Strickland in context
Victor Aquilina’s Strickland House The Standard Bearers And Launching Of The Times Of Malta, Book One: 1921-1935 makes fascinating reading. I recommend it to anyone who is no longer content with the dominant version of Maltese social and political history. Certainly not written by one with Labour credentials, this book’s concern with “re-evaluating” Gerald Strickland (1861-1940) provides numerous painstakingly documented opportunities for a critical reassessment of the formative years of contemporary Maltese politics.
This is not the place for a systematic study of the man and his times, not even “only” of the man and his (The) Times (of Malta). Although such an undertaking, one to which Mr Aquilina has made an outstanding contribution, is urgently required, it must of necessity go beyond the scope of an occasional piece by a newspaper columnist such as yours truly. A project such as I am advocating needs to be a multidisciplinary team effort focused on the broader, historically specific (social, economic, cultural and political) context.
Although a number of scholars have been working at this project for decades, they have been swimming, as it were, against the current of this country’s academic mainstream. Some readers, certainly those that belong to our intellectual establishment, will no doubt question that there is at all some such thing as a “dominant version of Maltese social and political history”. Some of them will, I am certain, especially question the existence of a national intellectual mainstream whose interests are intimately intertwined with those of the country’s traditional political social, economic and political Establishment. I beg to differ.
The “elective affinities” between the attitudes of the intellectual and political establishments towards Lord Strickland is a good starting point for a case study of the common interests that have welded and continue to weld together academic mainstream and conservative politics. This too, however, lies beyond the scope of my fortnightly invitations – I almost wrote “provocations” – to rethink passively received views and sheer prejudices. Kindly be provoked.
Readers of Mr Aquilina’s Strickland House are advised not to stop there. Although some of them will not have needed my prodding to do so, I suggest that they familiarise themselves with the broader context within which Lord Strickland acted before, during and after his 15 years in the colonial service as governor of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies (1902-04), Tasmania (1904-9), West Australia (1909-12) and New South Wales (1912-17). As regards the “before” and “after” periods, they would also be well advised not to limit themselves to the Maltese context. He was, after all, Conservative MP for Lancaster during 1924-1928 when he was elevated to the peerage.
The point about the importance of context cannot be over-emphasised. The “meaning” of Lord Strickland in our political development can only be reconstructed from the context within which he operated and of which he was a part. This reconstruction can only be undertaken after caricatures of Lord Strickland as a lackey of the British empire and as merely tactless and arrogant pain in the neck – not that, as Mr Aquilina would be the first to concede, he was not tactless and arrogant – are themselves taken apart (deconstructed) and exposed as constructions by those elements within his social context that perceived him as a threat to their interests.
Complementary to the importance of context is the need not to fall to the temptation of what is called “essentialism”. This is especially important for an understanding of Lord Strickland’s role in Maltese politics. An essentialist approach to Lord Strickland, for example, would assume that, given that he was a Conservative MP in Britain, therefore his views could not be progressive because “conservative” and “progressive” are practically antonyms. This approach would make it impossible, for example, to appreciate his Commons speech of February 9, 1927, where he refers to the “aggressiveness against the trade union movement” shown by “extremely conservative and anti-progressive elements in Malta” (Hansard, http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1927/feb/09/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0202P0_19270209_HOC_86 ).
One good starting point for a critical reassessment of Lord Strickland would be a study of the hysterical hate that he aroused in the Church and the Nationalist establishments. The pelting of him and his daughters during the campaign of 1927, the swearing of a false affidavit by Ettore Bono (Terinu) to the effect that 30 years before he had seen Lord Strickland dressed in full Masonic regalia (“the Nationalists’ nastiest move … which, for the greatest possible effect, they left up to the very last moment of the election”, Aquilina, p. 178) and his attempted assassination would have been unthinkable were it not for the atmosphere created by the establishment. As a friend of Lord Strickland congratulating him on his “marvellous escape” when one Gianni Miller, “a keen Nationalist supporter” took a shot at him at the law courts on May 23, 1930, remarked: “even a lunatic requires an atmosphere for his deeds” (Aquilina, pp. 227-232).
One good question a reader may ask is: But was not Lord Strickland himself part of the Establishment? If the Establishment is by definition conservative, then how could Lord Strickland be “progressive”? And, why would other elements of the Establishment, whip up an atmosphere that almost killed him? The point is that the Establishment is never a monolith. Establishments are made up of shifting alliances between different interests. Different social groups within the Establishment may also come into conflict. Understanding Lord Strickland requires a consideration of these conflicts. We’ll look at this next time.
The original of this post appeared on September 12, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110912/opinion/Lord-Strickland-in-context.384353