As Italy’s borrowing costs skyrocket and Mario Monti seeks to cool the markets, DANNY PHILLIPS asks: how did Italy end up like this?


If we are to believe the UK media its time to say basta to the madness of Italian politics.  Its fine when its just them but now their decisions impact on the rest of us.  The Italians can’t help but elect dangerous megalomaniacs into power and its time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned. To save Europe we should ignore Italian democracy and find a sensible technocrat who will do the bidding of  EU bureaucrats, central bankers and foreign leaders.

As the BBC asks: ‘What’s wrong with Italy?’

What they don’t tell us is Italian politics is not that mad and in many respects its dynamics are not that different from ours. In fact, Berlusconi and Mussolini aside, it has much to commend it.

Unlike their northern European neighbours their modern history is, by and large, of a people who have resisted not embraced absolute power and dictators. Italians have managed to resist the big European imperial powers and the absolute power of monarchies and the church for centuries.

Italy is built from city states and even today it remains a collection of fairly local autonomies. Italy has 20 regions, hundreds of provinces and communes.  Regions and cities elect presidents.  Small towns, communes and even small villages elect mayors.  And many of these political administrations go back way beyond its unification in 1860s, in some cases back to 11th century.

In fact, Italians continue to protect their local autonomy. They are proud of it. They often elect sensible centre left social democrats and even trade unionists to run local administrations. Check out Liguria, Umbria or Lazio for example. Cities like Venice and Genova have rich heritage dating back to when they were an autonomous city republics.  When Berlusconi said small communes with under 1500  voters would have to go, they reminded him that they preceded Italy!

Italy is a young nation. Ordinary Italians speak local dialects and take local politics seriously. Their lives are controlled by the local communes which run Italy’s wide range of public services and make most local decisions. Many are so small that they are never free of family pressures.  It can be impossible to get simple things done because of competing and contradictory jurisdictions caused by the centre’s attempts to reign in local administrations, six police forces, reams of bureaucratic rules, topped more recently  by a layer of european directives, which must be implemented by the smallest communes.  Add to this the problems of tax collection in a country of small family businesses.

In contrast the actions of the Italian Prime Minister do not affect their daily lives for most of the time. He presents himself as anti-rules, anti-political establishment, thumbing his nose at authority including the bureaucrats of Europe. Ordinary Italians took to Berlusconi because he was outrageous, because he doesn’t care, because he talks tough, throws down the gauntlet and breaks the rules. They like a PM who appears to give the political establishment a run for it’s money.

UK politics has a quite different history. The PM has real power. Trust and competence in our PM is the crucial issue, the basis of Prime Ministerial power with the public.

Our ‘stick it up ‘em’ unruly, uncompromising checks on power are at a local or devolved level.  Think Boris Johnson? Alex Salmond? Rev Ian Paisley? Martin Mcguiness? Or look at the way Scotland took to Tommy Sheridan. The ultimate example of an ‘at least he stands up for something’ politician.

These guys are all outsiders even in their own parties. They are rabble rousers, often with complex personal lives, that will, we think, sock it to the establishment.  Infact when someone seen as more sensible and amenable was imposed by those in power we campaigned against them to elect people like Ken Livingston in London and Rhodri Morgan in Wales.

Those of us who agree with the broad politics of any of these guys (me included) tend to argue its their high political principles that got them elected.  I have to say I am less convinced that normal people see it that way. For them the appeal is, yes they connect to their politics, but more important is that they are a thorn in the side of establishment power.

The ability of any of these guys to run schools, reform health, have a coherent tax and spend policy, and keep their promises is not as important as them having a big personality and kicking up a fuss.  We can’t help but admire the swagger as they fight the government.  We don’t think they have much power anyway. And if it gets out of hand they will get slapped down. We just like that they remind the establishment that we are the power and we will elect who we want.

I admit Berlusconi is about as far as you could take this analogy. He is about as stereo typical a swagger guy you can get. And his contribution to, or destruction of, the Italian economy will be argued out in the decades to come.

What we should recognize is that our devolved politics also swings between our demands for a devolved prime ministerial leader and an outsider or rabble rouser to stand up for us.  And in that, there is nothing uniquely ‘crazy’ about Italian politics. It is a dynamic which runs through the heart of Scottish devolved politics and our next labour leader in Scotland will have to come to terms with it, if Labour are to stand any chance of winning the next election’

Danny Phillips is a freelance writer and researcher. He also acted as a special adviser to the First Minister 2003-2007, wrote the 2007 manifesto Building Scotland, and chaired the 2011 Labour review policy group.

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One thought on “What’s wrong with Italy?

  1. People vote irresponsibly as gesture politics to work it up the establishment? Is that what you’re saying? And is this good or bad, coz you seem to imply a sneeking respect for it.
    I can’t accept this analysis: Berlusconi owns the Italian media — he IS the italian corporate/political establishment. Not one mention of the pervasive cancer of organised crime (a nation of small familly businesses mebbe?) and the corruption of the Italian political elite, vested interests one might have thought contributed to the failure of the Italian government to take the tuff decisions that might have helped. Would Berlusconi have gained power if he didn’t control the media to such an extent or have the financial muscle to buy cooperation from other parties. Spin and patrimony had as much to do with his victories as any pathological defect in the psychology of voters. And perhaps, that is the lesson we should take for the future of Scottish politics.

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