First lesson: don’t insult the electorate. Silvio Berlusconi’s fate was surely sealed when he called voters “dickheads” – at least those that didn’t agree with his tax cuts – at the height of the Italian election campaign.
Mind you, that was relatively mild from the former Prime Minister of Italy. Earlier in the campaign he’d called opposition supporters “coglioni” – literally “testicles”. Well, it seems that enough of them had the balls to get rid of their Prime Minister – the latest in a long line of right wing clowns going back to Mussolini.
And yes, Berlusconi had a soft spot for Il Duce, insisting, against all evidence, that the Italian dictator had never killed anyone. Don Silvio compared himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ and said he was the most dynamic leader in the world. So dynamic in fact that ninety separate court actions have been taken against him, ranging from bribing judges to tax evasion.
He is widely believed to have inherited the Mafia support previously enjoyed by the corrupt Christian Democrats. The irony is not lost on anyone in Italy that Berlusconi met his Waterloo on the same day that the ‘capo di tutti capo’ of the Cosa Nostra, Bernardo Provenzano, was finally arrested, appropriately in the Sicilian town of Corleone. The Godfather will be questioned very closely by state prosecutors eager to learn about his business contacts and certain real estate investments near Milan which involved Mr Berlusconi in a previous life.
So, the surprise isn’t that Silvio Berlusconi has finally been defeated – by the slimmest of possible electoral margins – but that he has been around so long. Berlusconi’s has been the longest lasting government in post-war Italian history – five years.
And it is Silvio’s second stint at the helm. He first came to power in 1994 only to resign nine months later over corruption allegations. You have to ask: how could anyone have trusted such a man to lead the country? Maybe Berlusconi’s right about the Italian voters’ brains being in their underpants.
But it wasn’t just the voters who were captivated. Tony Blair had an almost instant rapport with the billionaire media magnate, who owns half the Italian TV and controls the other half through his government appointments. Two years ago, the two PMs couldn’t get enough of each other. Tony and Cherie naturally spent their holidays at Silvio’s flashy Sardinian holiday villa, where the perma-tanned premier appeared with a dashing pirate bandana on his head.
Blair and Berlusconi bonded in the great enterprise that was the Iraq war. Silvio even sent troops which, in accord with Italian military tradition, didn’t get too close to the action. Though the Americans managed to kill an Italian secret agent in March 2005, while he was helping the release of a hostage. But I digress…
Blair seemed to see in Berlusconi a reflection of his own attempts to “modernise” politics and marginalise the Left. They were both intensely pro-American, and keen to be regarded as leaders of a “new Europe”, as the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, liked to describe those Eastern European and Mediterranean countries that supported the Iraq invasion.
However, one senses that there was more to this political love affair than support for George W. Bush’s military adventures. Blair and his followers have an almost mystical regard for businessmen, media moguls, billionaires of all kinds. Look how the Blairite minister Tessa Jowell’s husband ended up accepting a “gift” of 350,000 from the “B people” for allegedly failing to reveal evidence of Berlusconi’s corruption.
Mr Mills would be wise to start packing his bags because the Italian prosecutors will be all over him now that Berlusconi is no longer in office. The crime of which Mills is charged carries a seven year jail sentence.
Indeed, as the magistrates rake through the ashes of the Berlusconi years one suspects that other people in British public life might also have cause to look to their suitcases. Certainly, the document shredders are going to be red hot in Westminster and the City of London this weekend as evidence of Silvio’s network of influence is erased.
Of course, Tony Blair would never have been so stupid as to accept money from any political leader – holidays are of course another matter. His crime is more one of political naiveté. By worshipping at the altar of cash, under the guidance of high priests like Berlusconi, Labour politicians like Tony Blair completely lost their sense of propriety and social values.
I mean, how could a Labour Party leader associate with a right wing populist who had neo-fascists in his governing coalition? Berlusconi’s flashy, opulent, tasteless life-style should have been anathema to any Left wing British politician, however “modern”. It was a terrible reflection on the Prime Minister’s judgement.
Berlusconi was – is – one of the shadiest characters in modern European politics. He survived numerous prosecutions only because they lapsed under new statutes of limitation which Berlusconi introduced into Italian law. He accuses anyone who disagrees with him of being communists. And what’s worse, he’s been a rotten manager of the Italian economy, which has gone into reverse under his stewardship.
Berlusconi corrupted the entire Italian media by placing his relatives in charge of TV stations and newspapers; by sacking television journalists who criticised him; by using his own authority to marginalise and demonise competitors – political or business. His party, Forza Italia, was not a political party in the real sense, but an advertising campaign, financed by Berlusconi and promoted through the newspapers and television stations and even football clubs that he controlled.
So, why did people vote for him? Well, in some ways it was like putting a charismatic businessman like Sir Alan Sugar in charge of Britain. Or Richard Branson or any of the new business celebrity elite, who we are all supposed to admire as moral individuals. Berlusconi was elected by a cynical electorate which believed the modern myth that businessmen are better at running things than politicians simply because they have made lots of money.
But this is surely a compelling reason why self-made businessmen, however uncorrupt, should be excluded from high political office, which demands altogether different skills. Running a country is not like running a business; the bottom line is very different for a start. It involves reconciling competing interests, not mastering them.
Once businessmen take over the state, they are inclined to turn it into a means of their further enrichment. It isn’t their fault; it’s what they do. And politicians should steer clear of them. Blair should never have allowed himself to be seen with this man – outside European Union summit photos.
Say what you like about Gordon Brown, but he would rather have been be seen dead than going on holiday with the likes of Berlusconi. The Chancellor, sensibly, uses parliamentary recess to be seen with Nelson Mandela and visiting poor schools in Africa. What better illustration of the difference between Blair and Brown.
Perhaps Berlusconi will bring the final curtain closer for Tony Blair. Perhaps, indeed, the former Italian PM might find a lucrative haven for TB in his media empire. Now there’s a marriage made in heaven.