At least it's not Silvio Berlusconi

By LBV

12 May 2010

There is a Czech, a Brazilian, an Italian and a Yorkshireman in a pub in Leeds and all of them want to know the Italian’s opinion about Silvio Berlusconi.

It sounds like the beginning of a contentious joke but it is not. The Italian in question is yours truly and the incident did really happen not so long ago, after Mr Berlusconi grabbed some headlines for actions that have little to do with his job as Italy’s Prime Minister.

Gone are the days when very few outside Italy could name an Italian PM. Nowadays politics in my country can become a topic of conversation in a pub.

I must say that I do not particularly like Mr B: he is loud, populist, always ready to label as communist whoever criticises or disagrees him, even if it is the Financial Times. In politics since 1993 he has still not learned that a government cabinet is not a company board of directors.

Whenever he gets under the international spotlight for the wrong reasons I must admit to envying the supposed tediousness of British politicians.

Having made clear that there is no love lost between the Italian PM and myself, there a few myths about him that are worthy of challenging.

Firstly, Berlusconi is not Mussolini and in Italy there is no regime. Yes, he posses a media empire but, in Spring 1996, he owned no fewer TV stations and newspapers than he does now yet he lost the general election because the opposing coalition of parties had a more appealing programme.

Secondly, Berlusconi won three general elections in 15 years. I think that says more for the ineptitude of his opponents than for his own political merits.

The opposing centre-left coalition - whose main element is the ex-communist party – focused its manifesto on a “we are not Berlusconi” slogan in the last two general elections. Not much of a program for the majority of Italians, for whom Mr B has become a sort of devil they know and yet punctually sent him back to power in 2001 and 2008.

Berlusconi is an anomaly in the western political environment but must be credited with the realisation that after the collapse of Berlin Wall the political offer had to be rethought and repackaged.

The problem was the substance inside the package. Although the very same concept of ideology may sound so last century, it may become very difficult to lead a government without the back bone of some simply laid, grounded ideas.

When spin doctors and strategic consultants are called in to beef up the political message it is time to get worried that package and the presentation is more important than the fundamental ideological content.

Perhaps I still have a romantic idea of political power and think of the ruler of a country staying awake at night thinking how to make things better for their own people.

Romanticism aside, the decline of ideologies – at least as they are traditionally - means that political leaders need to have a strong vision on how they want to do things.

Like it or not, Margaret Thatcher had her own vision of how to free Britain from the presence of the state in too many productive sectors.

Voters thought she had a point and sent her to power. A few observers, including myself, felt that she went over the top in creating a leaner state and selling public assets. Yet her vision defined a decade and – for better and worse - inspired many politicians in the western countries.

Almost two decades later, Tony Blair thought of abandoning the traditional symbiotic association with trade unions and the Labour propensity for being capitalist-averse, but then he created New Labour, which you could argue was an amalgam of Conservative ideals, and he had a landslide in 1997.

And while it is still a mystery of how he ended up joining George W Bush to invade Iraq and spending his holidays at Berlusconi’s villa in Sardinia, at the time a few observers thought that he had created a viable third option between socialism and no-rules capitalism.

Being an Italian national I was not eligible to vote in the General Election and while I am writing the column neither of the major political parties seems to have a clear lead in the general election and there are fears of the result of a hung parliament.

I think this is because the leaders of all parties lack of a distinct vision of their own, nor willingness to pull down a few totems. For example, during the last general election campaign no parties mentioned the need to reform the social security. Yet, given the current level of deficit and the reluctance of all parties of increasing taxes or cutting the services , I am sure that whoever would promise a fairer review of social security benefits would get electors’ attention and, perhaps, vote.

That may be a tip for the next political leader at the next general election.

Renato Cappucci is the founder of TAR-OX brakes.
 

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