It is probably presumptuous to write a post about Malta after being there a week. But it has so much to teach us that it might be worth reflecting on them. We toured the whole island as well as spending a day in Gozo looking at what our guide said were the most important sights, and yes, we were trying to have a holiday. But, all things considered, what the Maltese have to teach us is so blindingly obvious that even a British tourist could notice. So, here goes:
1. All politics is local. When there are only about 430,000 of you in a nation that could fit easily inside Hertfordshire, then you know that everything the government does affects everyone. And as a result, politics matters, and you are by default, a political person. The link between local and national politics is a key one that larger nations have found harder to sustain, and which we as a nation, in our rush to centralise government functions so that local government is simply an arm of the national agenda, have forgotten. And this shows in our voter turnout. 65.1% was the national particpation figure at the 2010 General Election in the UK. Last year, Maltese turnout for their most recent election was 92.95%, something of a disgraceful drop from the heady days of 1987 when 96% of Maltese came out to vote. The closer you are to where the power is, the more interested and engaged is the voter. If it is true that it is not how a government gets elected, but what it does with the power once elected that is of most importance, then the Maltese have a greater stake in what the government does. The fact that the two main political parties are quite different on a range of policies also helps.
2. Bilingualism is a worthwhile goal. The most recent reaction to the dodgy data in the PISA figures in Malta was to relaunch a national literacy strategy that states as part of its aims:
Promote a literate community which provides opportunities for learners to make sense of their experiences and to make connections with their histories, cultures and communities. Through increased access to books and the language arts participatory democracy is strengthened. Promote a policy of bilingualism and biliteracy in Maltese and English.
I found everyone I spoke to happy to converse in English as well as Malti. However, the aim of the secondary education system is to produce children who are (wait for it) quadri-lingual. Yep. 4 languages fully mastered and put to use.
3. Faith and religious observance is essential for community and family harmony and stability. This takes many forms in Malta, principally though, through a lively, home-grown form of Catholicism that seems to be more vibrant and meaningful than it does in France or Spain. The most obvious expression is the widespread celebration of festas or Saints’ feast days, celebrated noisily and colourfully across each parish. The enormous racket of fireworks in St Julian’s could be heard from about 5 p.m. each evening during their festa. There is also a strong link between the significant moments of Maltese history and the intervention of, or deliverance by, God. This was talked about in a folksy way everywhere you went, and was assumed as part of the historical-cultural landscape. As such, it built and sustained faith. An interesting article in the Times of Malta was simply about the new courses being validated by the tertiary education sector for aspects of Christian ministry, including pastoral care, evangelisation in the digital age and other topics. I don’t ever think I would see that in a UK paper.
4. Being on the margins of Europe has its own challenges. Especially if the neighbours are Tunisia or Libya. We heard a story about a young man (I will call him Y) who four years ago converted to Christianity in Tunis from an Islamic background and attended the Anglican Church in Tunis. Three weeks ago, jihadists came to his fathers’ house and said that they were going to kill his son if he returned. The father had not spoken with Y since his conversion, but he rang him up, told him to come and get some money from him, and flee to Malta, which Y duly did. The Anglican church in Tunis contacted their counterparts in Valletta and as I write, are seeking to get Y established in a church and with a source of income and work. When the UK government says it is on the margins of Europe, it really does not know what it is talking about.
5. History matters. This means that there are genuine and clear national understandings of the significance of what has happened to Malta during some significant parts of its history – the fact they have the world’s oldest neolithic temples; the arrival of St Paul and the establishment of Christian faith; the importance of being Arabised – and the impact that had on their language; the arrival of the St John’s Hospitallers and the war against the Turks in the 16th century; the conquest by the French in 1798 and the uprising against them a year later, and the colonisation by the British whose high water mark in historical significance was the defence of Malta during WW2, when it was the most bombed place in the world. All of this is part of being Maltese, in a way that the triumphs of the last two wars in the UK have not fed into our national psyche. As a consequence of this…
6. ….National character is formed by and enhanced through the reaction to misfortune and oppression. Part of why we as British people do not have a strong national identity is because nobody has tried to take it away from us recently. 19th century nationalism in Europe grew as a reaction to Austro-Hungarian, Russian or Spanish colonisation and oppression. Maltese character is distinct and respectful and in various ways they honour and have made peace with their past.
7. Water is a precious commodity. With the arrival of mass tourism since the 1970s, the requirement for water has been met through large reverse osmosis desalination plants, which now cater for 65% of the country’s requirements. Water costs a lot, but it is respected, and careful thought is given nationally and in schools as to how to make the best use of this.
8. Agriculture is deeply respected and every available plot of land is put to use. As exporters as well as providers for their own population, the Maltese have wrestled with a fairly hostile climate and embraced diversity of land use, small farms that keep a large number of people employed on the farm, and kept a strong link between the people who produce the food and those who eat it.
9. Family is critical and vital. Geography helps here – nobody lives very far from one another, and the excellent local buses keep everyone in touch. But walking along the seafront each evening, we were struck by the number of large family gatherings that we came across. This was quite unusual, even for some other Mediterranean cultures (Italians excepted, of course) and made me envious for a while. We have grown up with a culture that counts it something of a failure if the kids hang around the family home and don’t go off to see the world. Actually, more and more I respect those families and cultures that stay close and build something of community together. It seemed to me that family is at the heart of community, rather than simply geographical proximity.
10. We need to question the impact on a small country of mass tourism. The usual argument trotted out by those who speak for “the economy” is that it creates jobs and indeed, 35% of the workforce is in tourist-related employment. There are no easy answers here, but you get the feeling in Malta, as in so many other places, that the question has not been asked. The Maltese are generally welcoming of and friendly towards tourists, and it is tourism that has led the quadri-lingual education policy. However, you do wonder – what if they had chosen a different path? What if they had restricted tourism to a certain extent? What if they were prepared to stand up to market forces, accept a lower standard of living and find other uses for their talents? 1.5 million tourists visited Malta last year, with a total of 12,890,000 guest nights being spent on the two islands. The average stay is 8.1 days, and visitors spent about 1.4 billion euros (Source: Tourism in Malta 2014 Edition, Malta Tourism Authority). Interestingly, 5% of visitors are foreign students coming to learn English at the numerous language schools in the country. However, whilst the money is a blessing, the face of the country has changed immeasurably. It will be interesting to see how the adaptable and resilient Maltese react to this latest colonisation.