In an unofficial referendum in March, 89 per cent of Venetians voted yes to independence. Photo: Getty
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All is not what it seems with Venice’s separatist vote

A flash in the pan, or the start of something big?

Between 16 and 21 March an unofficial referendum took place in the Veneto region of Italy, supported by a plethora of pro-independence groups. The question put to residents was direct and straightforward: “Do you want the Veneto to become an independent and sovereign Federal Republic?”

According to the organisers, the number of voters amounted to 2,360,245, representing 73 per cent of the regional electorate. Of these, 2,102,969 (89 per cent) voted yes, while a paltry 257,276 (11 per cent) voted no.

The Italian press and the government in Rome largely ignored the event until the spectacular turnout and massive majority in favour of independence turned the international spotlight on this part of Europe. But since then, the participation rate has been heavily contested. Some experts calculate that no more than 100,000 votes were actually cast, many of these from abroad.

Farce or drama?

So was the entire exercise a farce, a highly successful media scoop by relatively small and uninfluential groups? Well, yes and no.

It is almost certain that the referendum attracted far fewer voters than it was claimed by the organisers. However, as pollster and academic Ilvo Diamanti reported in the national daily Repubblica on 24 March, an opinion poll carried out before the referendum found that 55 per cent of respondents agreed with the goal of independence. Having said that, those who considered this term as synonymous with complete sovereignty did not exceed 30 per cent.

In short the referendum was a symptom of a widespread and diffused sense of dissatisfaction, which according to Diamanti, “should be taken very seriously” by the Italian state.

This dissatisfaction revolved primarily around the “excessive” level of taxation imposed by the central state. This is not a new issue by any means.

The Northern League

In the early 1990s the Northern League (Lega Nord) party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in the region (and in Lombardy) precisely by campaigning against “thieving Rome” and the “centralist state”. It accused them of being responsible for systematically robbing the productive north, benefiting the parasitic south and leading the country towards bankruptcy.

The party first promoted federalism as the only solution and later campaigned for secessionism, inventing the nation of Padania along the way. But in 2000 the Lega reverted to federalism and embarked on a long-lasting alliance with Silvio Berlusconi, becoming part of a coalition which governed Italy for a total of nine years.

Yet interestingly the League was not among the promoters of the recent referendum, even if it was soon ready to jump on the bandwagon. The party is in crisis following its debacle at the 2013 elections. Its image is tarnished from being perceived to have increasingly got into bed with Rome.

Throughout its period in government the party also failed to turn federalism into a concrete project and taxation remained high. In 2012 Umberto Bossi, the party’s long-standing charismatic leader, was made to stand down.

Big league, little leagues

There had existed in northern Italy prior to 1990 a number of small and fairly ineffectual regional leagues. They agreed to merge thanks to Bossi’s efforts. Now that the Northern League was coming apart, the regional leagues regained the initiative.

By far the strongest was the Liga Veneta. Unlike neighbouring Lombardy, Veneto has various characteristics of regional identity: a language that is still widely spoken; a history of independence (a sovereign Venetian Republic existed for several centuries until 1797); clear and popular symbols (especially the flag with the winged lion).

The relationship between the Lega Lombarda (Bossi’s original league) and the Liga Veneta had always been stormy, since the latter resented the iron fist with which Bossi ruled the party.

Over the years Bossi expelled various members for wanting independence for the Veneto rather than Padania as a whole. Ironically, many of these former League members were the main promoters of the recent referendum. Fabrizio Comencini, leader of Liga Veneta Repubblica, was expelled in 1998 but today at last feels vindicated.

Gianluca Busato, leader of Plebiscito.ue, the main organisation behind the initiative, was himself expelled in 1997. On 30 March Busato openly attacked the Northern League: “The Lega Nord wants to exploit our success just to be able to continue its love affair with Rome.”

Things have been happening fast since the referendum. Links have been established with other independence movements across Europe.

Busato launched a mass fiscal protest, inviting Venetians to withhold taxes. Luca Zaia, the Northern League president of the Veneto assembly, promised to relaunch a regional law calling for an official referendum.

On 2 April, 24 members of an pro-independence group were arrested under charges of terrorism, raising the ugly spectre of political violence. After seemingly ignoring the event, the recently appointed prime minister, Matteo Renzi, stated that the needs of the Veneto were for him “a priority” and announced a new visit to the region. It is still too early to say whether this is all a flash in the pan or the beginning of something new and big.

This article is part of Breaking Nations, a series of articles that examines independence movements around the world.

The ConversationAnna received funding from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation to study the Northern League in 2000

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue