I AM writing this on Malta’s Independence Day. The British High Commission in Malta has just tweeted: “A happy independence day to all our Maltese friends”.

It is a custom of this column to use such occasions as an opportunity to take a window on the world.

As a tourist destination, Malta is crowded, sometimes chaotic, and often very noisy – especially during the firework season, when rival patron saints are celebrated with intense pyrotechnics. Some resorts are overbuilt and dirty, in a “Sauchiehall Street on a Sunday morning” kind of way. The national dish is rabbit, which many are a bit squeamish about.

Yet it is one of my favourite countries in the world. Valletta is a lovely old town. Its Grand Harbour is the navel of European and British-imperial history. Mdina is an architectural wonder. Somewhere, “by the shore at Pieta”, Sammy’s Bar, immortalised by the folk-singer Cyril Tawney, once stood – although I have never found it.

I first visited Mata as a PhD student to dig through the collections at the University of Malta and to interview people about the making and implementation of their constitution. Everywhere I went, doors of hospitality flung open – members of parliament, ministers past and present, a former president, and various retired senior officials all welcomed me.

Malta became independent in 1964. It did so on the basis of a referendum. Crucially, the referendum question was not “Should Malta be an independent country?” Rather, it was a vote on the adoption of a specific constitution – a constitution which, it so happened, provided for independence.

The constitution had been negotiated in advance between the main government and opposition parties, with British official support, and had been passed by the legislature of Malta before being referred to the sovereign people for their approval.

The process of constitution-making was not, perhaps, as inclusive or as deliberative as one might like in ideal circumstances. One would expect a more participatory process for making major constitutional changes in a country like Ireland or Iceland – countries that have already been independent for a long time and already have well-functioning institutions to fall back on. In the context of making a transition to independence, however, a political negotiation leading to parliamentary and popular approval was sufficient to confer constitutional legitimacy.

As in most newly-independent Commonwealth countries, Malta’s constitution was an attempt to render the British system into writing, with such modifications as national circumstances and collective experience might require. Former colonies did not, for the most part, have these “Westminster Export Model” constitutions imposed upon them. They wanted them because in the 1960s, the British system still enjoyed a very good reputation: nothing less would do.

The “Export Model” modifications revealed British official views about the virtues and defects of their own system at the time. The most obvious difference is that nearly all these constitutions had a judicially-enforced set of basic rights, which were normally entrenched to make them hard to change. Governments would not be able to play fast and loose with the fundamental rights, liberties and freedoms which had been hard won through history and had been shown, through the bitter experience of mid-20th century dictatorships, to be essential to a civilised society.

They also codified the various rules concerning the formation and removal of governments, the dissolution of parliament, the roles of the prime minister and cabinet, and the rights of the opposition. Rules, which in the UK rested only on usage and convention, were embedded in written constitutional form. Similarly, independent commissions were established in these constitutions – the Public Service Commission, Electoral Commission, and so forth.

A further modification in Malta’s case, was to abolish the second chamber and have one house elected by proportional representation.

Initially, Malta kept the monarchy, but a constitutional amendment 10 years later transformed the country into a parliamentary republic.

The post-independence history of Malta was not easy. Political polarisation and intense partisanship escalated into violence. A prolonged opposition boycott arising from the 1981 general election almost brought parliament to a standstill. A clientelist political culture continues to put strains on both good governance and the rule of law.

Malta is a good example of how a decent constitution does not make everything magically perfect – although things would have been much worse without it. The constitution has constrained Malta’s societal tensions – between economic left and right, clerical and secular, Europhile and Eurosceptic – and channelled them into democratic politics.

The bigger point, however, is the fact that Malta exists as an independent state at all. The 1964 vote was not Malta’s first referendum. Eight years previously, the people had voted for the Union with the UK under a devolved arrangement.

The people of Malta were free to change their minds. They were free to go from wanting the Union to wanting independence – and the British Government accepted that.

Scotland wants, demands and deserves the same freedom.