Too wee, too poor for independence? Malta didn't think so - lessons for Scotland

Today, Malta is a successful small independent country, the smallest in the EU. But when it sought its independence from Britain, it was told it was too wee and too poor to make a go of it.  Sound familiar?

In fact, Malta is much smaller than Scotland. Its population has grown 20% in the last decade to about 525,000 but it is still only about the size of Edinburgh in terms of inhabitants. There are three inhabited islands in the Maltese archipelago, the biggest, Malta island is 27 miles long and 9 miles wide.  It is not particularly rich in natural resources. At the time it began its independence journey, it suffered widespread poverty. 

Despite being a lot more wee and initially poorer than Scotland, Malta found the confidence to reject British rule in a referendum in 1964 and since gaining complete independence in 1979, it has built a thriving economy. Now it has a smaller percentage of its population in poverty than the UK does. 

Malta celebrates Freedom Day to commemorate the day in 1979 when the British Navy and army forces finally withdrew from the islands. This year, it will be celebrated on March 31. 

What the Brits said about Maltese independence

In 1959, The Times published the following:

“Malta cannot live on its own ... the island could pay for only one-fifth of her food and essential imports; well over one-quarter of the present labour force would be out of work, and the economy would collapse without British Treasury subventions. Talk of full independence for Malta is therefore hopelessly impractical.”. 

The Times was not alone in this view - it was shared by many in the British establishment.  In his memoirs, the former secretary of state for the colonies, Olivier Lyttelton, described Maltese problems as ‘amongst the most difficult to deal with in the whole world’, adding that the ‘underlying reason which makes them so intractable is that

"The Maltese aspire to political independence and to financial dependence’ 

Referring to Malta in 1953, Lyttelton remarked: ‘She lacks minerals and is poor in other natural resources, and her whole economy therefore depends, directly or indirectly, on expenditure by the Services and could be disastrously affected by contraction of defence requirements in the Mediterranean’. Seven years later, a Colony Office official warned

‘Such measure of political and economic stability as there is is largely dependent on the ballast provided by the presence of the British Services in Malta. If that ballast is removed, and assuming that we cannot adequately replace it, the place becomes a cockleshell and simply capsizes."

The long road to independence

Situated in the Mediterranean, Malta has a rich history - it was colonized by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and assorted other empires. It became a British colony during the Napoleonic wars.

The Maltese fought off the French under Napoleon and signed a deal with the Brits that the British navy would protect it in return for providing a strategic naval base. But the administration of the Island was to be in the hands of the Maltese, who had democratically elected representatives and a constitution modeled on the American one. However, the British did not keep to the terms of the agreement and Malta soon became a colony.

Malta continued to be a strategic naval base, most importantly in the Second World War, when the islands were under siege and held out bravely from 1940 to 1942 - it was one of the most heavily bombed areas in the entire war. Retaining Malta was thought to play a significant role in Allied victory in North Africa. The entire island was awarded the George Cross. 

After the war, demands for independence grew from both major parties, both the Maltese Labour party and the Independence Party. Initially, the Labour Party under Dom Mintoff backed a plan for Home Rule in 1958 which would have given Malta three seats in Westminster. 

In the event, it was the Brits dragged their feet on this. They were concerned that a good devolution deal for Malta would set a precedent for Scotland, among others. 

Mintoff fell out with the long-running Secretary of State for the Colonies Alex Lennox-Boyd, (whose mother Frances Begbie was a Scot). Boyd was angered by what he saw as Mintoff’s failure to show proper deference and essentially accused Mintoff of being a liar.

Mintoff was well known as a tough negotiator -  his hard bargaining once caused the NATO secretary-general, Joseph Luns, to say of the Labour Party leader:

‘I have negotiated with Sukarno, with Nasser, with Krishna Menon. But never have I met such a bastard!’

After the British cut defence spending and sacked 40 people from the docks, relations deteriorated and the Maltese Government started to push for full independence. Malta held an independence referendum in 1964, where Yes won a marginal victory - about  55% of the vote and 42% of registered voters voted for independence. But many of those who voted ‘No’ did support some kind of independence - there were disagreements about the form it should take. For some years during the transition to independence, Malta charged Britain  £14 million a year for the use of the naval base. 

In 1974, when Mintoff was again Prime Minister, Malta became a Republic and in 1979, the Brits finally left - on the day now known as Freedom Day.


Malta joined the EU in 2004 and the Euro in 2008. With an educated, multi-lingual workforce it has strong services, financial and tourism sectors plus some electronics and technology manufacturing. Around 20% of the Maltese population lives below the poverty - whereas it is a quarter in the UK and that percentage is growing. 

Post-Brexit, Malta has become an attractive prospect for Brits who want to retire to an EU country as it is one of the easiest to get permanent residency. It has a special scheme for third country pensioners who can get permanent residency, as long as they can afford to buy a house and make a one-off payment to the Maltese exchequer.  Most people speak English, it has a good bus service and it uses the same three-pronged plugs as the UK, adding to its ex-pat attractiveness.

The EU has, however, raised concerns about Malta's "golden passport" scheme - which can be an entry route for individuals whose wealth is of dubious origin. In 2017, investigative journalist Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb attack in Malta, after investigating corruption. 

Lessons for Scotland

Malta started out on its journey to independence from a position of weakness. Its economy was extremely dependent on British defence spending. There was a lot of poverty on the island. It did not have many natural resources to draw on. Its population was tiny.

Yet it pushed ahead with independence and has made a go of it, with a smaller percentage of its population now at risk of poverty and exclusion than in the UK. 

By Jackie Kemp