The Malta Independent 13 July 2024, Saturday
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The British legacy to Malta

Martin Scicluna Sunday, 27 October 2013, 08:59 Last update: about 11 years ago

I must first declare an interest. I am Maltese. I was born Maltese. But the country of my adoption for over 32 years was Britain. Britain to a large extent formed the person I am today. I am both Maltese and British. I have an English son who is in the process of obtaining Maltese citizenship. I have English stepdaughters, an English son-in-law and, most joyously, English grandchildren.

When I talk about the British legacy to Malta, it is clear where I am coming from. I am an admirer of Britain and all things British. But I am also now – like many Maltese of my generation – an internationalist capable of looking back on the British legacy to Malta realistically and without rose-coloured spectacles. I was fortunate to catch the tail-end of the British Empire, with Britain still an important country that had been instrumental in saving Europe from German Nazism and Italian Fascism (albeit almost bankrupted by its efforts). Our grandparents, however, knew Britain when it was still the world’s superpower.

Almost 50 years after Independence, Malta is now able to look back on the century-and-a-half of colonial rule with a measure of objectivity. It is now a successful – indeed, a thriving – parliamentary democracy with a remarkably solid economy. As one looks both south and north along the Mediterranean littoral, it is indeed a beacon of light in this turbulent sea: affluent, democratic, homogeneous and free. Much of that success can be attributed to the foundations laid by the British legacy to Malta years ago.

What legacy you might ask? I would begin by pointing at the English language. We have been fortunate that the founding fathers of our Constitution 50 years ago were far-seeing and broad-minded enough to make English one of the official languages of Malta, after Maltese. That decision has ensured that in an island that borders both Africa and Europe, that is uniquely placed at a cross-roads, a nation that is blessed with the facility to learn, speak and use English gains an advantage of incalculable proportions over other countries in this region.

English has given Malta the ability and the means to conduct and attract business, commerce and visitors to these islands, to the considerable benefit of our economy and the enrichment of our culture. A few years ago, a leading firm of accountants carried out a survey of all foreign firms working in Malta. When asked what had attracted them to Malta, over 80 per cent said that it was because Malta was an English-speaking country. Our bilingualism gives us a huge competitive edge. Malta’s use of English helps us to achieve our goals of economic growth and international communications and friendship. English has been our lifeline to the world.

Next, I would place the solid institutions that were established, painfully and sometimes in the face of British opposition, during the colonial period. These still survive and thrive to this day. Prime among these is our liberal parliamentary democracy. A vibrant House of Representatives, political parties, an embedded electoral system that sees over 90 per cent of voters participating all have their roots a hundred or more years ago. When we look at countries around us, we find that Malta’s parliamentary system is virtually unique. It is a system learnt from the British and modelled on their institutions. It gives Malta a priceless stability when compared to our neighbours both to the south and the north.

While our civil law is essentially Napoleon’s legacy to Malta, the criminal law is largely British. More importantly, however, the concept of the rule of law – even though we tend to be careless about it – is derived from an understanding, which is British, that it forms the bedrock of any democracy. The other important instruments of society – the judiciary, the armed forces and police, Malta's education system, the civil service and the concept of freedom of speech and the media – also stem from institutional structures honed during the British period. Unless institutions have strong roots, democracy and good governance cannot work.

The foundations of Malta's infrastructure – the airport, the harbour, road networks, aquifers, sewage system, water and electricity – were all laid down or were expanded during the British period. Almost every sport played in Malta – most passionately football, but also athletics, rugby, and tennis – owes its origins to the British services and the love of sport they inculcated in the Maltese. Village band clubs were a growth phenomenon throughout the British stay. Driving on the left – even though we do it so badly – is also a part of the legacy.

Though the last 50 years have witnessed an appalling neglect of some aspects of British built cultural heritage, there is now a growing appreciation that colonial architecture and especially the military fortifications offer an outstanding legacy which is not only historically important, but also aesthetically pleasing.

But the jewel in the crown of Malta’s British cultural heritage is the presence of the George Cross on the Maltese flag. Far from being a mark of colonialism, as some who have no understanding of history sometimes foolishly assert, the George Cross is the most outstanding tribute to that generation of Maltese people – our parents, grandparents and those my age – who suffered and fought willingly, bravely and fervently against Nazism and Fascism.

Those who argue that the Maltese were coerced into a war not of their making have no conception of the loyalty to the British democratic values that impelled them to do so. Except for a small minority of Italian Fascist fellow travellers, the vast majority of Maltese endured the horrors and privations of that war not only because geography had placed Malta inescapably in a vital strategic position, but also because they believed utterly in the cause for which the war was fought. The George Cross is a distinguishing mark of valour and Malta is unique among countries of the world in bearing it proudly on its flag.

Despite the inevitable political tensions that have sometimes divided Maltese and British politicians over the centuries – and especially in the wake of independence when an economically weakened Britain was disentangling itself from colonial involvements as fast as it decently could – the other strong legacy of Anglo-Maltese relations is the cross-pollination between the two nations that has taken place over the last two centuries. We can see this most vividly in the inter-marriages which have taken place and the honourable English and Scottish family names that have now become Maltese: the Millers, Warringtons, Dunbars, Smiths and others. The Maltese gene pool has been greatly enhanced.

Beyond this genetic cross pollination, however, there is also the literary, musical, artistic and educational cross-fertilisation that has occurred. Our best doctors and scholars have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, some of the best of British university education.

Above all, the British legacy is epitomised by the strong and abiding friendship that exists today, when Malta, a proud sovereign state in the European Union and the Commonwealth, stands shoulder to shoulder again with Britain, head held high, on so many issues of common concern.

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