Insights from the UK and beyond
Echoes of Italy’s Clean Hands revolution
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.