You must be familiar with that jar of delicious liquid goo that is Marmite, or at least with its more popular beefy cousin – Bovril. Marmite’s ubiquitous presence on grocer’s shelves has divided the general public into two distinct categories that eventually became the slogan of this yeast-based product: You either love it or you hate it. The Marmite/Bovril effect is just that – spread a little of either the beef extract or its vegetarian alter ego on a bit of bread and offer it to an innocent newbie and then just watch. You will either get a an expression of finger-licking glee or a glare of absolute disgust verging on the nauseous. That’s them – the icky spreads and their effect. Both Bovril and Marmite became institutions. A quick fix in hard up times and an absolute necessity in the “economic” pre- and post- war kitchens. They ARE still institutions. Whether you love them or you hate them.
The death of Dom Mintoff brought back to the surface the Marmite effect among the Maltese. Mintoff, like Marmite, was either loved or hated. For a brief period even his most intimate of “lovers” found time to despise him when he chose to bring down a government – single handedly. I will forever remember the litany of expletives mouthed by a taxi driver in Paceville right beneath the window where I was going through my early morning revision of Criminal procedure back in 1998. This was no Mintoff-hating nationalist – this was a tattoed Mintoffian through and through – wishing that the worst of the worst would happen to the short, pipe-smoking politician following his apparent betrayal of the Socialist ideal.
Yes. I said Mintoffian. That’s because Mintoff is a large enough figure to inspire an -ism. It is a wide -ism based on a very Mintoffian cocktail of socialism and nationalism. It is a battle begun from the benches of Boffa’s government transformed into a mission that ran on slogans such as “Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox” and ”Min mhux maghna kontra taghna”. It is formed over the span of more than half a century and covers measures or interventions within a national economy supposedly intended for the benefit of the worker and the betterment of the less better off. This was no “middle class” aspiration – this was a politic that is seeded in colonial times and set out with all the intention to improve the state of the Maltese.
The whirlwind tour from the late 30′s to the mid-90s will be dissected, analysed, written and re-written. But the Mintoff effect is the same as the Marmite effect – you love him or you hate him. There are no half measures. The myth is not born today but it is definitely about to go viral. There is a party-in-waiting in Opposition that is gunning to return Mintoff cabinet members to government – it’s not exactly history that we are speaking about. Mintoffianism lives. Mintoffianism is alive in articles in last Sunday’s papers outlining how Malta can still renegotiate its deal with the EU. Mintoffianism still pulls the emotional strings of a large part of the population whose lexicon is stuck on the idea of “30 years of hurt”, on “the privileged elite vs the rest” and the new aspiration of “an open middle class”.
Some, like me, cannot get themselves to appreciate Mintoff. No matter how hard we can try to see the aspirations of the young Dom we always hit that ugly barrier come his “maturity”. Emancipation for others meant “free education” but the socialist scythe of the Mintoffian brand of politics also meant the destruction of too much aspiration. It meant continued education by godfather and the shutting down of the creative arts. It meant expropriation and nationalisation within the framework of an ever dwindling package of legal fundamental rights. More than the notorious age of violence remains the emptiness in an age when the law amounted to nothing much. The individual had no rights because the constitutional court was kept in abeyance and Malta failed to subscribe to the European Convention of Fundamental Rights.
It’s all relative some will say. Some will remain ever grateful to this tub of marmite that pulled them out of “poverty” and “gave” their sons a job and “gave” them a roof in a housing estate. Free education (with streaming first removed then reintroduced) meant more students until the age of 16. Then they would move on to what? Choice, hope and potential were all sacrificed on the all equalling altar of socialist balance. You cannot appreciate that kind of future. The hot air that was the socialist revolution petered out as would any system that attempts to dehumanise its people. Without basic rights and the possibility of expression the socialist dream fell flat on its face and was caught in its own lie. For all the talk of being on the side of the worker and on the side of the poor, the end legacy of Mintoffianism was a nation on its knees with frozen wages, nationalised dinosaur industries and an inability to contemplate the idea of meritocracy and competition. Malta’s treasury box might have been full but potential wise it was running on empty.
Yes, I am of the generation that believed the dream that came next. Our cup of Bovril was the dream of Work, Justice and Liberty of the later eighties. Comparisons are just as odious as adulations but this was our cup half full. Somewhere in this morass of political dwarves posing as giants we also were entitled to a dream. Between the campanilistic propaganda of the eighties and the mass marketing of the naughties we had an interlude of the politics that we hoped would come. Ironically Mintoff had a hand in that too and he inadvertently righted our path towards the Common Market of opportunity. Our dream too has had to subside and submit to the politics of mediocrity that have replaced the value-driven methods of Boffa’s 50s or Fenech Adami’s early 90s.
Mintoffianism is alive but Mintoff the man is dead. They tell me he was not a believer so there is no one to commend his soul to. His memory and his heritage will continue to be debated and discussed.
Until now we only have one objective certainty… Mintoff you either love him or you hate him. In the island of Saints and Fireworks there could hardly be more of a testament that this is truly one of its sons.