Opinion

John Lloyd

The once and future Silvio

John Lloyd
Oct 30, 2012 21:39 UTC

A stake through the heart might keep Silvio Berlusconi out of Italian politics, but it better be hammered in hard. Last week he renounced all intention of running again for the premiership of Italy, then received a four-year prison sentence (later reduced to a year) for tax evasion.

Facing that, another man might have sought privacy, but the former prime minister shows – and licks – his wounds in public. He called a press conference and threatened to withdraw his party’s support of the government of technocrats led by Mario Monti. Without that, it would fall. Italy, its economy still fragile, would be plunged into a deep crisis. Berlusconi, who advertised his decision to renounce office as having been dictated by his “love of Italy,” now seems, in his rage over the sentence, to be imitating Samson, pulling down the pillars of the temple as he leaves it.

On the day Berlusconi was sentenced, Elsa Fornero, the cabinet minister responsible for work, pensions and equal opportunities, came to Oxford to speak to a largely Italian audience, a meeting I chaired. She – like Monti, an economics professor – is the kind of politician you find in a TV series like The West Wing. She speaks as one intelligent adult to others, patient in explaining complex legislation. She’s at the heart of the storm that the Monti government’s cuts have stirred in the still powerful trade unions.

At one point, a student asked her, with a certain edge to the question, why her government, in power for almost a year, had not done more about corruption – a sore point in an ailing country. Ms. Fornero, her voice a little husky, said that corruption was endemic, deeply antisocial and fearfully hard to eradicate by government action. Instead, Italians had to feel their taxes were part of their social duty, part of what it was to be a citizen. Evading tax should no longer be thought of as the clever or responsible (to one’s family) thing to do, but instead as an act that impoverishes society. Elected politicians in Italy rarely speak like that.

She did not mention the former prime minister once, though I tried to tempt her to comment. This government depends on the major parties’ support, and tiptoes carefully around apportioning blame for Italy’s dire financial state. Anything else would be irresponsible.

Wanted: Equitable capitalism, profitable socialism

John Lloyd
Oct 23, 2012 16:26 UTC

Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.

Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”

Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).

The endangered lifestyle of the rich and famous alpha male

John Lloyd
Oct 16, 2012 20:59 UTC

Mark Anthony, in his oration for the murdered Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, observes: “The evil that men do lives after them.” Indeed, in our supercharged world, evil lives with its perpetrator, tearing him down while still in his prime. Anthony’s musing would bring a grim smile to the faces of many men; none grimmer, perhaps, than that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, former presidential hope of France’s Socialist Party, and – given the success that the more modest Francois Hollande had in beating Nicolas Sarkozy  – a former future president of France.

In an interview given to the weekly Le Point earlier this month, the former and future world statesman complained that he was the victim of a “manhunt” but added that he had been “naïve” and “out of step with French society.” Cleared of sexually assaulting a maid in New York, he still faces charges of being part of a prostitution ring in which fraudulently acquired money was used to pay the women. He denies them, calling the accusations absurd. All he did, he says, was to go to sex parties in which many people – including many distinguished people –took part. He has never denied he was a swinger himself. Reportedly, he told his wife, Annie Sinclair, before their marriage 20 years ago: “Don’t marry me, I’m an incorrigible skirt-chaser!” Ms. Sinclair, indulgent of faults for which she had been warned, stood by him for months but left him this summer.

He says he was never a rapist, though a journalist, Tristane Banon, who sought an interview with him in 2002, alleges he tried to rape her and threatened a civil suit against him.

A peace prize for a continent that’s far from tranquillity

John Lloyd
Oct 12, 2012 20:46 UTC

If, upon hearing the news that the Nobel Peace Prize is going to the European Union, the first response is “You’ve got to be kidding”, the second must be… “they’ve got a point.” The third is: But how much of a point?

You’ve got to be kidding is easy enough. The demonstrations, the strikes, the protests. An unprecedented police presence in Athens to ensure the prime minister of friendly Germany, Angela Merkel, is safe from angry mobs. The military in Spain hinting they may intervene to stop the country breaking up. A stream of opinion pieces speculating on Greek exit, euro collapse…and/or German domination. A faltering of the belief, on the part of most European intellectuals, that the EU was a unique, enlightenment project that showed the world (and particularly the United States) what peaceful, consensual spread of civic virtues looked like.

And then, in the midst of this, with no guarantee that all will be well, the European Union gets the Nobel Peace Prize, joining past winners Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa and Andrei Sakharov, among others. One of these is not like the others.

The politician’s hagio-biography

John Lloyd
Oct 8, 2012 22:03 UTC

Last week, Ed Miliband, who wants to be Britain’s prime minister, had the kind of public event that changed people’s, or at least the media’s, perception of him: He was punchy, sharp, raspingly dismissive of the government’s strategy. The Labour Party leader, in his speech to the party’s annual conference, spoke for over an hour without notes, moved about the stage with apparent ease, and seemed in a fine, combative humor. He got good press, which he generally hasn’t for the first year of his leadership. It didn’t have quite the earth-moving quality of Mitt Romney’s steamrollering of President Obama a day later – another, and much greater, turnaround event for the man who wants the somewhat larger job of U.S. president. But Miliband did good.

Unfortunately, he also spoke about himself.

This was unfortunate, because what he told his audience – the nation, rather than just the Labour Party conference – was the now-standard democratic politician’s confected biography. He had a loving family, and he was just like most people – in his case, because he went to state schools. Trust me, says this biography: I am psychologically secure, and I know ordinary life. As he said in his speech: “that’s who I am”.

But who is this “I”, really? The “I” who went on to Oxford University and to the London School of Economics (elite)? Then to Harvard (elite and American)? Then almost immediately to a career in politics, as a senior politician’s aide (far from ordinary life)? The “I” who had a father, Ralph, who was the UK’s most prominent Marxist sociologist? This “I” has apparently been banished from Miliband’s story – he is just the “I” that he thinks his electorate wants him to be.

In India, a press corps searching for its morality

John Lloyd
Oct 2, 2012 19:13 UTC

I was in India last week, where I met three frustrated moralists. One was a journalist, an investigator of some distinction (which, to be fair, can be frustrating anywhere). The other two were regulators of the press and broadcasting, respectively. They have little power and thus little influence over what they see as a scandal: the way the media ignore the “real” India – impoverished, suffering, socially divided – in favor of a glossy India that’s little more than the three “C’s” – cinema, celebrity and cricket.

Justice Markandey Katju is one of these frustrated regulators. Katju, a former judge of India’s Supreme Court, is chairman of the Press Council of India, which – very loosely – oversees the press. When I told smart Indian journalists that I would see him, they were amused, and many told me he was “mad”. Justice Katju does thunder, but he’s not crazy: He’s an outspoken moralist, and his thundering says something not just about Indian media but also about India.

Calling Katju “outspoken” would fall too short. He hectors and lectures. In fact, Katju does speak with something of the fervor of the Indian governing class of the pre- and post-independence period, when ideals were at least as important as details and mechanisms. “There was a fashion show recently in Mumbai,” he said, “where there were 512 journalists. 512! The models were wearing clothes made of cotton grown by farmers who are committing suicides in their thousands every year! And is that reported? Maybe one reporter will be sent sometimes.

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