Italy’s politics are broken

Weakness on the left allows Silvio Berlusconi — and even worse — to prosper.

While political debate in Britain is dominated by assessments of the regressive coalition Budget and the Labour leadership election, it is easy to forget what is going on in our European neighbour countries.

Of most interest to the British left should be the turmoil in Italy that could end the career of Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-ridden and erstwhile pal of Tony Blair. Unfortunately, my fear is that his possible replacement as prime minister would be even worse.

In the roller-coaster that has been Berlusconi's political career, the events of 4 August, when he avoided a humiliating defeat in a vote of confidence (the 630-member Chamber of Deputies voted by 299 in favour, with 229 against) only because 75 of his own deputies abstained, may amount to just a short footnote. But he no longer has a parliamentary majority and may well be forced to call a snap election this autumn because, in Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi has a new and powerful rival -- one who also has the "Teflon touch" that allows him to keep power despite controversies of a kind that would end most lives in politics.

Berlusconi is justifiably loathed by the centre left in Italy and regarded as a bit of a laughing stock across Europe, but he is a great survivor. A series of corruption and sex scandals, coupled with huge infighting within his parties and two general election defeats, would have finished off the careers of most. But he has been prime minister for nine out of the past 16 years since his Forza Italia party first swept to power, and remains so.

"Fascism is alive"

The make-up of the current Berlusconi government is frightening. It is a mixture of the corrupt right and the extreme right. And in the battle for the soul of the Italian right, Berlusconi, incredibly, is the lesser of two evils.

The man who would be king is Gianfranco Fini -- a man who has either had a "Road to Damascus"-style conversion, or remains a fascist. Fini's political career started in the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) a far-right party inextricably linked with murderous bombing campaigns and civic violence, particularly in the 1970s.

Having been elected as an MSI MP in 1983, Fini became the party's national secretary in 1988. Back then, Fini was either an unabashed fascist or, at the very least, a staunch admirer of Mussolini. In a series of statements in the early 1990s, he stated that "after almost half a century, fascism is alive", "Mussolini was the greatest Italian statesman of the 20th century" and "fascism has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government".

In the early 1990s, the MSI (which consistently polled between 5 and 10 per cent from the 1950s to the 1980s) morphed into the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) in an effort to become more credible. It described itself as "post-fascist" -- a term that Nick Griffin would probably use to describe the British National Party. It also developed links with the extreme right of the Conservative Party, particularly the now-disbanded Monday Club, and had particularly close links with the Tory MPs Andrew Rosindell and Bill Cash.

Yet Fini is an ambitious man who wanted to cement himself firmly in the mainstream right of Italian politics. The next logical step, which he took in 2008, was to unite his party with Berlusconi's to form the People of Freedom party -- a pretty unlikely name, given Fini's history.

Fini is unquestionably the most dangerous man in Italian politics. Despite his fascist past, he was deputy prime minister and foreign minister between 2001 and 2006. Since 2008, he has been president of the Chamber of Deputies. Now that he sees that Berlusconi is weak, following sex and corruption scandals and an unpopular austerity budget, he and his supporters are angling for the main prize.

Anti-immigrant ticket

Meanwhile, we shouldn't ignore Berlusconi's other coalition partners, the Northern League, which was originally set up to campaign for autonomy for the region of Padania, but in reality is an anti-immigrant and overtly racist party. Indeed, in the European Parliament, the nine Northern League MEPs sit with the UK Independence Party.

We might think it astonishing that a man like Berlusconi is not in prison, let alone that he is prime minister of one of Europe's largest countries, and that the likes of Fini and the Northern League deputies are elected to parliament, never mind government ministers.

But it is also astonishing that the Italian centre left is not in a position to take power convincingly. The centre-left Democratic Party, despite facing a scandal-ridden and unpopular government that is split down the middle, is still below Berlusconi's party -- on 28 per cent, according to the latest opinion polls.

My guess is that Berlusconi will survive once again, as he always has done. If he is forced into calling a snap election this autumn, the chances are that he would just cling to power and should just be able to hold off Fini. The desperately sad thing is that, if the Democratic Party and its allies cannot get their act together, and fast, Berlusconi will probably prove to be the lesser of two evils.

Ben Fox is political adviser to Edward Scicluna MEP, vice-president of the economic and monetary affairs committee of the European Parliament.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder