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|Britain can’t Afford to Ignore Italy’s New Clown|
The Times - February 28, 2013
Brits and Italians have one thing in common: they like to dismiss Italian politics, and especially elections, as being irrelevant to them, albeit for different reasons. Ha ha, we want to say, after the clown Silvio Berlusconi they now have the hairy comedian Beppe Grillo: same old ridiculous opera buffa, turning its comedic attention now to the horrible euro. Omiodio, Italians say, our politics is in a right old self-serving mess, with all personalities, no policies and no hope, but that’s just Italy for you: no chance of changing it.
As reactions to the country’s stunning election result on February 25th, those are both understandable ways of hiding from its implications. But to do so would be wrong. There are serious dangers in the result, both for Italy and for Europe (which, note, does include Britain), but there are also opportunities and important lessons.
The biggest lesson from the success of Grillo’s Five Star Movement in rising from zero to grab a quarter of the national vote and more than 160 seats in the two houses of Parliament is that in times of crisis and alienation the most powerful—and necessary—political message is that of change. It is only a modest exaggeration to say that in our 1997 election Tony Blair won his landslide on that basis, by virtue of having captured the simple word “new”.
All of the Italian political establishment, which sadly includes last year’s saviour, Mario Monti, succeeded brilliantly in ignoring the hunger for change and held on tightly to the simple word “old”. So did Silvio Berlusconi, but at least he was listening to his voters and so offered the simple, old and appealing promise of a cut in the country’s most unpopular tax, what Lib Dems would call a “mansion tax”. That is why he confounded his political obituarists by doubling his pre-campaign share of the vote.
Neither Monti nor the pre-campaign favourites, the Labour-equivalent Democratic Party led by Pier-Luigi Bersani, managed to offer voters any real sense of hope. Monti lost his image as an outsider-with-integrity by allying himself with old, discredited centrist groups and the Catholic Church, which meant that he had no real hope of shaking off the idea that he was all about raising taxes and forcing sacrifices on people. Bersani is as dull a communicator as Monti, but anyway made no effort to show that he would ever be able to break with the old left’s love of trade unions, a big state and high taxes. He just thought he would sail into office as if it was his party’s birthright.
The opportunity now must be to learn that lesson but also exploit the desire for renovation that Grillo has identified and kindled. Change is what politicians now need to offer, especially for a country like Italy that is stuck in recession, with unemployment above 11% and incomes falling, with young graduates emigrating in droves (even to flat-lining Britain) to find better opportunities, with a hugely costly political class that is considered to be the problem, not the solution.
First must come a haggle about how to form a government, even a temporary one. Nonetheless, the prize in that haggle will go to those leaders willing to align themselves in some way with Grillo’s agenda for change; and it will go to Grillo if this balance-of-power-holder manages to focus constructively on a small but pointed series of reforms, probably chiefly to the political system itself—the electoral law, the number of MPs and local political posts, the size of MPs’ salaries and pensions—that serve to keep his own MPs loyal and lay good ground for a second election, which will most likely come within a year at most.
The bigger opportunity, however, will then be to re-position parties and messages for that next election. And it is an opportunity and a lesson with implications for other euro-zone members but also for Britain. Sticking to the status quo, avoiding change, is a recipe for failure. But also the one-dimensional, obsessive focus on austerity, deficit-reduction and debt-reduction just for their own sake and regardless of the consequences is suicidal.
Gordon Brown used to talk about “prudence with a purpose”, and it wasn’t a bad line. The austerity message in the eurozone and in Britain has gone too far, because it is digging the economic hole ever deeper, but also it has anyway become politically maladroit. If it is to retain support it needs to be joined to a convincing sense of purpose, a language of hope and opportunity.
In the Italian context, the people who most need to learn this lesson are Bersani and Monti. Bersani’s chief internal party opponent, the 38-year-old Blair-admiring mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, has recognized that as well as symbolizing change and youth he and the Democratic Party need to find a language of liberalism that is not punitive or didactic: he talks of making Italy “simpler” by removing bureaucracy and other barriers. Either the 61-year-old Bersani needs to embrace such messages and modernize his party, or he will be overthrown by Renzi. But Monti too needs to find this language and not make liberalism sound like a form of sado-masochism.
Will it happen? It might, for the shock of Monday’s result has been huge. But there are dangers too, and such dangers are shared by all of us in Europe. Frustrated anger and blocked demands for change lead directly to extremism. For who else is there to vote for if the mainstream parties offer nothing? In Italy, if Grillo’s movement now disappoints and the old parties fail to change, new, more extreme populist movements will rise up to fill the gap. Protest, so far remarkably calm and peaceful, could easily turn violent.
British commentators like to focus on the threat of all this to the euro, which is real—Grillo has called for a referendum on the currency—but not at present all that serious, unless Italy lurches back towards bankruptcy, which doesn’t look likely. The bigger threat is the evidence Grillo’s vote reveals of political volatility, of a desire for alternatives. That volatility and that desire exist in Britain too, just as they do elsewhere in Europe. We ignore it at our peril.