What if… if only

History is a record of what happened and you can’t un-happen it.

Almost inevitably, it was Robert Burns who put it pithily into words. “Facts are chiels that winna ding,” he wrote “An’ downa be disputed”. Put in modern idiom that means that facts cannot be changed and must not be disputed.

It is a thought that occurred the other evening during a session of a favourite post-dinner parlour game. It’s called “What If?” and it’s all about taking a particular topic and discussing whether an alternative treatment of it would produce a better end product. The particular discussion was about one of my favourite films, The Lord of the Rings, and the recent suggestion, when the producers were putting the project together, that the first actor considered for the pivotal role of Gandalf was none other than Sean Connery rather than Ian McKellen, who did eventually star – and whether the change would have made a better film. All totally academic, of course, since we all know how it did turn out and have our own views on whether it succeeded or not.

But, as the evening wore on, the discussion turned to more serious topics such as politics and the history of this tiny island we call home. It soon became clear that the essential fun of ‘What If’ can very rapidly become the less funny and much sadder question of ‘If Only’.

The trouble with ‘If Only’ is that it can become a mournful litany of perceived missed opportunities and dubious historical grievances. And that is sad.

Let us look at one critical point in Malta’s history as an example. At the start of World War II, there was a considerable lobby in the United Kingdom that, in order to appease Mussolini, Britain should cede Malta to Il Duce in the hope that giving him control of the Mediterranean would keep him out of it all. Undoubtedly, there was also a strong lobby here in Malta that was all in favour of exactly that. We all know what the history is but you can’t live in Malta for long as an expat with a UK passport without being made very well aware that there is still a body of opinion in this island that wishes to ‘If Only history had gone the other way’. That is sad and that is futile. History is a record of what happened and you can’t un-happen it.

Of course, giving Mussolini free rein might have worked. Personally, I very much doubt it: I suspect Il Duce was too much of a vainglorious numbskull to have ever given up his dream of recreating the Roman Empire in his own toy soldier image.

It might have worked, but even if it had, where would Malta stand today? I like Malta (obviously, since I’ve been living here a long time) and that feeling is based on both admiration and respect, tinged with a degree of envy for what this country has achieved as a nation. Malta is today a full member of the United Nations, and indeed is also a member of its essential Security Council; it is also a full member of the European Union with all the opportunities that provides; it holds the chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe; and finally it is a popular and influential voice in the Commonwealth, today a partnership of over 50 countries with a population of over 2.5 billion. The envy? Malta occupies a place in the world which has been denied to my beloved Scotland.

Question: would you swap all that for a history of being today Italy’s smallest and southernmost province, furthest removed from the Italian financial and industrial powerhouse of the Alto Adige? So why do certain people still opt to ignore historical reality for the dream of a Willie Wonka style fairytale? As Edward Fitzgerald wrote: “the Moving Finger writes: and having writ moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

History doesn’t offer the option of a revised Director’s Cut.

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