30 May, 2009

The crime of Berlusconi

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the British newspapers and broadcast media are getting hysterical about Silvio Berlusconi and that this hysteria stems from having nothing concrete to say.

The first problem is that they assume Berlusconi’s constituency is White Anglo Saxon Protestant. It is not. It is Italians, who think in a rather different way.

For the second half of the twentieth century any reference to Italian politics was that it was a joke. No one could resist mentioning the corruption, or that Italy had had 48 governments since the fall of Mussolini. No one blamed the insane proportional representation system for causing that; it was simply Italian madness. When Berlusconi tried to change it, towards a British-style First Past the Post ballot, they all said he was fiddling the system, cheating.

Now we have had a period of some stability, with only one Prime Minister in six of the last eight years, and they complain he is a dictator.

There was a perfectly absurd claim that Berlusconi controlled the media, without anyone investigating exactly what influence a Prime Minister has on the state channels, which, if people could face watching them, are often openly critical of him. The British government appoints the Director General of the BBC but no one claims Gordon Brown is in control of the media (he wishes!). And it is hard to claim that Berlusconi controls the newspapers and then claim that he might be forced out of office by a campaign run by La Reppublica (the Guardian’s equivalent, but without that organ’s self-righteousness) and followed up by the Corriere della Sera (Independent but less of a rant), La Stampa, l’Osservatore romano and God knows what else.

Berlusconi will not be forced out of office by the Noemi Letizia story: whereas British newspapers would lead with ‘Berlusconi: my shame!’, most Italians think ‘Complimenti! Forza!’. Discussion in my local agricultural wholesalers was whether at 72 he had the energy to satisfy the girl properly, ‘whereas I......’. But ‘good luck to him’ they say.

They say his party contains former fascists, without saying that the opposition contains former communists who accepted money from Russia during the cold war. The President, Giorgio Napolitano, is one of them.

Nor are Berlusconi’s brushes with the law a huge point of interest. Italians have had years of this and believe, not inaccurately, that most individual politicians and most governments since 1948 have been for sale. ‘But how could you bribe Berlu....? He’s the richest man in Italy!’ And everyone knows the judicial system is politicised: prosecuting magistrates and defence attorneys are openly of the left or the right, so if you are attacked by a left wing magistrate you hire a right wing avvocato and vice versa.

I am not saying Berlusconi is innocent of the accusations against him, nor denying that his relationship with an 18 year old (the age of consent is 14 here) has been inappropriate. I am just saying how it plays in Italy. And how it plays is that he has a 75% popularity rating. Remember a British politician who achieved that?

Compare Berlusconi’s open hiring of some big breasted starlet to advertise the ‘Clean Naples’ campaign with the weaselly spinning of Mandelson and Campbell, or Ed Balls’ declaration that the Tories would fire 45,000 teachers, without mentioning that their figures for cuts were taken from Alasdair Darling’s budget. The British people have been fed a diet of lies from cunning plotters behind the scenes, paid with the people's money. If the Italians have got a clown who wears his faults on his sleeve, who is the luckier?

But let me give the outraged lefties a steer. Berlusconi’s crime is to have let this stuff be the story, to act diligently when there was popularity at stake (and his handling of Naples and Alitalia has been little short of brilliant) but not to take the long term decisions necessary. Before long Europe will emerge from recession but to get going again it will need not inflationary stimulus but tax cuts financed by spending cuts. Berlusconi knows that he should cut the size of the State but knows it will be unpopular. He has failed to prepare the political ground for it, while Italy needs 70 billion euros each year to service its debts. A mature statesman (and he wants to be President) would now be seeking cross party agreement on which areas the State could leave, and on freeing up the labour market so that employment will grow without barriers.

Berlusconi’s crime does not stem from his actions. It is his inaction.

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