Is Berlusconi finished?

Paul Ginsborg

Italy, like Britain, is a European democracy whose politics lean more towards the centre-right than the centre-left, although the long-term reasons for this are strikingly different. Britain’s political conservatism derives in great part from its insular tradition, the absence of defeat in external war and major social disturbance at home, and the consequent extraordinary continuities of its elites and institutions. Italy, on the other hand, has been shaped by its geopolitical position at the centre of the Mediterranean, looking in one direction towards the Levant and in the other towards Spain. Deep-rooted Mediterranean cultures of patronage and of clientelism, of family and of clan, have combined with a weak state tradition to create a strange mixture of deference and hierarchy, irreverence and individualism. Mussolini once complained that he was the most disobeyed dictator in history. In the recent Italian past there have been extraordinary movements of protest and of resistance, none more so than in the periods 1943-45 and 1968-73. But overall, Italian history tends to confirm the reflections of one of its greatest 19th-century intellectuals, Carlo Cattaneo, who briefly led the Milanese revolution of March 1848. Italy, he concluded, was a country capable only of short-lived upheavals and long counter-revolutions.

At the heart of any explanation of this pattern lies the Vatican. Seen from the viewpoint of the nation-state, the Vatican is a very large cuckoo in the Roman nest. It’s hardly surprising that Italy’s postwar republic was dominated by the Christian Democrats for nearly fifty years, from 1946 to 1992. In February the Council of State resolved a long-running dispute as to whether or not there should be a crucifix in every Italian classroom. A Finnish woman living in Abano Terme had bravely protested to the courts that the Italian state was not a clerical one, that school classes were increasingly religiously mixed, and that crucifixes should therefore be removed. The Council of State ruled that the crucifix ‘performs a symbolic educative function regardless of the professed faith of the schoolchildren’. And it went on: ‘It is obvious that in Italy the crucifix expresses the religious origin of values that have defined Italian civilisation, and which have imbued the traditions, way of living and culture of a people.’ There could be no clearer statement of the way in which the Vatican, in spite of a constant decline in the numbers attending Mass, continues to dictate the agenda for much of Italian national life, both public and private.

In the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclicals, Mater et magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), together with his summoning of the Second Vatican Council, produced great ferment in the Catholic world. But the radical tide ebbed, and the long and powerful pontificate of Karol Wojtyla pushed the Catholic Church in a much more conformist direction. The little postcard portraits or framed pictures of Pope John XXIII, which were so common in Italian shops and homes in the 1960s and 1970s, have slowly disappeared. They have less often been replaced by representations of John Paul II, perhaps more respected than loved in Italy, than by those of Padre Pio, the charismatic southern Italian Capuchin friar who claimed to have received the stigmata, and who was made a saint, in record time, by John Paul II in February 2002.

Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978. Silvio Berlusconi took control of all three principal channels of Italian commercial television six years later. Their respective reigns, both more than twenty years long, one over the religious culture of the country and the other over much of its daily media diet, have diverged on some crucial points – consumerism is one – but together they have left an indelible mark on Italian popular culture.

One other factor helps to explain why Italy is a country of the centre-right. It is the home of the self-employed, more so than any other country in Europe. Small shops have survived and even prospered in a way that would be quite unimaginable in Northern Europe or North America. Family firms have played the crucial role in the construction of industrial districts that have become famous throughout the world. Not all small entrepreneurs are right-wing, especially in the central regions of Italy, but the flair and quick-wittedness that often characterises them is not usually accompanied by a high degree of civic consciousness. Mr B. has exercised a fatal attraction over such people.

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