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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.