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.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 31, 2012 16:54 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 28, 2012 15:12 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

A sinking Italy is grasping for direction

John Lloyd
Jun 12, 2012 19:02 UTC

Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, is now in the most critical of situations. If many different things do not go well for the bel paese in the next year, it may attract the use of the word “founder” in its other, more sinister meaning: to sink.

As the euro zone crisis – which has traumatized Greece, put painful squeezes on Ireland and Portugal, and now engulfs the banks and the economy of Spain – laps around the beaches of Italy’s peninsula, the mood has soured.

In the past week, interviewing some of Italy’s leading journalists for a book on journalism in Berlusconi’s Italy, the country I found was one of profound doubt. Italian journalists are not the least cynical of their profession and often greet new events with a we’ve-seen-it-all-before shrug. Not now. Now they follow and record and comment on the news with journalism’s customary hyperactivity. But they admit they have no notion of what will come – or even how their country will be governed. What might come is, by large consent, possibly, even probably, bad.

Beppe Grillo: The anti-politics politician

John Lloyd
May 17, 2012 17:52 UTC

For some three decades, an Italian comedian named Beppe Grillo has satirized – viciously, at high volume, naming names – the corruption of Italian politics. Last week, in Italian elections, he won the honor of being a part of the very thing he mocks.

When Grillo started doing comedy, in the early eighties, the Socialist Party – led by Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 – was in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and was a byword for theft from the taxpayer. Italians would say: The Socialists haven’t been in power before, they know they won’t last, so they have to make money quickly – a kind of resignation to the inevitability of political larceny that the British mind (mine) found quite shocking. Grillo was also shocked: or at least, he made shock the basis of his act. More than any other public figure, he fashioned from the venality of Italian political life a dark, bitter and yet hilarious comedy.

The politicians were furious that their good name should be so besmirched, and got him banned from Italian TV – which, in the eighties, was monopolized by the channels of the state broadcaster RAI, in turn under the control of the politicians.

Expect worse for the working class

John Lloyd
Jan 10, 2012 17:12 UTC

Organized workers of the world are united on at least one big thing: that the recession which has settled over much of what was once called the developed world (and if we are not wise and active, may soon be better called the “undeveloping world”) should not load more onto the burdened backs of the working class.

But it will. Politicians everywhere see little choice.

In the United States, right-to-work laws are being pushed hard in those states with Republican leadership. The laws stop unions from forcing non-union workers to obey union decisions in plants where they have contracts. And when these laws are on the books, the unequivocal result is that union organization and membership slump. More controversially, those who support these laws claim that investment in the state grows – thus increasing the number of jobs and sometimes the level of wages.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing a package of measures, due to be outlined on Jan. 18 at a meeting with employers’ and union leaders, that he hopes will allow companies to reduce working hours and pay in slack times, with increases at a time of full demand. No one expects an agreement soon (if ever), and since the President faces a re-election battle in the spring, he is politically vulnerable to disruption. But even if Socialist candidate François Hollande, ahead now in the polls by some 10 percent, were to win, he would be trying something of the same, since French companies’ competitiveness is tending to fall.

What Berlusconi leaves behind

John Lloyd
Nov 9, 2011 19:02 UTC

He called himself the best leader in Europe, even in the world: but he was, by quite a way, the worst (in Europe at least: the rest of the world offers more competition). In part, this was due to the sheer force of his personality: if, to adapt his favored slogan, he gave little Forza to Italia, there was much Forza in Silvio.

Prime Minister (still) Berlusconi was the Boss, in every sense. He commanded his party, his coalition of the right and his governments through the power of his money and his media – but also because he had the strength of will to project himself, unceasingly, on his country and the theatrical chutzpah to make of his private life a fascinating public spectacle. He refused to bow to the customary rules of protocol, decorum or correctness of any kind. He was a man in full in the sense the novelist Tom Wolfe used it in his novel of that name: having achieved great success, he gloried in it, and wished others to see his glory.

Let us not say that the woes of Italy are due only to him, for that would be to believe that his promised resignation would end the crisis – in Italy, in Europe and the world. The productive base of the country had been, unusually for a West European economy, too long bound up in textiles, furniture, footwear and other medium technology goods which the Eastern powerhouses often do as well and more cheaply.

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