies, such as the Chamber of Commerce, which feared increased competition from UK firms, since industrialisation in Malta was still in its infancy in an economy that was still based on rudimental import-export commerce. There was still a strong mentality that industrialisation in Malta had little scope. Economic activity in Malta strongly depended on British military spending, and some saw some remote possibilities of expanding the tourism industry. Therefore, there was the fear that if Maltese businesses were to compete directly with those from the UK, they would be starting from a severely disadvantaged position and not be allowed to blossom.

Referendum Results

Despite the opposition from the Church, Mintoff, with nearly three-quarters of the votes cast in favour of integration, appeared to have achieved the ‘clear and unmistakable’ endorsement recommended by the report of the Malta Round Table Conference.

On closer inspection however, the result seemed considerably less decisive. Although the percentage voting against was relatively low, the very high abstention rate meant that less than half of the total electorate (44.24 per cent) actually voted in favour of integration.

Britain gets cold feet.

At the same time, various UK Conservative Party MPs were becoming increasingly sceptical of the integration proposal, fearing that Malta’s integration would set a precedent to other colonial territories. There were also fears that the possibility of preferential treatment for Malta might prompt Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to request greater financial assistance, as well as reviving demands for separate Scottish and Welsh parliaments. Furthermore, there were strong concerns on the part of the British on the financial commitment towards Malta to achieve equivalence in the standard of living. Second Secretary Sir Herbert Brittain underscored Treasury reservations by stating:

“any suggestion that UK social services should be extended to Malta would impose a burden on the UK Exchequer which seems to be quite unacceptable.’

Subsequently, the Treasury estimated the costs of extending British social services and scales of expenditure to Malta at £10 million per annum, which in turn stimulated fears that other colonial territories would seek similarly favourable treatment as well.

The Suez Canal crisis with the failure of the British naval operation was probably the final blow to the prospect of integration. It highlighted the reduced military importance of Malta for the British in the Mediterranean. The British fleet sailed from Malta towards Egypt to reverse the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in July 1956 by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. The abject failure of the venture, coupled with doubts about whether a similar expedition could be mounted in the future, undermined Malta’s perceived importance. Furthermore, a 1957 UK defence white paper heralded a greater reliance on nuclear deterrence and concomitant reductions in conventional forces. Such a fundamental change in British policy inevitably affected Malta’s defence economy.

As the Maltese deputy prime minister, Guzé Ellul Mercer, told Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, ‘whereas the British economy was not based on defence, in Malta, reductions in defence expenditure attacked the very foundations of the Island’s whole economy’.

In response to these developments, Mintoff resigned in December of 1957 and introduced a motion in Malta’s legislative assembly, declaring that the Maltese people were ‘no longer bound by agreements and obligations, and by those so far assumed towards their allies – until the British Government gives a guarantee that the number of their employees in Malta will not diminish before there is alternative employment for those discharged’. Justifying this drastic action, Mintoff dwelt on Britain’s alleged failure to honour a commitment made in July 1955 to avoid unemployment, diversify the economy and raise Maltese living standards. He explained that the government placed great importance on the dockyard issue because it was a ‘matter of the daily bread of the people’. The ‘break with Britain’ motion, as it became known, had profound repercussions on Anglo-Maltese relations in general and the integration proposal in particular.

Towards the beginning of 1958, Mintoff expressly told the commander-in-chief for the Mediterranean, Sir Charles Lambe, that regarding integration, he had lost faith in the British Government’s intentions and that this left ‘only the alternative of Independence’.

The attempted incorporation of Malta into the United Kingdom remained unique in terms of the degree of British support for the scheme and how close it came to succeeding. Initial British backing for integration stemmed from the failure of the 1947 constitution to create stability and a cooperative environment necessary to preserving Britain’s imperial interests. Equally, support for integration reflected long-held British assumptions that Maltese dependency on mainland Britain ruled out the achievement of full independence. Mintoff, by contrast, saw integration as a means by which he could raise the living standards of the Maltese to a British level through the doctrine of ‘economic equivalence’. The differing objectives of the two sides towards the integration experiment were central to its ultimate failure. Mintoff’s determination to achieve equivalence as the price of integration clashed with the British government’s concern to restrict its economic and financial liabilities towards Malta. Increasingly bitter disputes over the costs of integration poisoned the goodwill necessary to bring the scheme to fruition. Mintoff’s ‘break with Britain’ motion at the end of 1957 marked the parting of the ways between the two sides. After a period of direct rule, Malta conformed with a wider pattern of British decolonisation, following a conventional path to independence within the Commonwealth by September 1964.

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