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The strange rebirth of Silvio Berlusconi

Six years after resigning as Italy's Prime Minister, and five after being convicted of tax fraud, the narcissistic 81-year-old is back at the centre of his country’s politics.

The Halloween film franchise depicts the immortal supervillain Michael Myers. Whatever force is deployed against him – bullets, blades, fire – he always survives apparent death.

One is reminded of Myers when contemplating the fortunes of Silvio Berlusconi (whose surgically frozen face resembles the character’s mask). Six years after he resigned as prime minister of Italy – having been accused of sex with an underage prostitute – and five years after he was convicted of tax fraud, the 81-year-old is once more at the centre of his country’s labyrinthine politics.

Though Berlusconi is legally barred from holding office until 2019 (a judgment against which he is appealing at the European Court of Human Rights), he remains the president of Forza Italia, the centre-right party he founded in 1993. An alliance between Forza, the xenophobic Northern League and the far-right Brothers of Italy is expected to win the most seats at the Italian general election on 4 March (the conservative coalition triumphed in Sicily in November). Berlusconi cannot be king but he could yet be kingmaker. In common with most of its centre-left cousins, Italy’s ruling Democratic Party is struggling to poll above 25 per cent. The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) is likely to finish first (with Forza in third place) but lacks the allies required to form a government.

At the launch of his party’s election campaign last month, Berlusconi sought to reclaim the political territory colonised by his rivals. He promised a basic income of €1,000 a month for all Italians (trumping M5S’s pledge of €780 a month for those in poverty). Other idiosyncratic offerings included free veterinary treatment for pets (at Easter in 2017, Berlusconi was filmed cuddling five lambs that he “saved” from slaughter).

In European politics, Angela Merkel, who became German chancellor in 2005, is known as the “great survivor”. But Berlusconi, who first became prime minister 24 years ago, makes Merkel look like a newcomer. What explains such endurance?

Berlusconi was born in 1936 into a middle-class Milanese family. At his austere Catholic boarding school, the entrepreneurial youngster completed other pupils’ homework for money. He later funded his law degree at the University of Milan by selling vacuum cleaners door to door and crooning on Adriatic cruise ships.

Berlusconi achieved greater renown as a property developer, establishing the new town of Milano Due (“Milan Two”), and, in a prescient act, creating Italy’s first cable TV channel, Telemilano. After founding his media group Fininvest, he launched the country’s first private national network, Canale 5, and, with Murdochian ruthlessness, acquired two further channels (Italia 1 and Rete 4).

Il cavaliere (“the knight”), as Berlusconi became known, was aided by his friendship with the Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi, whose government passed an emergency decree in 1984 legalising the new broadcaster’s transmissions. This media empire, which grew to encompass Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house, and the daily newspaper Il Giornale, gifted Berlusconi formidable influence and wealth (with assets of $7bn, he remains Italy’s fifth-richest man and the world’s 199th).

Among his other holdings was AC Milan, one of the world’s pre-eminent football clubs. In 1993, Berlusconi borrowed a supporters’ chant (Forza Italia – “Forward Italy”) for the name of his new party. The movement claimed the ground lost by the country’s Christian Democratic elite during the 1992 tangentopoli (“bribeville”) scandal, which shed light on mass political corruption.

In May 1994, a mere five months after the creation of Forza, Berlusconi became prime minister. Decades before President Emmanuel Macron’s similarly named En Marche! (“Forward!”) in France, Forza showed the potency of a personality-driven, ideologically diffuse machine.

Though Berlusconi’s governing coalition collapsed after just eight months, he served two further terms as prime minister (2001-06 and 2008-11), becoming Italy’s third-longest-serving post-unification leader (surpassed only by Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Giolitti).

Like Donald Trump, whose 2016 election he welcomed, Berlusconi is an unashamed narcissist (“I am the Jesus Christ of politics… I sacrifice myself for everyone,” he declared in 2006). He is also a supreme opportunist and a Caligulan philanderer. But, like Trump, he has retained a loyal support base by casting himself as the victim of a “liberal establishment” and citing his personal wealth as proof of his economic acumen.

On 1 February, Berlusconi will stand trial for allegedly bribing a piano player at his “bunga bunga” parties to give false witness. But for a man of the politician’s epic self-regard, retreat is not an option.

Later this year, a new Halloween film will be released with a twist: Myers will no longer be immortal. Berlusconi, however, is proving harder to consign to the grave.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist