Echoes of Italy’s Clean Hands revolution

May 18, 2009

The shockwaves reverberating through Westminster as the MPs’ expenses scandal unfolds have been compared with the “Clean Hands” bribery scandal that effectively demolished Italy’s post-war political establishment in the space of a couple of years in the early 1990s.

If things are going to get that bad, the guilty politicians are going to have an uncomfortable time.

As a reporter in Rome at the time, I remember how surprise turned to anger then just as it has now as the public began to realise the sheer extent of the corruption that was helping to line the pockets of the country’s leading politicians and their parties.

The morning newspapers brought fresh revelations almost daily of how the main political parties routinely demanded kickbacks in return for government contracts. There were the “golden sheets” for example in which invoices for linen and bedding were inflated to thousands of pounds, and the exorbitant demands placed on suppliers to hospitals, which caused particular anger.

People used to demonstrate in the streets wearing white gloves to show they had clean hands. They would try to scare MPs they felt were corrupt by sending them spoof versions of the “avviso,” the official notice that warned potential offenders they were under investigation. The avviso itself became one of the enduring symbols of the scandal, almost like the guillotine in revolutionary France. Reproductions of it used to sell well as birthday and Christmas cards.

Another favourite amng the angry public, if any disgraced politician dared show his face his public, was to mockingly shower them with coins.

Such was the fate of one of those held to have been most deeply involved in the corruption, Socialist leader Bettino Craxi, who was forced to flee to his second home in Tunisia to escape jail in Italy. Other disgraced politicians and businessmen even took their own lives.

What was going on in Italy at that time was undoubtedly far more serious than the exploitation of MPs’ expenses, but because the British have tended to be less cynical about their elected representatives, the sense of outrage has been much the same.

But before the calls for a complete shake-out of the British political establishment become so loud as to be unstoppable, it might be worth remembering, as former Labour minister Michael Meacher points out in his blog, that political vaccuums often produce surprise results.

Fringe parties, for example, can make big gains, as seems to be happening already in Britain.

And in the case of Italy, the net result of the collapse of its main parties was — Silvio Berlusconi.


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As an Italian living in London, in the the 90’s I was interested, but only from an observer’s point of view. I often remarked…these things thankfully do not happen in UK – however I have now come to the inevitable conclusion that they happen everywhere…even in prudish, squeaky clean England – I am disppointed, but not surprised. An Italian saying “tutto il mondo e’ paese” means “the whole world is like your own country” seems more & more accurate, sadly.

Posted by ItalianAL | Report as abusive

“Mano Pulitte” was another sort of corruption. By the way, I believe you meant “aviso” not “awiso”.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

[…] mainstream parties have been tainted – that Britain may soon face its own version of the “Clean Hands” corruption controversy which swept away Italy’s postwar political establishment in the […]

Posted by Britain’s speaker teeters on brink of taxpayer-cleaned moat | | Report as abusive

If MPs are found to have had money, that they should not have had.Then they should be made to pay it all back and then sacked.The same as any normal worker would be, why should they be any diffrent

Posted by nick cooper | Report as abusive

And why should taxpayers money be used to pay bank bosses.also corruption is not just in goverment dept,sIts also in council dept.s and they all ways try to cover it up,

Posted by nick cooper | Report as abusive