Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica. [Published by the Malta Historical Society]. 7(1979)4(375-378)

[p.375] BOOK Reviews 1979

HENRY FRENDO, Party Politics in a Fortress Colony: The Maltese Experience. Maltese Social Studies No. 5. Malta, Midsea Books Ltd., 1979; xii-243pp.

Within the limits of this review it is not possible to do justice to the wealth of new insights offered in this book, providing so much that is new and so much that may serve as a model both for undergraduates and for fellow scholars. Frendo has succeeded not only in tracing and elucidating complicated and hitherto obscure issues concerning the complex evolution of party politics in Malta and in placing them firmly in their historical context; he has also succeeded in recreating the spirit of the age with great accuracy, the intensity beneath impulses, attitudes, tendencies and highly controversial issues with superb objectivity and thoroughness that merit "nothing ... except admiration". The publisher has produced an impressive volume, attractive too for its very well chosen illustrations.

In chapter I, "Malta in the Nineteenth Century: Fortress, Colony or Nation?", and chapter II, "The Rise of Maltese Nationalism, 1880-1888", the reader is given a skilfully conducted investigation into the historical background of the situation immediately preceding the emergence of political parties in the Maltese Islands and the framework -within which these were gradually to evolve Positive formative agencies - unity of language, unity of religion, the free press after 1839, the occasional exercise of a limited franchise after 1849, the pervasive influence of the Italian Risorgimento - compressed in what has been termed "a small revolutionary party" spurred the Maltese, judged in 1812 as "singularly unfitted to enjoy" even a modicum of "political power", to rebel against the idea of a fortress which determined and conditioned British policy towards the island. External circumstances in 1870 favoured a decisive turning point in Maltese political development. The opening of the Suez Canal, the unification of Italy and Germany, the political dimension attained in European power politics: these, together with the fortuitous appearance on the local political scene of personalities like Salvatore Cachia Zammit, Sigismondo Savona and Fortunate Mizzi and the serious attempt on the part of the colonial  administration to impose the English language on Malta with all its seriousness, repercussions and psychological, moral and cultural impact, induced the Maltese to assume a new direction towards political maturity, towards asserting their own identity. Frendo delves deep into the aims, methods, activities and 'ideology' of each of the emerging parties, providing in the process mature and sensible biographical and critical insight into key personalise around whom the parties evolved

[p.376] Chapter III discusses "Party Politics under Representative Government" during the decade following the promulgation of the 1887 constitution. The period was marked by "dramatic leadership changes", the 1891 constitutional amendments, Lintorn Simmons' mission to the Vatican and the Privy Council's judgement on the marriage question. Mizzi had retired from active political life. Count Strickland, who "had no notion, let alone vision, of Malta as a nation state", became chief secretary. Savona returned to the legislature while Mgr Pietro Pace was appointed Bishop of Malta. "Mizzi's absence," writes Frendo, "and Savona's antagonism  facilitated Strickland's rise to power," to a "de facto" governorship. The consequences of the 1891  constitutional amendments were  long lasting, strengthening the Executive Council against the obstructionism of the unofficial members and enabling Strickland to proceed unhampered (hardly ever consulting the elected members) with the revision of the customs tariff (including the obnoxious increase in grain duties and the postal ordinance). The amendments and  Strickland's  methods created a united opposition, a temporary alignment of rival elements to present a common front against a "common enemy". The fusion proved partly beneficial, as Frendo seems to imply; "In the inter-mixing that ensued, hidden behind a veneer of unity, one party absorbed certain qualities from the other appropriating these usefully without acknowledging the inheritance." In 1889 Lintorn Simmons was despatched on a special mission to the Vatican concerning the appointment of bishops in Malta and Gozo, the validity of mixed marriages and "the education in the English language of Maltese clergy". In Malta, the highly-strung 'marriage debate' that ensued represented "more profoundly than the language question ... a clash as to ultimate values and realities." It was, says Frendo "a more 'national' issue".

Strickland's "obsession with anglicization", his "absolute commitment to the superiority and necessity" of the English language and his strict adherence to the principle of "anglicization through  systematic discrimination" re-ignited the crucial language question which, in Henry Frendo's book, is brought to life in the fullest sense of the word. At face value, the attempt to anglicize the island fortress implied the elimination of Italian and the elevation of Maltese into a decent "language of study". At a deeper level, the whole process would influence substantially the island's social structure, frame of mind and way of life; indeed, its cultural identity. The question was to become intimately connected to the principle of self-determination. Strickland's programme in this sphere was both an end in itself and a subtle means to force the legal class into submission. The language question and, perhaps, the claim on the part of Strickland's [p.377] administration of the justice and necessity of direct taxation drew the intransigent Fortunato Mizzi back into active politics. The nationalist struggle that ensued against Strickland's administration during 1988-1902, and which forms the subject of chapter IV, may be summed up in Frendo's words: "Stricklandism was never so pronounced or so thorough as at the turn of the century; nor had nationalism ever been so strong and desperate as now." Behind Stricklandism there was another force, a third ism at work - 'Chamberlainism'. "We hold Malta," declared Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895-1903), "solely and entirely as a fortress ... not as an ordinary colony ... in a fortress anything like open agitation against the Government is a thing that cannot be tolerated." Within this triangular framework discord reined supreme. Frendo next discusses Maltese politics and society from 1903, when both hands of the constituional clock were turned back to 1849, to the outbreak of the Sette Giugno in 1919. The period was characterized in part by the adoption of Astensioni'smo, the "doctrine of total non-co-operation", and the leadership crisis within the Nationalist Party, in part by the emergence   of Emanuel Dimech, associated with early socialism in Malta, the identification of the Maltese tongue "with nationhood" and the idea of "total independence from Britain", the appearance of Enrico Mizzi on the local political scene with his federation-with-I"-:. proposal and the ironic re-entry ;' Strickland with his anti-direct taxation campaign. This wealth of historical material is dealt with in a painfully meticulous manner with occasional glimpses of the economic situation.

"The breakwater construction and dock extension for the Admiralty had created, overnight, a situation of full employment, so much so that foreign labour had to be imported; after three or four boom years there was then an economic collapse ... Wages soared, prices rose, consumer goods multiplied, tenants paid higher rents, people switched jobs, built houses, married at a younger age ... and local industry was seriously prejudiced by the scarcity and high price of labour. After 1905, suddenly, unemployment loomed ahead, there was a frantic rush to emigrate, but without assistance or plans ... standards fell, wages crashed ...".

The last two chapters deal respectively with "Old Wine in New Bottles: Political Parties and the Grant of Responsible Government" and "The Transformation of a National Culture: Toward a Two Party System". Three appendices, a detailed bibliography and index match the conscientious investigation evident on every page.

Inaccurate and faulty proof-reading, however, remains the bane or [p.378] publications in Malta. It is a pity that a book of such high calibre as Party Politics in a Fortress Colony: The Maltese Experience (which on the spine reads Party Politics in an Island Fortress: The Maltese Experiment) should be marred by an unwarranted amount of printing errors.

Victor Mallia-Milanes