A friend to Mao, Gaddafi and the Khmer Rouge, he was no harmless eccentric, and knew when to send in his thugs
Dom Mintoff, the former Prime Minister of Malta, has died at the age of 96. He had been retired from active politics for almost a quarter of a century, so it is not surprising that the reaction outside Malta has been rather muted. The Telegraph has an obituary, as has the Guardian, neither of which are as interesting as they might have been.
Mintoff was a dominant figure in Malta from the 50s to the 80s, Prime Minister from 1955-1958 and from 1971-1984. Throughout this time his main opponent was Dr George Borg Olivier. The Maltese press in those days had a strict understanding that they would not publish anything about the private lives of either man. Dr Borg Olivier lived a blameless life, but some of his family would have provided ample scope for the tabloid press, if there had been one in Malta at that time. As for Dom Mintoff, his private life was kept private too, though there was lots of gossip, much of it well founded. His wife was a lady called Moyra, whom everyone liked: she had been born Moyra De Vere Bentinck, which sounds very grand. Some people said she was a distant relation of the Dukes of Portland, others not; still others that her mother had been Dom’s landlady somewhere down the Cowley Road, when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.
In the old days you might see Moyra occasionally in various restaurants. I can remember her being pointed out to me once, and someone saying: “Of course, it is Saturday. This is the day when Dom lets her have the car.”
Moyra was a devoted member of the RSPCA, which was largely run by English ladies in those days. There was a convention that when she was present no one ever referred to her husband, the notoriously anti-British Dom.
But Dom had not always been anti-British. After he had finished at Oxford, he came back to post-War Malta, which had been badly damaged by the Luftwaffe. The British government had sent out two architects, Messrs Harrison and Hubbard, who were charged with the task of supervising reconstruction. They soon left the island and handed over the building projects to their assistant, Dom. It is largely Harrison and Hubbard’s and Dom’s fault that so much of what could have been saved, was not, and so much that was modern and ugly and ill-suited to Malta was built. Malta still has some priceless architectural heritage, but much was lost thanks to the vandalism of these three. It is a tragedy that the destroyed buildings – such as the Auberges de France and Auvergne, and Barry’s Opera House – were not rebuilt, as they could easily have been. Another tragedy is represented by the various government housing schemes built by the pair and Dom: Malta had and still has some lovely domestic architecture, but Dom pioneered the modern and hugely inferior.
If I were to give one reason for my dislike of Dom Mintoff, it would be this: his part in the catastrophic destruction of the Maltese environment, which, even if it had been planned, could not have been more triumphantly successful. Many visitors today find Malta ugly; in fact it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on earth, if you know where to look. But Dom made his fortune making swathes of it ugly.
His hatred of Britain was the hatred of a spurned lover, thanks to the failure of his integration project; and his hatred of the Church may have had something to do with that as well, as it was Archbishop Gonzi who effectively torpedoed integration. Oddly for one who championed integration, he later led the campaign against Malta joining the EU. But he never really had any principles. A scourge of the Maltese private schools, he sent his own daughters to Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
But if he hated Britain, there were other countries and leaders he loved. He fawned over Mao Tse-tung and Colonel Gaddafi; he sent the Khmer Rouge a telegram of congratulations on the “liberation” of Phnom Penh. The former were generous with their aid.
The Nationalist government of Dr Borg Olivier had planted Aleppo pines in Malta, as had the British before them. Dom declared that this was all wrong, and insisted that schoolchildren (I was one of them) plant acacia trees; they only live for 15 years, and my government-issue seed never grew at all. The Aleppo pines of the Nationalist flourish still, as do the tamarisks planted by the Israelis (whose embassy Dom shut down, and whose aid he scorned), as do the ficus trees planted by the evil colonialist British.
So much of Dom was political posturing; not even horticulture was safe.
But Dom was no harmless eccentric. Neither was he a democrat. He would send his thugs into action when a little muscle could yield results. His thugs burned down the Times of Malta building, a newspaper that not even the Luftwaffe was able to put out of business. His thugs beat up striking students at the university. His thugs attacked the Archbishop’s Curia (that made the front page of the Catholic Herald); and his thugs attacked the house of the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, and assaulted his wife.
But it is all a long time ago, and most people would like to forgive and forget, I am sure. In many ways Dom Mintoff represents a typical post-colonial leader – of that type now only Comrade Robert Mugabe is left. Dom came from a devout family, his brother was a priest, and I shall pray for his soul. I note that the Archbishop of Malta is conducting his funeral in the co-Cathedral (one of the most lovely churches on earth).
His former enemies have spoken kindly about him, including Dr Fenech Adami. May he rest in peace.