I recently left the country (by which I mean England) for the first time in almost a year. I realise this might not seem a significant period of time, but for someone afflicted with wanderlust, this is uncharacteristic.
Since late April, I'd tried compensating by exploring hitherto unvisited parts of the UK, and while rewarding – even Swansea has hidden delights – it proved no substitute for the places that require a roar of jet engines and a passport to reach. These days they also require a battery of tests, about which the less said the better.
And so England's green list took me to Malta, an island nation floating between Sicily, Tripoli and Tunis. Although I'd visited before, about 27 years ago with family, all I remembered was the Popeye Village and a record store on the side streets of Valletta which, I was pleased to discover, is still there.
Malta also fulfilled my love of what the former Scottish Green MSP Andy Wightman once called 'constitutional tourism'. As is well-known, Malta used to be 'British', or rather it was a 'Crown Colony'. This ended in 1964 when it became the 'State of Malta', with Elizabeth II remaining undisturbed as 'Queen of Malta' until a constitutional amendment turned Malta into a republic.
At least that is the potted version, a neat-and-tidy course of events preferred by the rather dusty National War Museum at Fort St Elmo on Valletta's northern tip. To the above timeline it added the departure of the Royal Navy in 1979 and membership of the European Union in 2004. But this glossed over a constitutional 'event' that has long intrigued me.
On 11 and 12 February 1956, the Maltese voted in a referendum on integration with the United Kingdom. Malta was to have three seats in the UK House of Commons (roughly in line with its then population), while the Home Office was to assume responsibility for Maltese affairs from the Colonial Office. This would have followed the then Northern Ireland model, in that Malta would have retained 'devolved' control over most domestic affairs while Westminster looked after the usual 'reserved' matters, such as defence and foreign affairs.
The driving force behind what would have been a unique experiment within the British Empire (or Commonwealth as it was to become) was the Labour Premier of Malta, Dom Mintoff. He saw closer association with the mother country as a route out of the island's economic and political difficulties. A 'round-table' conference drawn from Westminster's three main parties concurred.
Domestic opposition to integration came from the Maltese Nationalist Party, which wanted complete independence, and the Catholic Church, which feared Anglican interference from London. The plan was that if the people of Malta endorsed integration, the proposals would then be submitted to a UK Parliament more accustomed to setting colonies free rather than drawing them closer.
The people said yes, or at least 77% of the near 60% who turned out to vote. But while this appeared to satisfy the round-table's requirement for a clear democratic mandate, doubts crept in among the Conservative Governments of Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. The latter initially told Eden that 'the voluntary and patriotic desire of Malta to join us is something we ought not to repel'. With Suez and Cyprus looking shaky, the prospect of making Valletta's natural harbour (photographed by my grandfather during the war) a 'domestic' military base was understandably attractive.
Others weren't so sure, including several Scottish voices. James Stuart, Eden's Secretary of State for Scotland, considered the referendum result inconclusive and even threatened to resign. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, feared that preferential treatment for Malta might revive demands for devolved Scottish and Welsh parliaments. With Malta's three MPs all likely to be Labour, many Conservatives also shuddered at the thought of Maltese representatives holding the balance of power.
But it was the likely financial implications that killed the plan for a British-Maltese union. A year after the referendum, Dom Mintoff explained what he meant by 'equivalence': comparable health, educational and social services for Maltese citizens within a decade of integration, likewise with public sector wages. 'In other words,' observed the Colonial Office minister Lord Perth, 'give a blank cheque'. The Treasury calculated it would cost £10 million per annum.
By April 1958, Mintoff was denouncing integration and instead arguing for independence, having moved from one extreme to another out of frustration at Brits dragging their heels. Following a period of 'Direct Rule' that would later be applied to Northern Ireland, Malta conformed with the general trend of decolonisation, retaining the Queen as an interim head of state within the Commonwealth, and then completing its independence journey in 1974.
Unusually, the monarch in question knew that particular realm better than any other outside the UK. For four two-month periods between 1949 and 1951, Elizabeth, then Princess Elizabeth (or indeed the Duchess of Edinburgh), lived on Malta, where Philip was based with the Royal Navy. Their residence was the Villa Guardamangia in the Pieta neighbourhood. Lord Mountbatten had the lease, and he was only too happy to have the young newlyweds in residence.
Blessed with the brass neck of a former journalist, I'd contacted the Maltese Government to ask if I could have a look inside, for the building is closed to the public pending conversion into a museum of UK-Maltese relations. They said yes, and on the last day of my visit to the island I met a curator for a fascinating hour exploring the Queen's only long-term foreign residence.
It has seen better days. Until 2018, the villa was inhabited by an elderly lady who resolutely refused to allow either maintenance or visitors – even the Queen herself wasn't able to see it during a Commonwealth meeting in 2015. Half the floor in the former breakfast room has collapsed, as has most of a covered walkway which once extended from the villa to a grotto at the back of a sizeable garden. From the roof we could see the harbour, although we had to be careful where we stood.
Contemporary photographs of Elizabeth and Philip reveal them to have been happy there; it was later remarked that the then future Queen had a taste of relatively 'normal' life as a naval wife. The house therefore has obvious tourist potential, although it'll take at least five years and €10 million to bring it into the 21st century.
The Malta of 2021 still feels very British, to my eyes more so than the Overseas Territories of Bermuda or Gibraltar, and not just on account of a sizeable expat community and summer visitors. The salute battery makes Brits feel at home with clipped commentary and Vera Lynn blasting from loudspeakers. The St George Cross, awarded to the island in 1942, still adorns Malta's flag.
But had the integration scheme of 1956 gone to plan, Valletta would have an MP in the House of Commons and the former occupant of Villa Guardamangia would be approaching her 65th year as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Malta.
David Torrance is an author and contemporary historian