It’s a long way to 1919

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 12, 2010

We’re in mid-April and it’s a long way to June 7. Yes, and it’s certainly a long way to go to 1919, nothing less than 91 years of Maltese history. And, yet, the spectre of that dramatic first Saturday of June 1919 often comes back to haunt us and – as befits a spectre that has hitherto irreverently defied all attempts to pacify it by canonising it as a stage in a bipartisan national development narrative – it does not always wait for its official anniversary to make its appearance.

As is to be expected of every political party that aspires to presents itself as the highest expression of national aspirations – I’m not always sure I know what that means – both major Maltese political parties have sought to insert the events of 1919 (because, quite correctly, one cannot uproot the Sette Giugno from other social and political developments in the course of that year) as defining moments in the narrative of their own histories.

These attempts are, to be fair, not unjustified. Take the Nationalist Party. I quote from its official website: “The first important achievement for the country of the Nationalist Party was the 1887 Representative Government Constitution. (…) The Nationalist Party continued to achieve convincing victories till the elections of 1903 when the English Government (sic) revoked the 1887 Constitution (…). In 1921, after incessant struggles and conflicts, which also led to bloodshed, namely the Sette Giugno incidents when four Maltese lost their lives, the English Government (sic) restored the Self-Government Constitution to Malta” (www.pn.org.mt/home.asp?module=content&id=159).

No serious student of Maltese history would disagree that the approval of the resolution tabled by the followers of Enrico Mizzi and Mgr I. Panzavecchia by the National Assembly on February 25, 1919, set the scene for a year of political turbulence that culminated with the events of June 7 of the same year, the day on which the National Assembly was to meet for the second time. Indeed, Giuseppe Mizzi, then editor of the newspaper Malta, remarked that the deliberations of the National Assembly were not confined to the premises put at its disposal by the Giovine Malta. The National Assembly, he wrote, was also taking place outside along Strada Rjali (King’s Street, today’s Republic Street).

And, as Herbert Ganado recalls in the first volume of his evergreen autobiography (p. 206), Dr Mizzi concluded his memorable piece with the ominous words: “Solo una scintilla manca perché scoppi l’incendio” (All that is needed is but a spark to start the fire).. Ganado also recalls that the motion jointly proposed by the Nationalist currents of Mizzi and Panzavecchia – more radically “anti-imperialist” than the much milder one put forward by Sir Filippo Sceberras and then abandoned by the same in the interests of unity – was approved almost unanimously by the Assembly.

“Almost” because Augustus Bartolo of the Daily Malta Chronicle voted against it (p.205). On June 7, the crowd attacked the offices and the presses of this newspaper. Although Ganado suggests that “some” dockyard workers had been planning to revenge themselves against the Chronicle because the latter had sided with the Admiralty and failed to stand up for their rights (p. 219), he also points out – with his customary candidness – that “the Nationalists, who were present in large numbers in that crowd, regarded the Chronicle as the imperialist paper that invariably served the English government” (p. 220).

Last year, during the annual solemn commemoration of the Sette Giugno (that we refer to this day in Italian rather than in English or Maltese is itself an indication of the ideological link between the pre-WWII history of the Nationalist Party, what happened on that occasion and what led to it), Louis Galea, as Speaker of the House of Representative said: “Ninety years ago four of our Maltese brothers (…) became the martyrs of the events of June 7, 1919, historically remembered as the Sette Giugno, a political story of the greatest importance tied with the development of the parliamentary democracy that the Maltese and Gozitan people enjoy today” (www.doi.gov.mt/en/press_releases/2009/06/Diskors%20sette%20giugno.pdf).

That there is a conscious effort to give a national and supra-partisan significance to the Sette Giugno, to present it as a step forward along the tortuous path to the present day, is an understandable and – in my view – positive phenomenon. Not that this interpretation should be simply taken for granted, of course. Like all political narratives, it too should be deconstructed and explained. The point is, however, that if it serves to decrease internal divisions at a time when we could do with a more pragmatic approach to the problems that confront us as a country, then we should not wantonly dismiss it.

And there is an attempt to dismiss it and to turn it into yet another element of divisiveness. A blogger recently referred to the Sette Giugno as “a day on which we now perversely celebrate the mob rather than the real victims”. Whereas the said blogger’s intention was to present today’s Labour Party supporters as “the direct spiritual and political descendants of the (Sette Giugno) mob”, these remarks will not please those Nationalists that regard the Sette Giugno as part of their party’s own history, as a tragic episode that ought to be understood rather than reviled.

Learning from history is a precondition for moving – as together as possible – towards a better future, for finding a middle ground on which we can build a future that is less bitter and acrimonious than the present.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column on The Times of Malta on April 12, 2010


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