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Politics Italian-Style

Many
years ago I worked for a Fleet Street news agency, Reuters, and one particular report
that seemed to come in ’over the wires’ with almost metronomic regularity was
the formation of the latest coalition government in Italy.  At the time – I’m going back to the 1960s – Italy had gone
through literally dozens of governments since the end of the Second World War.    

The
new prime minister was always a nonentity who nobody outside Italy had ever
heard of, and I’d venture to guess very few Italians had heard of him either.  Not that it mattered, since the new government
was unlikely to last more than the same number of months it had taken to form
it.  

In
any other country, the endless cavalcade of collapsing governments might have caused
newspapers to write headlines about the country being ‘Plunged into a Fresh Political
Crisis’.  In Italy, I suspect the constant
turnover scarcely merited front-page coverage – especially if AC Milan was up
for a European football title, or an Italian driver was leading the Grand Prix
standings.  The Italians, we reckoned,
had got their priorities right, if not their governments.

Allow
me a brief digression.  During much of
the period in question, I was a reporter on the economic news desk, located on the
second floor of the old Reuters building at 85 Fleet Street, two floors below the
general news desk.  Up there, where the
‘real’ news file was produced, we were regarded as the agency’s poor relations,
economic and financial news stories always getting short shrift from the
general news copy-tasters.  An old
Reuters hand, Derek Jameson – later an editor of the News of the World,
and an occasional television personality – in his memoirs recalled those days
when he and his colleagues looked down on us with contempt.  “The numerologists…. were forever trying to
get their dispatches on to the news wires.

‘Sorry
cock,’ we would say, ‘they’ve just formed their 29th post-war
government in Italy.  No room for your crap.’”

Anyway,
I was reminded of ‘those days’ when I read this morning that Italy hasn’t had an
elected government for some weeks – the result of yet another stalemated multi-party
election – and might not have one for some week to come, perhaps even months.  Italy’s 87-year old president, and head of
state, Georgio Napolitano, is apparently considering for the premiership one
Giuliano Amato, 74, who has held the job before.   In Italy, gerontocracy rules, okay. 

If all this sounds like
business as usual in the land once ruled by mighty Caesar, it’s probably because
it is.

Italy’s frequent political lacunae lead one to wonder
whether the country works better with a government or without one.  Belgium seems to have managed
without one for years, and the Flemings and Walloons have yet to fire a shot in
anger. 

The
stock answer is that Italy
– any country – must be better off with a government – any government – than no
government at all.  But a qualification is
required.  It comes in the form of an
observation: the most stable Italian administration in living memory is that of
the disgraced buffoon Silvio Berlusconi. 
Scandals aside, by doing nothing more to govern the country than whatever
might contribute to ensuring that the government remained in office, Signor B succeeded
in remaining in office for a record uninterrupted series of terms.    

Could
Britain, in political terms,
be in danger of becoming Italy?

In
contrast to our pasta-loving friends, we Brits are proud of our long history of
orderly elections and stable government. 
That, too, must be qualified, however, because in its current manifestation
government is a coalition of the kind we used to scorn as a continental custom
practised only by feckless, undisciplined foreigners who, faced with the choice
of going to a bar or a polling station would always choose the former.  

But
these days, with Britain staggering,
like Italy, from one economic
crisis to the next, what are the chances that some time soon, commentators will
be writing about Britain in the
same terms Derek once wrote about Italy?

Economic
crises almost invariably lead to political crises, even in Britain, and some
think it’s happening already. 

Right
now, both of Britain’s
major political parties are widely dismissed in the opinion polls as either ineffectual
or irrelevant, their parliamentary representatives corrupt.  I suppose one should say all three major
parties, since the Liberal Democrats, by associating with the hated Tories, are
now tarred with the same brush.  In
short, the electorate, if the poll-takers are to be believed, is convinced that
all our politicians are hopelessly inadequate except when it comes to
feathering their own nests.   

Taking
advantage of this disillusionment, a once marginal political group, the UK
Independence Party – until lately regarded as a mere protest outlet for racists
disguised as flag-waving nationalists, and led by someone who makes used car
salesmen look trustworthy – may well soon introduce to the Mother of
Parliaments the humiliating, unthinkable prospect of the kind of Italian political
deadlock and resulting chaos that we once laughed at.  

In
that situation, the Queen might constitutionally be required to sort out the
mess – another 87-year old head of state thrust reluctantly into the limelight.
 Pure fantasy, you say? 

Well,
perhaps. But the comfortable certainties derived from Britain’s enduring
two-party system have been reduced to nagging doubts.  The two-party system is not enshrined in law,
of course, and the present coalition is evidence that minority parties can dream
– and with as much expectation as hope – of days in the sun.  At the last election, the Lib-Dem faithful
were the very last people who expected to be joining the government, let alone
providing a voice in running it. 

It
was the Scottish National Party that paved the way.  North of the border, the Conservative Party
has been virtually wiped out as a political power, with little hope of
resurgence.  UKIP, it might be said, is merely
a southern version of the SNP.  If UKIP were
to adopt an equivalent name –  say, the
English National Party – it would probably gain a formidable number of parliamentary
seats next time around.  More than a few
marginal constituencies are ripe for plucking. 
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, like his SNP counterpart, Alex Salmond, is adept
at plumbing deep wells of festering national resentment.     

Prime
Minister David Cameron is starting to look like a busted flush, even among his
own back-benchers – perhaps among his ministers, too.  If British companies could produce as many
goods as the Conservatives are able to hatch plots in the smoke-filled battery
farms of Westminster, Britain would once again be an
industrial power in the world. 

His
deputy, Nick Clegg, is reviled by many Liberal Democrats as, at worst, a
traitor, at best, a wimp, and by voters at-large as nothing more than an
ambulance-chaser. 

As
for the opposition leader, poor, hapless Ed Miliband, he invites the kind of hopeless
hand-wringing among perplexed Labour Party managers that two of his predecessors,
Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, once inspired, before they duly sank into
electoral oblivion.

Nigel
Farage summoned to the palace!  The mind
boggles – well, almost. 

“How’s
it going, your Majesty.  The pleasure,
I’m delighted to say, is all mine.  Nice
room, this, pretty view up the Mall, I must say.  Mind if I smoke?  I can’t seem to kick the habit.   Oh, not even in the palace, eh?  Well, yes, I could use a drink.  Don’t suppose you’ve got a Stella?”

As
the late comedian Frankie Howerd used to say, “Titter ye not.”

I’m
not tittering.  Not yet.    

 

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