The Malta Independent 19 June 2019, Wednesday

Martin Scicluna

Malta Independent Friday, 17 September 2004, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

If you didn’t know his surname and had never heard anything about him before, you could easily mistake Martin Scicluna for an Englishman, born and bred.

His effortless accent, his mannerisms, his quiet voice, his bearing, his extreme politeness all point to being British (but from a Britain of another era, not so much from the Britain of today). He embodies the characteristics of a rather privileged, public school-educated Briton who served loyally in the army as well the civil service.

Yet Martin is Maltese – born at the Cloisters, St Julian’s, he then spent all his childhood and early adulthood in Graham Street, Sliema. He was raised at a time when Malta was still a colony and our passports carried the insignia of the Queen of England. Many Maltese considered themselves fiercely “British” and wholeheartedly embraced everything that emanated from the UK.

Actually, some of them still do.

I met Martin for lunch at Westin Dragonara Resort where I had booked a table in The Terrace, a pleasant and elegant al fresco restaurant overlooking the residential pool. It turned out to be a good choice because this happens to be one of his favourite five-star hotels.

As a boarder at the then “tiny school” of St Edward’s, which housed 120 boys, Martin was automatically groomed into the British way of life.

“We were all boarders then; it was considered normal. I think boarding gives a child the ability to make his life in an independent environment without the parents to cosset him. In Malta we do a lot of spoiling, whereas as a boarder you have to stand up for yourself and get along with people.”

But, I point out, there are also a lot of boarding school horror stories. Martin nods.

“Oh yes, for some boys it can be quite tough and traumatic, but on the whole, for the majority it was an education in itself. There was the sheer effort of having to cope for yourself and your problems within a team in your class. Then there was the great additional advantage of all the sport available which you don’t find nowadays.”

Martin comes from a family with a long tradition of serving in the Armed forces; on his mother’s side, the Amato Gaucis and the Bernards had been in the army “forever”.

“Although the Army was not expected of me as such, you have to remember what Malta was like in the early 1950s – there were few opportunities for jobs or careers. You could go to university, where you had a seven-year slog to become an architect, a doctor or a lawyer. Then there were people, particularly like me from St Edward’s College, for whom the attraction of going to Sandhurst was strong. The idea of going away from Malta for two-and-a-half years and leading really a very privileged life in the Royal Military Academy was very attractive.”

First he joined the Royal Malta Artillery, which was then a regiment of the British army. Six months later he was accepted into Sandhurst; the allure it held for young men in those days was understandable.

“Many of my friends did the same thing for the same reason. When we came back, it was the most wonderful existence; we could not have had a more privileged life. We were well-paid... all the women wanted us...”

Martin slides this last part in nonchalantly, almost without my noticing it.

No wonder all the men wanted to wear a Sandhurst uniform.

“Yes, there were all sorts of bonuses,” he adds mildly.

Even his sense of humour is very British – understated with a hint of irony.

Martin is keenly aware that at the time he was extremely fortunate in comparison to his fellow Maltese.

“We were professional and worked hard, but the pace of life when we returned was so different for us, it was a very gentle existence.”

His easygoing life in Malta, however, was soon to change.

“When Malta got her independence in 1964, I was lucky enough to get selected for the Army staff college, which was a very big step. I went to England but I wanted a career that would take me abroad, so I transferred to the Royal Artillery where I served for another eight or nine years. I decided at the earliest retirement point in the Army, aged 37, to start a new career. My wife wasn’t too keen on all the moving around that goes with the Army so I took the open competition for the civil service.”

Martin was lucky enough to benefit from the “late entrants” scheme, whereby those who had been in academic life or business could join the civil service at a senior position. When his colonial passport ran out in 1972, he was faced with another decision: whether to give up his Maltese citizenship.

“Malta was going through a difficult political time, and I decided that since I was going to make my life in England, I would change to a British passport. I did struggle a bit over the decision because, in a sense, I was turning my back on my country – but there was no chance of dual nationality, it was either or. Also, at the time one’s security was a very important issue; certain jobs would not have been open to me as a Maltese.”

After taking into account that Martin had been in the British army, and after some rigorous security vetting, he was accepted. Thus began another career in the military defence that lasted some 23 years, serving under various Prime Ministers from Callaghan to Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

“It’s a wonderful career, because every two or three years you move to a new job; all of them were different and very stimulating. I was very lucky, because every job I moved into suddenly became quite important – I seem to attract this, it’s like lightning strikes! That gave me an opportunity to prove myself and I was promoted quite early on.”

Is everything that has been said about Maggie Thatcher true?

“Well, very soon after I joined I was with the division that dealt with contingency plans for when the unions went on strike. As you know in those days, in 1974, coalminers, ship workers, firemen, prison officers – everyone was going out on strike! So we had to brief the Prime Minister and she was very sharp, charming, but quite a determined lady, which is almost a clichè now. Then when I ran the Northern Ireland desk, again, it was such hot water, I came into contact with her again. I remember after a bombing when about 12 soldiers were killed, we had to brief her about it and her anger was palpable.”

At this point, our food arrives. Martin had ordered the penne with basil and black tomato while I had spiralle with shrimps and red pepper pesto.

On his 60th birthday, Martin retired. He accepted an offer by the then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami to be his security advisor and Ambassador to Nato. So after a 32-year absence, he found himself back in his native country.

On a personal note, Martin tells me that he has been married twice. He met his first wife in Malta, and his second wife in Germany when he was serving in the Army.

“We were both still married at the time, then we met again in London and we were both divorced. We’ve been married 15 years now.”

They left their respective grown-up children behind them in England and Australia which, Martin points out regretfully, is a consequence of people like him returning to Malta.

After a lifetime of living in England, Martin still feels totally Maltese although he does admit to a “very strong Anglo-Saxon surface”.

“I think your Maltese instincts never leave you, no matter where you go. Although I have an English wife, my roots are here and returning to my friends was very important to me. Of course, it’s inevitable that when living in another culture, certain things rub off on you. Being in the British civil service, you not only have to fit in but succeed.”

Having said that, he says that he has a very Maltese temper that occasionally explodes, especially if something mechanical goes wrong.

This, I find hard to believe.

“The other anger is more controlled, such as when I speak about the environment or our cultural heritage.”

This controlled anger usually manifests itself in Martin’s eloquent speeches for which he has now become something of a legend. He stirred up quite a hornet’s nest when he first spoke out strongly against the seeming inability of the government to come to grips with the country’s environmental problems.

That was a few years ago, at the Business Breakfast organised by The Malta Business Weekly when he came out with the phrase: “private affluence and public squalor”. He had no qualms about laying the blame squarely in the lap of the authorities.

Since then he has continued to speak out as well as to contribute articles to the press where he calls a spade a spade, such as when he recently described the present administration as a “dysfunctional government”.

Ouch.

“The fact that I say what I say is a reflection of my training. All my advice to ministers has always been absolutely straight. Of course, they don’t like it but that’s their problem. I put it as frankly, objectively and – I would like to think – as constructively as I can because that’s so important. The fact that I’ve come back from England after 32 years is obviously a factor, and I’m conscious that I see things with a new eye.”

He’s not just speaking out of the top of his hat either. As an adviser to the Prime Minister, he spent three years at Castille where he could see first-hand how Malta was being run. Another three years in the private sector at PriceWaterhouseCooper meant he had an inside look at how private enterprise operates as well.

“I felt I had got the feel of this country and could speak on the basis of fresh first-hand knowledge. I still speak with a love of Malta which has never left me, so I hope people do understand that this is not just a returned migrant sounding off.”

Unexpectedly, Martin Scicluna found himself serving under Dr Alfred Sant as well, after the Nationalists lost the 1996 election.

“I thought I would be out of a job but Dr Sant, in fairness to him, recognised that I had no axe to grind. He knew I was British-trained and that I would be objective, and he asked me to stay on. So I continued with my work, then Dr Sant lost the election in 1998 and Dr Fenech Adami came back and asked me to stay.”

Old Edwardians never forget their school ties, and Martin Scicluna is no exception. As chairman of the Board of Governors, he is very involved in the preparations for the college’s 75th anniversary.

“It’s gone through difficult times, like all independent schools, but it has maintained its standards, and has produced a particular sort of person. I think one can tell a St Edward’s boy from others, they’re somehow more self-confident, well-mannered – all the obvious things. Also, we would like to think that they are all more well-rounded individuals because we concentrate not just on academics, but also on character-building.”

St Edward’s day on 13 October has always been a big event, but this year it will be commemorated with a week of activities starting with a concert at the Manoel Theatre. Then there’s a reunion for old boys, the launch of a book edited by Martin himself called St Edward’s College: Memoirs of the first 75 Years, and a Grand Fair.

“At the end of the book I put in a chapter about the ethos of the college over the years and there is a continuous thread. We like to think that it does produce leaders; if one looks round, so many prominent people have come out of there. There is also a certain civic-mindedness in our boys. Although they may come from a privileged background, we like to make them aware that they actually have responsibilities towards society. One’s schooling is not just about passing exams, it’s about how one can contribute to society afterwards.”

Martin readily admits to the existence of the Old Boys’ network and agrees that others might look at it with a sceptical eye.

“I think that’s a fair comment, but it’s also inevitable. In England they used to joke about the OE (Old Etonians) network that used to spread right into Macmillan’s Cabinet, which was almost all made up of Old Etonians. I think it’s inevitable that people with the same background talk to each other and network and get together in business arrangements. It’s a sort of reflection of trust as well.”

Business is one thing, but it often happens in political circles as well.

“Yes, that’s very true but, of course, if you look at politics it’s made up almost entirely of Old Aloysians...” he leaves this comment dangling in that seemingly harmless, mild-mannered way of his.

On his return to Malta, one of the things that struck him was the amount of development that had taken place and he wanted to do something about it. Martin became a life member of Din l-Art Helwa – he was asked to be Treasurer, and is now Executive President.

This interview was held just a day after Mepa turned down the application for the Verdala golf course.

“Din l-Art Helwa is not against the golf course on principle. The trick, of course, is in finding the right place where it doesn’t mess up a beautiful landscape as almost happened with Verdala. We are persuaded that there is a case for a golf course on tourism grounds but we don’t think that the benefit will be as high as those who advocate it said. Provided one could find the right place we have no objection.”

He realises that his straightforwardness isn’t always welcomed.

“Government thinks I spend all my time criticising, but to be fair, they are undoubtedly aware of what needs to be done, the difficulty is in translating words into action.”

And why is that?

“I’m sorry to say that the fault lies with the civil service, which is not well led. Leadership is about decision and I haven’t yet met a senior civil servant who is prepared to take a decision. They push it up to the minister until he is inundated. He takes the most minor decisions which he shouldn’t.”

Martin traces this apathy back to the Mintoff years when, unfortunately, an excellent civil service inherited from the British was broken.

“We are suffering the consequences of a lost generation and culture. I’m sorry to say this, because there are such good people in the civil service who are very good at the routine things. But at the very top, what I call the elbow of government between policy and decision, nothing is happening at the moment. To change it you have to change a culture, and there’s so much catching up to do.”

As for his views on the present administration, Martin maintains (in his gentle, quiet way) that there is a gap of perception between our leaders and the led.

“When I called it a ‘dysfunctional government’, some took offence, but it was dysfunctional because some people really weren’t getting their act together. There were two big decisions: the eco tax and the purchase of the Brussels building and they got the whole timing of them wrong. There was no proper dialogue, which means a two-way street, since everyone is affected by the eco tax .”

What is even worse in Martin’s eyes is all the backtracking and reversal of decisions.

“If you’re going to do it, go for it, bring it down on your own head, if need be, but don’t for goodness sake suddenly change horses in mid-stream.”

He sounds exasperated at the sheer lack of foresight.

“Well, having worked there, I know exactly how it happened. John Dalli stood up in November in the Budget and said he was going to do it. Then they all got involved in the European Parliament elections so they took their eyes off that ball. As soon as those were over in June, they thought ‘My God, half the year’s gone and we forgot the tax we were relying on to raise Lm4 million... we’ve got to do something”. Suddenly – panic, and the results were there for all to see. It’s like that military expression: order, counter order, disorder. That’s what happens. You have to be clear-minded, know where you’re going and do it, for better or worse.”

Why can’t we have more people like him in charge?

As if reading my mind he adds that it’s all about organisation and getting the right people running things. Then there’s that other magic word: discipline.

“It affects every single thing we do – from our driving, to pollution to construction development, it’s absolutely essential. The pity is that we don’t actually apply the law. We’ve got every law under the sun, we just don’t enforce it. The vast majority do obey the law, but then you’ve got the minority, which I call the cultural underclass, and I bet they’re the same ones who are constantly breaking the driving laws, dumping laws and the pollution laws. The rule of law is what makes for a civilised society.”

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