Opinion

John Lloyd

Italy elects the impossible

John Lloyd
Feb 26, 2013 16:22 UTC

In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability

Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.

Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.” 

The other major threat to the necessary reform of Italian politics and society is the surging Five Star movement of former comedian and champion blogger Beppe Grillo. It is an irony that this man, who has no obvious peers in his movement, is positing the largest possible reform and has the least means to achieve it. Grillo has for a decade and more described the entire political class, and the news media, and the Church and the corporate establishment, as thieves, criminals and liars, interested only in feathering their own nests and in pursuing their private vices. His program is for the political parties to “go home,” for Parliament to be dissolved and for parliamentary rule to be replaced by rule of the people, their will made evident through the Internet. Little question that this is absurd: If and when the Net plays a large role in democratic politics, we will require a staged and consensual movement, one that is explained at length and over time to the electorate. Grillo’s leap into postmodernity is a fantastic indulgence. 

But between a quarter and a third of Italians were prepared to indulge him. And they did so because they believed him and his disgust over a long political betrayal. Italian politicians at every level are not universally venal, but enough of them are. They produce sufficiently frequent scandals of an outrageous kind for the honest, taxpaying citizen to feel regular nausea. It is on the tide of that nausea that Grillo rode, which made his movement the biggest single “party” ‑ the center-left and center-right blocs, which narrowly beat him, were coalitions ‑ and which handed him a large power to do … something.

Of princesses and tabloids

John Lloyd
Feb 21, 2013 16:48 UTC

When visitors enter the UK, they should be greeted by a life-size model of a dragon (though what is life-size for a dragon?) with a placard by it that says: “Welcome to the United Kingdom. We devour princesses!”

The dragon might be made of newsprint, for it is the newspapers – followed by waddling broadcasters, tut-tutting along – who are the devourers of these women. The latest British royal scandal features two central British institutions, the royal family and the tabloid press, oddly paired with a distinguished writer. The first two have flourished in a swamp of contempt (on the royal side) and addiction (on the press side) ever since the postwar years, when automatic deference to royalty was replaced by a destructive neediness.

The present queen, Elizabeth II, was a young woman of 25 when the death of her father propelled her to the throne in 1952. No scandal of her making attended her as a princess, nor has any since she became queen. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was a different matter. In love in her early 20s with a divorced “commoner,” Group Captain Peter Townsend, she renounced him at her sister’s request and later married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones. She later divorced him. Margaret, a heavy smoker and drinker, was a fixture in the popular papers – mostly for real or alleged affairs, especially with the minor aristocrat Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years her junior.

Italy’s important election

John Lloyd
Feb 19, 2013 20:13 UTC

“I’ll be back” has been Silvio Berlusconi’s frequent slogan since he first departed from the political field two decades ago. His first government, in 1994, lasted a mere year. It ended in semi-farce when his main ally, the Northern League, pulled out. Prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption while he hosted a G8 meeting in Naples. But he was back in 2001 through 2006, when he lost by a whisker to the left; then back again in 2008, when a stumbling left government lost its majority.

His resignation in 2011 was supposed – even by him – to be the final word. Instead, by the middle of last year, halfway through the austere term of the technocrat Mario Monti, he sniffed the air of a return from the political grave (or, according to his many detractors, recalled that being prime minister with the immunity of parliament was handy for one still facing criminal charges). Thus he inserted himself back into the leadership of the party he created, the People of Freedom. At 76, Berlusconi was on the stump once more. With bravura, he has promised to pay people back – in cash -- for the property taxes they have paid since his departure, he won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV show and he grabbed every minute of broadcast space that he could. One could admire his tenacity if he had not been such a disaster — economically, politically and morally — for his country.

Berlusconi has a chance of winning this weekend’s elections. Roberto D’Alimonte, one of Italy’s leading political scientists, argues that the People of Freedom are a mere five points behind the left coalition’s 31 percent poll score. Berlusconi’s tally may be too low if some people are ashamed to tell pollsters they will vote for him. He’s a master of the late surge (as in 2006, where he narrowly snatched victory after trailing badly).

Searching for serenity in Israel and Palestine

John Lloyd
Feb 13, 2013 13:57 UTC

After Asher Susser, an Israeli scholar and one of his country’s foremost experts on Middle Eastern affairs, gave a talk in Oslo a few years ago, an audience member asked him a question: How soon, once a Palestinian state is created, will Israel and Palestine unite to form one country? “Twenty-four hours!” Susser said he replied. “Twenty-four hours after Norway and Sweden unite into one Scandinavian state!”

Susser, with whom I spoke recently in London, told the story to illustrate the fact that, as he said, “people value their ethnic and national identities much more than many wish to believe. Norway and Sweden are similar and friendly societies, but a merger would be unthinkable. Why assume it would be different with us?” (Norway, once united with Sweden under a Swedish king, achieved full independence in 1905.)

His central thesis, which he says will be revealed once more in all its dreary inevitability when President Barack Obama meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders next month, is that there is no hope of a successful negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Structurally, psychologically, culturally, politically, they cannot agree. So better not to try. 

England’s inevitable gay union

John Lloyd
Feb 7, 2013 22:52 UTC

Earlier this week the British Parliament housed a restrained, sometimes mawkish and at times moving debate on gay marriage – and the bill passed the House of Commons, 400 to 175. The story was not that it passed, which had been expected. Instead, it was the split in the major governing party, the Conservatives, more of whose 303 MPs voted against the bill than for it. (Conservatives voted 136 in favor of the bill, with 127 voting no, five abstentions and 35 not registering a vote.) Prime Minister David Cameron, still intent on ensuring that his party is liberal as well as conservative, was emollient and understanding of those against the measure but presented his support in the context of a “strong belief in marriage. … It’s about equality but also about making our society stronger.”

His remarks signal that while there is division on the right over gay marriage – at least in Europe –and that while prejudice and bigotry still exist, the serious debate is between contending notions of conservatism. For liberals like Cameron and many in his party, gay marriage extends the benediction of an ancient rite upon modern couples, drawing them into the rituals of homebuilding and long-term affection that have so far been claimed as a heterosexual monopoly. For opponents, marriage must be just such a monopoly, since it is a union of one man and one woman for the purpose (if not always the practice) of procreation, of continuing society’s values in particular and the human race in general.

On values, Britain – in this case, England – is an anomaly: The Church of England is established, the Queen is its head, bishops sit in Parliament’s second chamber, the House of Lords, and the country’s canon law is part of the law of the land. Yet the country is largely irreligious as far as observance goes – the churches are mostly empty – priests and bishops are largely unattended and polls show a sizable majority in support of gay unions of any kind. Indeed, it is only if religion is put in a subaltern position to secular values like equality, fairness, inclusion and the right to pursue happiness that gay marriage could be approved.

The vulnerability of the European elite

John Lloyd
Feb 6, 2013 17:28 UTC

Storms in the Mediterranean, calmed in the latter half of last year, now whip up again. Greece’s woes hardly surface in the rest of the world now, but they’re deep and the people remain restive. Seamen struck last week over unpaid wages and extended the strike this past Sunday. The strike cuts off the many islands around the country, and limits exports and imports. For a country so defined by the sea and shipping, it takes on an iconic quality. A 24-hour general strike has been called for Feb. 20: Golden Dawn, the far-right party that targets immigrants and that stands third in the polls, held a thousands-strong rally in Athens on Saturday. No one can say whether the lid will stay on until matters improve – or, indeed, if matters will improve.

Greece’s recent history makes its troubles largely discounted internationally. But along the world’s most famed stretch of water, from which both European and Middle Eastern civilizations drew their inspiration, is Spain, a much larger economy, a weightier state, one whose Spexit could not be contemplated, which is why its failing banks received special care and attention from the European Central Bank to stay in business.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, had been neatly packaged by the news media as “dull but honest” – one who would apply himself with patience and a clean conscience to the hard grind of leading Spain out of its post-bubble miseries. That narrative was brought to an end last week with the publication in the daily El Pais of details of the parallel accounts that one of Rajoy’s former colleagues, the onetime treasurer of the center-right People Party (PP), Luis Barcenas, had kept. These purport to show that Barcenas had paid out generous and secret amounts, from a Swiss-based slush fund, to senior party officials, including Rajoy. Barcenas, treasurer from 1990 to 2008, had already resigned because he appears implicated in a separate scandal involving kickbacks to PP officials in return for public contracts.

The moment for Irish unity is nearly over

John Lloyd
Jan 29, 2013 19:50 UTC

The latest “troubles” in Northern Ireland began 45 years ago, and though much reduced, sometimes to invisibility, they are not over yet and will not be for some time. Protests over the Republican-dominated Belfast Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack just on certain days happened again over the weekend, if smaller and less violent than in the past few weeks.

This is what can happen after more than a century of demand for Irish independence: violence, on both sides, takes time to lose its attraction, and its adherents. Yet the bid for Irish unity, which from the late sixties to the late nineties was written almost daily in blood, has failed. Now, as we’re witnessing what may be its long withdrawal from politics, republicanism may not have another chance.

Sinn Fein, for nearly all of its life a front organisation of the IRA, has made an accommodation with unionism. Its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness – respectively once heads of IRA brigades in the seventies and eighties – have not just implicitly accepted the partition of the island, but have called for the nationalist community to work with the police (whom they previously sought to slaughter). They have also denounced those republicans who carry on terrorism under the name of the Real IRA as ‘traitors to Ireland.’ In a much quoted observation, the historian Paul Bew quipped that “the IRA is too intelligent to admit that they have lost and the Unionists too stupid to realise they have won.” This is what the 1998 Belfast Agreement brought.

Britain: The annoying European

John Lloyd
Jan 24, 2013 19:08 UTC

Truly, Britain is not just a bad European, but a very annoying one. David Cameron half-admitted as much in his speech in Davos Wednesday, when he quipped, “frustrated as [our European partners] no doubt are by Britain’s attitude.”

The U.K. joined the European Union late, spending more than a decade after the end of the World War II arrogantly believing that Europe was too small for it. When it did join under a Conservative government, the next Labour government under Harold Wilson demanded a renegotiation and a referendum on membership – which produced a fairly convincing yes.

Another Conservative government was elected in 1979, under Margaret Thatcher. It brought endless conflict with Brussels. Thatcher lost her leadership, partly because of a battle within the Conservative Party over Europe. Her successor, John Major, took the UK into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – then abruptly left it in 1992. Labour came back in 1997 with a European Union enthusiast, Tony Blair, as leader – but wouldn’t adopt the euro. These days, the Tories are back and are deeply skeptical. This week their leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, took a leaf out of Wilson’s book, demanding a renegotiation and then a referendum on membership.

Journalism of the future should be less concerned with the present

John Lloyd
Jan 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn’t journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn’t they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn’t they warn about Enron’s house of cards? Why didn’t they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up – especially on the Iraqi WMD issue – because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.

Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.

The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.

Searching for a charismatic leader in the grey halls of Europe

John Lloyd
Jan 15, 2013 15:07 UTC

In today’s Europe, no political leader is charismatic. Not one.

Francois Hollande ascended to the French presidency by deliberately proposing himself as “Mr. Normal” after the excitements of Nicolas Sarkozy. Mario Monti was persuaded to take the post-Berlusconi premiership because he was one of the cleverest and most responsible men in Italy. He proves it, by giving press conferences that last for hours, to the exhaustion of the Italian press corps, laying out fact upon fact. Mariano Rajoy of Spain prefers to be as near to invisible as a prime minister can be: a portrait of him last month in the left-leaning El Pais described him as “keeping as low a profile as possible.” Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, is popular and a feisty debater: but he’s generally described as a “pragmatic centrist,” and is out-charmed and out-looked by his foreign minister, the British-educated Radoslaw Sikorski.

David Cameron manifests an occasional flash of raffish charm. But these are austere times, and the champagne lifestyle in which he indulged at Oxford’s Bullingdon Club for the Well-Heeled Drinking Man is never on show.

The capstone of this band of modest men is a woman, Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, one for whom the grand rhetorical gesture, the striking phrase, the public display of temperament, seem alien – a legacy, perhaps, of her upbringing as a Lutheran pastor’s daughter in the dourly Communist state of East Germany, where the lower the profile, the better. As the de facto leader of Europe, Merkel relies on her country’s power and her own, so far excellent, political instincts and maneuvers.

  •