Italy has long occupied a peculiar position within the concert of Europe. By wealth and population it belongs alongside France, Britain and Germany as one of the four leading states of the Union. But it has never played a comparable role in the affairs of the continent, and has rarely been regarded as a diplomatic partner or rival of much significance. Its image lacks any association with power. Historically, that has no doubt been one of the reasons it has long been the favourite country of foreigners. Germans, French and English alike have repeatedly expressed a warmth of affection for it they have rarely felt for each other, even if the objects of their admiration differed. Few of their comments are without some contemporary ring. Escaping from the pruderies of Weimar to Rome, Goethe found it ‘morally salutary to be living in the midst of a sensual people’. In Italy, Byron decided, ‘there is no law or government at all; and it is wonderful how well things go on without them.’ Stendhal, who knew the country better, felt at times that ‘music alone is alive in Italy, and all that is to be made in this beautiful land is love; the other enjoyments of the soul are spoilt; one dies poisoned of melancholy as a citizen.’ Yet Italians were also, paradoxically, masters of another practice:

Never, outside Italy, could one guess at the art called politics (way of making others do what is agreeable to us, when force or money is not to hand). Without patience, without absence of anger, no one can be called a politician. Napoleon was truly small in this respect, he had enough Italian blood in his veins to be subtle, but was incapable of using it.

The list of such fond dicta could be extended indefinitely.

In diametric contrast stands the characteristic tone of native commentary. Most languages have some self-critical locution, usually a wordplay or neologism, to indicate typical national defects. Germans can cite Hegel’s contemptuous description of local identity politics, Deutschdumm; the French deplore the vauntings of franchouillardise; Peruvians term a hopeless mess una peruanada; Brazilians occasionally mock a brasileirice. England seems to have lacked such self-ironic reflexes: ‘Englishry’ – the gift of Tom Nairn, a Scot – is without currency in its land of reference. Italy lies at the opposite pole. In no other nation is the vocabulary of self-derision so multiple and so frequent in use. Italietta for the trifling levity of the country; italico – once favoured by Fascist bombast – now synonymous with vain posturing and underhand cynicism; bitterest of all, italiota as the badge of an invincible cretinism. It is true that these are terms of public parlance, rather than of popular speech. But, as the familiar contempt of the phrase all’ italiana (divorce etc) testifies, the lack of self-esteem they express is widespread. The good opinion of others remains foreign to the Italians themselves.

In recent years, this traditional self-disaffection has acquired an insistent political catchword. Starting in the late 1980s, and rising to a crescendo in the 1990s, the cry has gone up that Italy must, at last, become ‘a normal country’. Such was the title of the manifesto produced in 1995 by the leader of the former Italian Communist Party: Un paese normale. But the phrase was a leitmotif of speeches and articles across the spectrum, and remains an obsessive refrain in the media to this day. Its message is that Italy must become like other countries of the West. ‘Normality’ here, as always, implies more than just a standard that is typical. What is not typical may be exceptional, and so better than it; but what is not ‘normal’ is infallibly worse than it – abnormal or subnormal. The call for Italy to become a normal country expresses a longing to resemble others who are superior to it.

The full list of the anomalies that set Italy apart varies from one account to another, but all highlight three central features. For forty years of continuous Christian-Democratic hegemony, there was no real alternation of government. Under this regime, political corruption acquired colossal proportions. Intertwined with it, organised crime became a power in the land as the operations of the Mafia extended from Sicily to Rome and the North. Other national shortcomings are often noted: administrative inefficiency, lack of respect for the law, want of patriotism. But in the widespread conviction that the condition of Italy is abnormal, immovable government, pervasive corruption and militarised crime have had pride of place. For a careful and balanced account of them, there is no finer study than Paul Ginsborg’s Italy and Its Discontents, the work of an English historian in Florence, originally published in Italian, the latest monument to critical admiration of the country by a foreign scholar.

Long-standing occupation of office has not been peculiar to Italy. Swedish social-democracy was in office for more than forty years, Red-Black coalitions in Austria for nearly as long; the government of Switzerland is virtually unchangeable. Far from suffering grave ills, these societies are usually regarded as among the best administered in Europe. Japanese political corruption long exceeded Italian, while French and German have not come so far behind. The Mafia is truly sui generis in Sicily, but in a less ethnographic sense has its counterparts throughout most of Eastern Europe and, famously, Russia. Northern Ireland, the Basque lands and Corsica are reminders that in Western Europe itself more than one regional periphery is haunted by endemic violence, even if the Mezzogiorno in Italy remains a problem on another scale. Many distinctions would have to be made, in each respect, for real analytic comparison. But it can still be argued that it is less any one of its maladies that has marked Italy out as abnormal, than a fatal combination of them to be found nowhere else.

In any case, if an idée fixe takes hold in a society, it is unlikely to have appeared from nowhere. In Italy, fascination with foreign models – the desire to emulate a more advanced world – was bred by the belated unification of the country, and ensuing weakness of the national state. Piedmontese attachment to the French prefectural system, imposed down the peninsula regardless of regional identities, was an early example; somewhat later, Crispi’s admiration for Germany as an imperial power another. In that sense, the anxious looking abroad for institutions to imitate that has become so pronounced in recent years has deep historical roots: it is the re-emergence of a recurrent theme. Contemporary versions, moreover, are reinforced by the unhappy experience of the one period when Italy did not follow any external model, but in originating Fascism pioneered a major political innovation that spread to other states. To many since then, Italian native invention has seemed damned: better to revert to the safety of imitation. By the 1980s the way Christian Democracy came to be imagined by its opponents mapped it onto the disastrous alternative pattern of national singularity. It was the ‘Balena Bianca’, a monstrous sport of nature, akin to Melville’s murderous denizen of the sea. According to legend, the final harpooning of this beast ushered in the Second Republic.

For this is how Italians typically label the political order today. In this version, the First Republic that emerged at the end of the war collapsed, amid dramatic convulsions, in the early 1990s. Out of its demise a more modern configuration has emerged, still incomplete, but already a critical improvement on its predecessor. It is the full accomplishment of this Second Republic, for which there remains some way to go, that would at last render Italy a normal country. So runs the official interpretation, widely shared on all sides, of the past decade. Here, too, a foreign paradigm is in the background. The passage from the First to Second Republic in Italy is conceived by analogy with the transition from the Fourth to Fifth Republic in France. There were, after all, striking similarities between the regimes created after 1945 in both countries: rapid economic growth, strong ideological polarisation, large mass parties, constant changes of cabinet with little or no change of political direction, increasing discredit of the governing class, inability to control violent crises in the Mediterranean periphery.

In each case, there was a supervening international context for the fall of the old Republic: the end of European colonialism in the case of France, and the end of the Cold War in the case of Italy. Umberto Bossi’s Lega Lombarda, the battering-ram that weakened the struts of the traditional party system in Italy, even had its petty-bourgeois precursor in the movement of Pierre Poujade, whose emergence hastened the final crisis of the Fourth Republic. In all these respects, a French reference could seem to make much sense in the Italian situation of the early 1990s, legitimating hopes of a cathartic purge of the accumulated ills of the old order, and reconstruction of the state on a sounder basis. The task of the hour was to emulate the historic achievement of de Gaulle in founding a stable Fifth Republic to the north. But who was to figure as the Italian equivalent in such a repro-scenario?

In April 1992 the ruling coalition – dominated since the 1980s by Giulio Andreotti, the hunched ‘Beelzebub’ of Christian Democracy, and Bettino Craxi, the taurine boss of the Socialists – was once again returned to power at the polls. Bossi’s movement, a recent intruder into the party system, had made startling advances in the North, but not enough to affect the national outcome. It seemed to be business as usual. But a month later, magistrates in Milan issued the first official warnings, avvisi di garanzia, to leading figures in both dominant parties that they were under investigation for corruption. At virtually the same moment, the motorcade of Giovanni Falcone, the prosecutor who had become a symbol of determination to root out the Mafia in Sicily, was blown up in an ambush outside Palermo. Hit by these two thunderbolts, the old order suddenly disintegrated. Over the next months, the Milanese magistrates unleashed a blizzard of further investigations against the political class and its business partners, now dubbed by the press Tangentopoli – Bribesville. Within little more than a year, Craxi had fled to Tunisia and Andreotti was charged as an accomplice of the Mafia. By the autumn of 1993, more than half the members of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies had been served notices that they were under suspicion for corruption (taken by public opinion as tantamount to guilt) and a referendum had abrogated the system of proportional representation that had elected them. In this whirlwind, the traditional rulers of Italy were swept away. By the spring of 1994 the Christian Democratic and Socialist Parties had vanished. Lesser allies were consumed along with them.

From the wreckage, only one major party emerged unscathed. The logical candidate for the role of renovator appeared to be the descendants of Italian Communism, recently refashioned as the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS). Like Gaullism in France, Communism in Italy had been excluded from the stabilisation of the post-1945 regime, forming an opposition in waiting, with a mass following, undiscredited by the degeneration of the system. Like de Gaulle in 1958, the PDS in 1992-93 was not responsible for the fall of the old order, and just as he had used the colonels’ revolt in Algiers, which he did not inspire, to come to power in Paris, so the PDS sought to utilise the magistrates’ assault on Tangentopoli, with which it had no connection, to force open the doors of office in Rome, barred to it since 1947. In constructing the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle drew in a heteroclite range of allies – Antoine Pinay, Guy Mollet and other strange bedfellows formed part of his first coalition, helping him to push through his new Constitution, before he discarded them. So, too, the PDS teamed up with a variegated array of outsiders and opportunists – the self-important notable Segni, from Christian Democracy; the Radical maverick Pannella; the still Fascist leader Fini – to push through the referendum of 1993 undermining the proportional electoral system on which the First Republic had been based.

Here, however, the analogy breaks down. Once installed in Paris, de Gaulle was firmly in charge of the reorganisation of the French political system, controlling all the initiatives, taking up and casting off assorted camp-followers, as he set about reconstructing the state. The PDS, on the other hand, jumped on the populist bandwagon of the referendum launched by Segni, lending it mass mobilising capacity, but not political direction. The contrast points to a larger difference. Notwithstanding the parallels between them, the heirs of Italian Communism were in a far weaker position than de Gaulle. Excluded from government in Rome at much the same time as the General withdrew to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises – 1947 – the PCI did not, however, maintain the same intransigent distance from the political system of the First Republic as he had from the Fourth. By the 1980s, the PCI had long become a semi-insider at the regional level in Italy, embedded in various provincial coalitions, and a tacit partner of the DC at the national level, where most legislation was passed with its assent. So it, too, was in some degree implicated in the typical practices of sottogoverno – commissions on public works contracts, subsidies to affiliated organisations, residences for party notables – that marked the old order. When the crisis broke, it was risky for the PDS to pose too aggressively as a champion of clean government.

A larger difficulty lay in the overall evolution of the PCI since the war. The Party had received from Antonio Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks were first published in 1948, a great intellectual inheritance. Out of it, with whatever elements of tactical selection or distortion, the PCI created a mass political culture without counterpart on the European Left. In Italy no other party had a comparable patrimony – the originality of Gramsci’s ideas was not only widely accepted at home, but from the 1960s onwards increasingly recognised abroad. Here, then, was one purely Italian tradition that was undeniably vital and uncompromised. But the PCI in the age of Togliatti – from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s – was not just a sprig of native growth. It was a component of a disciplined international movement, commanded by the USSR. After the war, its strategy was for its own reasons – if in line with Moscow’s wishes anyway – consistently moderate, and over time the Party became increasingly independent of the calculations of Soviet diplomacy. But in internal structure it remained a Stalinist organisation, still externally associated with Russia. Wrong-footed by radical student and worker upsurges in the late 1960s, completely at variance with its Parliamentary outlook, it reacted by purging the liveliest dissidents in its own ranks, the gifted Manifesto group, and gradually vesting its hopes in a deal with Christian Democracy to run the country jointly – the so-called Historic Compromise.

The Soviet connection was not severed, however. Typically, the PCI’s most right-wing leader, the formidable Giorgio Amendola, who openly urged the Party to become an Italian edition of British Labour, was also the most firmly attached to this, regularly spending his holidays in Bulgaria. When the Christian Democrats resisted the hand proffered by the Communists in the mid-1970s, preferring the Socialists as more pliable partners, the leadership of the PCI began to detach itself more openly from Moscow. But after years of caution the only way it could think of doing so was to swing to the opposite pole of Washington – its last real leader, Enrico Berlinguer, declaring that the Party felt safer under the protection of Nato. Its well-wishers in the media applauded, but it did not gain greater electoral credibility. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a new leadership hastily jettisoned the Party’s name, and soon began to repudiate most of its past. Conducted without much intelligence or dignity, the operation was of little benefit. De Gaulle, who had been the foremost French imperialist of the 1940s, emerged unscathed from the collapse of France’s colonial empire in the 1960s, deftly negotiating Algerian independence in the higher interests of the nation. The relabelled PDS, abandoning its heritage for a lukewarm ideological pottage, no longer seemed to represent any distinctive Italian tradition, and was not respected by the electors for its sacrifice. In the elections of 1992, on the eve of the national crisis, its vote sank to a record low – 16.5 per cent, or less than half its score 15 years earlier.

Still, by the end of 1993, the political landscape had been scythed so clean of rivals or opponents that the Party seemed on the brink of power, if only by elimination of alternatives. A coalition built around the PDS had just elected the Mayors of Rome, Naples, Venice, Trieste, Palermo. New electoral rules it had helped to design, in which most Parliamentary seats would be decided on a first-past-the-post system, were in place. The Left looked poised for its first victory since the war. Instead came a thief in the night. In the last week of January 1994, Silvio Berlusconi, proprietor of Italy’s largest media empire, announced that he would lead a ‘Pole of Liberty’ to save the country from the clutches of the PDS-led cartel. Within days, he had launched a political movement, named after the chant of national football fans – Forza Italia – and organised by the executives of his holding company Fininvest, and had forged alliances with Bossi’s Lega in the North and Fini’s Alleanza Nazionale in the South, to form a common front against the danger of a Red government. Two months later the Pole swept to power with a clear majority. The Italian Left had been swiftly and completely outflanked in the competition to be the standard-bearer of a Second Republic by a coalition of the Right.

Amid the talk on all sides of the need for a new political start, there was some ironic logic to this outcome. Berlusconi, Bossi and Fini were fresh forces on the Italian political scene, in a way that the PDS and its associates, most of them fixtures of the First Republic, were not. Economically, Berlusconi owed his fortune to favours received from the old order. Genealogically, Fini came out of the Fascist tradition loyal to the Republic of Salò. But as major political actors, they were unknown quantities and could project an aura of novelty more easily. As for Bossi, he was the great, genuine interloper of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Berlusconi’s feat in putting these disparate forces together, virtually overnight, was remarkable. Bossi’s Lega, based on local manufacturers and shopkeepers in the smaller towns of the North, was raucously hostile to Roman bureaucracy and Southern clientelism – the electoral strongholds of Fini’s Alleanza. The former standing for radical devolution and deregulation, the latter for social protection and statist centralisation, each detested the other.

Forza Italia, the first party in the world to be mounted as if it were a company, would have been impossible without Berlusconi’s personal wealth and control of television airtime. But the key to its political success lay in his ability to mediate Bossi and Fini into flanking allies, at opposite ends of the peninsula where they did not compete with each other. The Left lost because it showed no comparable capacity for aggregation. The coalition of the Right took some 43 per cent of the vote; the Left 34 per cent; what remained of a Catholic Centre – closer in outlook to the latter than the former – 16 per cent. Under proportional representation, there would have been a Centre-Left Government. But under a first-past-the-post system, tempered only by a residual element of PR, the lack of an electoral bloc between Left and Centre ensured defeat for both. The PDS had been hoist with the petard of its support for Segni’s referendum.

Robbed of victory at the last minute, the Left took its defeat hard. How could the Italian people have voted for such a scabrous figure as Berlusconi? Dismay was not confined to the PDS and its penumbra. It was shared by wide sectors of the Italian establishment: the industrialists Agnelli at the head of Fiat and De Benedetti of Olivetti, each with influential mouthpieces in the press, La Stampa and La Repubblica; Scalfaro, the President of the Republic; technocrats in the Central Bank; many magistrates and most intellectuals; enlightened Catholic opinion. Abroad the Financial Times and Economist made their disapproval of Berlusconi known early on and have not relented to this day. The Left thus had a broad sounding-board when, after the initial shock of its setback in March 1994, it started to launch bitter attacks on the legitimacy of Italy’s new Prime Minister. Two fundamental, interrelated charges could be laid against him. Berlusconi’s control of the bulk of private television, not to speak of his press and publishing outlets, was incompatible with high public office – leading not only to obvious conflicts of economic interest, but violating a political separation of powers essential to any democracy. Moreover, there was good reason to suspect that he had amassed the extraordinary wealth that allowed him to build up his media empire by every kind of corruption. His propaganda to the contrary, the country’s new ruler embodied the worst of the old order: a combination of impropriety and illegality that would be a standing danger to any free society. Roughly speaking, this continues to be the prevailing foreign view of Berlusconi.

Of its factual validity, there can be little question. The son of a minor bank official Berlusconi made his first fortune as a suburban developer in Milan, mobilising resources of unfathomable origin for construction projects in the late 1960s, before moving into commercial television in the mid-1970s. The city was the political base of Craxi, the strongman of the PSI, who was determined to break the Christian Democrats’ priority of power and prebends at the top levels of the Italian state. The DC had long relied on extensive corruption to finance its machine, but its political force rested on its mass base as a Catholic party linked to the Church. The PSI, lacking any comparable roots in society, was obliged to resort much more comprehensively to extortion to make up for its popular deficit – and by increasing competition for the spoils, sharply upped the stakes of corruption. Under Craxi, a generation of political street-fighters had clawed their way to control of the PSI, liquidating all its old leaders and traditions – where their opposite numbers in the PCI rose by obedience and conformity within a bureaucracy that put a premium on caution, evasion and anonymity. Adept at rapid manoeuvres and tactical turns, the PSI grouping often showed a capacity for political initiative that left a lamely defensive PCI standing. But it was a machine that required constant financial lubrication. By the time Craxi achieved his goal of becoming Premier, the speculative boom of the mid-1980s was fostering a climate of ostentatious consumption, in which earlier restraints on the political class were anyway dissolving. The PSI now set the tone for government, the DC following suit. In 1987 the ‘super-bribe’ dished out between the ruling parties for the creation of the petrochemical complex Enimont alone came to $100 million.

Berlusconi’s career tracked this structural change in the last decades of the First Republic. If his first connections were with the right wing of Christian Democracy – one of his key aides was linked to the Sicilian Mafia – as he moved into television, he developed a close friendship with Craxi, who in due course became godfather to one of his children and witness at his second wedding. As the PSI moved towards joint power with the DC in the political system, so Berlusconi’s television empire grew. When Craxi became Prime Minister in 1983, Berlusconi already controlled – in defiance of the Constitutional Court – two nationwide channels. Finally provoked into action by his acquisition of a third, praetors blacked out all three stations one night in October 1984. Craxi immediately issued a decree allowing them to return to the air, and when Parliament declared this unconstitutional, rammed through a law temporarily confirming it. Six years later, legislation specifically tailored to ratify Berlusconi’s control of 80 per cent of the country’s commercial television – the so-called Legge Mammì – was forced on Parliament by Andreotti, under PSI pressure, at the cost of a vote of confidence that split his own party. Obviously, it was unlikely that such extraordinary state favours were granted to a single businessman without considerations in exchange.

Eventually, Berlusconi’s empire came to include not only his television stations and hugely profitable advertising agency, but some of Italy’s most prestigious publishing houses, its most popular retail chain, and one of the country’s most successful football clubs. But from the start there was another side to Berlusconi, closer in self-image to Reagan than Murdoch. As a young man, he had been a crooner on Adriatic cruise-ships and Milanese dance-floors, warbling into the microphone, with Fedele Confalonieri, later his tough chief executive in Fininvest, tinkling on a white piano at his side. He wanted not just to accumulate companies and dominate markets, but to charm and impress audiences as well. Vain of his looks – there is an almost naive touch of the bounder in the sleek face and over-large smile – Berlusconi has always sought glamour and popularity, attributes more of the stage than the boardroom. The trademark of his conversation is the barzelletta – the kind of ‘funny story’ of which Reagan was a tireless store, somewhat more off-colour. Such vulgarity is not the least of the reasons Berlusconi is so detested by many Italians. But this is the culture of his television stations, with their popular ratings, and was no handicap when he entered the political arena. The educated might grit their teeth as he became Premier, but large numbers of voters were attuned to this style.

In office, however, Berlusconi’s lack of previous political experience soon told. Rather than displaying any resolute autocratic drive, he was curiously hesitant and indecisive, quickly backing down when his first initiatives – attempts at an amnesty for Tangentopoli offences, and a scaling back of pensions – ran into strong opposition. But his tenure was in any case short-lived. In the months leading up to the election, the Milan magistrates had started public investigations against a whole series of leading Italian industrialists – among others, the bosses of Fiat, Olivetti and Ferruzzi – but had not yet reached Berlusconi. When he became Prime Minister, they went into top gear. The Milan pool of magistrates, the posse of Mani Pulite, the ‘Clean Hands’ that had cracked open Tangentopoli, was not a neutral or apolitical force. Italian prosecutors and judges – it is a peculiarity of the system that there is no career division between them – are a highly politicised body, in which tacit party affiliations and overt professional factions are taken for granted. The Milan pool was by no means ideologically homogeneous – one prominent member was close to the PDS, another to Fini’s AN – but it was united in hostility to the venality of the First Republic. The dismay felt by the Left at the way Berlusconi had usurped the promise of a cleaner democracy was a lesser affair than the anger of the prosecutors in Milan. In late November, a phone call from the head of the Milan pool tipped off Scalfaro, President of the Republic, that an avviso di garanzia was about to be issued against the Prime Minister on suspicion of corruption. Berlusconi was just preparing to leave for Naples, where he was due to preside over a UN Conference on the Fight against Organised Crime. The next day, the humiliating notice was served on him in full session in Naples.

Amid the uproar that followed, a political trap was sprung. Since its defeat in the spring, the PDS had acquired a new leader. In his early forties, Massimo D’Alema was cast more in the mould of the PSI’s Young Guard under Craxi, skilled in the arts of ambush and volte-face, than of his slow-moving forebears in the PCI. Behind the scenes he had been working on Bossi, feeding his personal jealousy of Berlusconi, who had upstaged his own revolt against the old order, and the class dislike of the rough-neck for the magnate. By December D’Alema had achieved his aim. The Lega, which held a third of the seats in the ruling coalition, suddenly announced it was pulling out of the Government. Berlusconi had lost his majority and was forced to resign. The first Government of the Second Republic had lasted just nine months – below the average even for the First.

According to the doctrine that all major parties now swore by, political transparency required the calling of new elections. Since 1992 no vice of the First Republic had been more unanimously decried than the practice of constantly shifting alliances in Parliament to form new cabinets, without resort to the consent of the voters. In the Second Republic, so this doctrine went, voters who cast their ballots for a ticket could be assured that their intentions would not be turned upside down by opportunist switches of allegiance in the Chamber of Deputies. Bossi owed most of his Parliamentary delegation to voters who had chosen the Pole rather than the Lega, in constituencies where Forza Italia had stood down for his party. When Bossi abruptly switched sides, Berlusconi had every reason to feel betrayed, and to demand fresh elections to determine where the democratic will lay. Dissolution of the Chamber was the prerogative of the President, whose Constitutional role was supposed to be supra partes. Scalfaro, however, fearing Berlusconi might be returned to office if voters were allowed to express their feelings too soon, spatchcocked together another cabinet under the banker Lamberto Dini. His more than willing collaborator was D’Alema, who – fully in keeping with the habits of the First Republic, and entirely contrary to the professed principles of the Second – orchestrated Centre-Left support for the Government, in order to gain time and prepare conditions for a more favourable electoral result down the line. Bossi’s truculently xenophobic party, the PDS leader explained, was really ‘a rib of the Left’. In due course Dini himself – another defector from Berlusconi’s team – was transmuted into a pillar of the Centre-Left coalition.

In this paradoxical outcome of the first test of the new order lies a clue to the genetic code of Italian political culture. Critical to it is a notion that has no corresponding term in other European languages: spregiudicato. Literally, this just means ‘unprejudiced’ – a term of praise in Italy, as it is elsewhere. Such was the original 18th-century meaning of the word, when it had a strong Enlightenment connotation, which it preserves to this day. The first entry in any Italian dictionary defines it as ‘independence of mind, freedom from partiality or preconception’. In the course of the 19th century, however, the word came to acquire a second meaning, which the same dictionaries render as ‘lack of scruples, want of restraint, effrontery’. Today – this is the crucial point – the two meanings have virtually fused. For other Europeans, the ‘unprejudiced’ and the ‘unscrupulous’ are moral opposites. But for the Italians spregiudicatezza signifies, indivisibly, both admirable open-mindedness and deplorable ruthlessness. In theory, context indicates which applies. In practice, common usage erodes the distinction between them. The connotation of spregiudicato is now generally laudatory, even when its referent is the second rather than the first. The tacit, everyday force of the term becomes: ‘aren’t scruples merely prejudices?’ An occasional hint along these lines can be found in the libertine literature of pre-Revolutionary France, when characters were described as sans préjugés, signifying lack of sexual inhibition. In contemporary Italy, however, the elision is systematic and its principal employment is in the field of power.

Understood in this sense, spregiudicatezza appears a common denominator of the most variegated figures and forces of the Italian scene. It does not abolish the political differences between them, as if they were indistinguishable in cynicism, but rather bathes them in a general ether, in which the technicolour contrasts of moral battle, as perceived elsewhere, give way to a spectrum of glinting half-tones – moiré surfaces that continually alter according to the angle from which they are viewed. Examples could be multiplied at will: the eminent theorist of democracy, universally respected as a personification of ethical principle, with no qualms about tanks bombarding the Russian Parliament; the incorruptible former judge, nemesis of subversion, offering kind words to the youth gangs of the Republic of Salò, when his party needs them; the rising politician, declaring Mussolini the greatest statesman of the 20th century at one moment, certified as a guardian of the Constitution by a Resistance veteran at the next; the fearless prosecutor, utmost foe of bribery, in receipt of limousine and free loan from business friends. The prevalence of double standards does not mean that the standards themselves are always the same; ideological and political contrasts are as real and robust as anywhere else. Nor does a ubiquitous pragmatism preclude genuine outbreaks of moralism. No national culture is ever entirely coherent, and it would be a mistake to dismiss the intensity of civic indignation at Tangentopoli, which formed the exceptional backdrop to these years, as insincere. But coexisting with popular disgust at official venality, and underlying it as a bedrock default attitude, was the traditional lack of prejudice of the Italian public at large: what could be a more apt description of voter indifference to Berlusconi’s flagrant reputation from the start?

The Dini Government brought further vivid illustration of the same sensibility. Most of its members were handpicked by Scalfaro, whose Presidential role in the crisis was hailed by the Left as setting a high example of responsibility and probity for the Second Republic. In fact, Scalfaro was a not untypical Christian Democrat of the old order, who had adorned some of the Governments most execrated by the advocates of system change. Unctuous in diction, with the profile of a portly Punch, in those days he was noted for an occasion when, sitting in a restaurant, he had risen to his feet and slapped an unknown woman at the next table for a frock he found too décolleté. For four years, however, he had served as Craxi’s Minister of the Interior. In this department of state, amid the cascade of scandals that tumbled out in Tangentopoli, functionaries of Sisde – the secret service that is the Italian equivalent of MI5 – reported in 1993 that they had been in the practice of passing a monthly envelope stuffed with 100 million lire, no questions asked, to successive heads of the Ministry. Four Ministers were named. The Roman prosecutors opened investigations into two of them, both already politically dead in the water, and cleared the third, who happened to be the current incumbent.

The fourth was Scalfaro, now President. Not only did the prosecutors refuse to consider any evidence against him: they charged the witnesses, in the memorable formulation of Chief Prosecutor Vittorio Mele, with ‘subversion’ for their testimony – ‘independently of whether what they say is true or not’. Not an eyebrow was raised on the Left. A commission of enquiry into the whole affair, chaired by a Sicilian judge, in due course declared Scalfaro blameless. When the Dini Government was formed, the judge – Filippo Mancuso – was rewarded with the Ministry of Justice. Soon, however, frictions arose over his handling of the magistrates in Milan, widely judged vexatious. Scalfaro was also put out by his conduct, and the Centre Left moved a no-confidence vote against him in Parliament. When the day came for the motion in the Senate – the debate was televised – the gravel-voiced Mancuso mounted the tribune, and announced to a stunned nation that he had been asked to alter his report on the Sisde slush-funds at the instigation of Scalfaro, acting through his palace familiar Gifuni. Uproar followed. The Centre Left, beside itself with indignation at this aspersion, voted Mancuso out of office and into oblivion. A President who had spared the country a dangerous ordeal at the polls was above suspicion: only the prejudiced could associate him with malversation.

In the short run, such acrobatics were not misjudged. Scalfaro’s delaying tactics had given the Centre Left a respite, and D’Alema made good use of it. When elections were held in the spring of 1996, the PDS had found a credible candidate to put up against Berlusconi in the person of Romano Prodi – an economist of Catholic background generally respected for his management of the state holding company IRI – and had cemented a broad coalition, dubbed with the sturdy image of the Olive Tree, behind him. Berlusconi, on the other hand, had been unable to repair his alliance with the Lega, which fought the election alone. Total votes cast showed an actual increase in support for the Centre Right, but since it was now divided and the Centre Left united, the result was a narrow Parliamentary majority for an Olive Tree Government. Prodi was installed as Premier, with a PDS Vice-Premier. The promise of the winning coalition was a coherent modernisation of Italian public life, eliminating national anomalies and bringing the country fully up to Western standards. Now, surely, the hour of the Second Republic had struck.

Confronting the victors lay a complex agenda. The collapse of the First Republic had been triggered by corruption and criminality. But behind these long-standing ills, two other pressures had played a critical role. The first was the Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1992, setting out the ‘convergence criteria’ for entry into European Monetary Union. These required a drastic compression of Italy’s public debt and budgetary deficit, which for years had been running at levels far above the other major EU economies. Abroad it was widely doubted whether Italy was capable of such belt-tightening. The second urgency came from Northern regionalism. The revolt of the Lega threatened to undermine the unity of the country, if no federal solution was forthcoming. Besides these supra and sub-national forcing-houses of change, there was the unfinished work left by the national crisis of 1992-93 itself. By mid-decade the militarist turn of the Mafia in Sicily had been crushed, and excesses of political corruption curbed. But no stable legal order had been established: justice remained a word, not a system. Deficiencies of taxation, administration and education were widely advertised. Last but not least, the new electoral system had proved unsatisfactory to nearly everyone; instead of reducing the number of parties in Parliament, as intended, it had multiplied them. To strengthen the executive, many argued, it would be necessary to rewrite the Constitution.

In this forest of tasks, Prodi was in no doubt which had priority. By training and temperament, his principal concerns were economic. As Premier, his overriding objective was to ensure Italy’s compliance with the Maastricht criteria for entry into the single currency in 1998. Normalcy, in this version, was conceived as full integration – without any of the surreptitious derogations and defaults of the past – into a liberalised European economy. That meant tight budgetary discipline to control inflation, reduce the deficit and moderate the volume of public debt. In short, an orthodox macro-economic framework, mitigated where possible – Prodi was committed to this – by traditional social concerns.

In its pursuit of this goal, the Centre-Left Government was consistent and effective. To the uneasy surprise of German bankers, the Maastricht targets were met on schedule, Italy entered Monetary Union, and has benefited from lower interest payments on its public debt ever since. This strenuous effort was accompanied, not by any sweeping tax reform – Italy is still a country where the state extracts proportionately more from workers than from restaurateurs or lawyers – but at least by more effective and somewhat less inequitable fiscal catchment. The cost of convergence was also high: the slowest growth of any major industrial society in the 1990s, and virtually no reduction in very high levels of youth and regional unemployment – over 20 per cent in the South. Still, there is no question that entry into European Monetary Union was the major achievement of the Ulivo experience. It was also the one most obviously continuous with the directives of the past. Maastricht was signed, indeed partly shaped, by Andreotti, and the most drastic fiscal squeeze to implement the Treaty was the work of Giuliano Amato, a lieutenant of Craxi’s in the last days of the First Republic. In this sense Prodi acted as competent executor of a legacy handed down by the DC and PSI of old, on which financial and industrial elites had always been united.

Monetary integration was not, however, the main plank of the modernisation promised by the slogan of the Second Republic. That was to be Constitutional, electoral and administrative reform, to give Italy the kind of honest and efficient government its neighbours enjoyed. Here it was not Prodi but D’Alema and the PDS who were to the forefront from the start. In early 1997 D’Alema pushed through the creation of a Bicameral Commission to revise the Constitution, with himself as chairman. Since Constitutional changes required a two-thirds majority in Parliament, hence some kind of deal with the opposition, the effect of the Bicamerale was to give him a public arena for tractations with Berlusconi and Fini, inevitably at Prodi’s expense as head of Government. In the Commission, D’Alema, with the aim of drawing them into a pact to marginalise smaller parties in the political system, under a stronger – if necessary, semi-presidential – executive, went out of his way to express respect for both leaders, hitherto objects of the fiercest obloquy on the Left. Soon all three were exchanging mutual compliments, as prospective partners in the task of bringing responsibility and clarity of government to Italy. The effect was to confer a quite new level of political legitimation on Berlusconi.

At this many ordinary members of the PDS itself, not to speak of other supporters of the Ulivo Government, had to swallow hard. The charges that had helped bring Berlusconi down three years earlier had been by the standards of Tangentopoli relatively small beer: pay-offs to the Guardia di Finanza, tax police not above suspicion of their own shake-downs. By now Berlusconi had been convicted in the lower courts both on this count and on a further charge of falsifying company accounts, and the Milan pool was widening its trawl through his labyrinth of holding companies. For lay opinion, however, the various cases against him could still seem somewhat technical. But in early 1996, bugs planted under the ashtrays of a bar led to the arrest of a leading Roman judge, Renato Squillante – the name means ‘trilling’ – and two colleagues, on charges of delivering a favourable verdict to the tune of 678 billion lire, in a bankruptcy suit brought by the Rovelli family, in exchange for bribes of more than 60 billion lire.

The trail that led to them had started from a pretty blonde antique-dealer in Milan, Stefania Ariosto. When he went into politics, Berlusconi took with him his two most prominent legal advisers, Vittorio Dotti and Cesare Previti – one from Milan, the other from Rome – who hated each other. Ariosto had been the mistress of Dotti, and possibly of Previti too. Questioned by the pool in Milan, she reported seeing Previti hand over large sums in cash to Squillante on a festive boat-trip along the Tiber, and on other occasions. In due course Swiss bank accounts confirmed a pattern of transfers between Previti and two colleagues and the Roman judges that matched exactly the bribe with which they were charged. Further investigations indicated that Berlusconi himself had paid nearly half a million dollars to Squillante, through Previti, for a favourable ruling in his takeover battle for the SME food and catering conglomerate. The nature of these allegations – the systematic purchase of senior judges in the capital itself – exceeded any previous scandals in the downfall of the First Republic, most of them concerned with corruption in the executive, not at the heart of the judiciary.

Such was the background that Italians, reading in their newspapers of the cordial debates in the Bicamerale, were invited to forget. In exchange for a Constitutional deal, Berlusconi wanted curbs on the magistrates, which D’Alema was ready to consider. But the complicated manoeuvres of the PDS in the Bicamerale eventually foundered on the hostility of the Lega – which saw that it would be cut out of the deal – and the calculations of Berlusconi’s shrewder advisers, who were content with the degree of absolution he had already gained, and disinclined to let D’Alema claim laurels as the architect of a new Constitutional settlement. In the summer of 1998, after many draft schemes had been swapped back and forth, the opposition abruptly announced no dice.

This was a serious blow to the PDS, but a few months later D’Alema recouped. From the start, the Government had depended on the support in Parliament of one force that did not belong to the coalition, the fraction of the PCI that had rejected the terms of its mutation in 1989, and as Rifondazione Comunista had since taken root as a party to the left of the PDS. That autumn, when Prodi’s budget made too few concessions to keep Rifondazione in line, D’Alema took the opportunity to topple him. This was done with a silken touch – just enough informal dangling of hopes to Rifondazione for a more left-wing government (which he would lead), while he lingered in South America, far from the scene; and fortuitous failure to ensure that every available deputy in the coalition was present for the motion of confidence, when he got back. Prodi fell one vote short in the Chamber, and was not deceived. D’Alema had shown himself master of the skill Stendhal rightly saw as peculiarly Italian: the art of politics as a virtuoso exercise of subjective will and intelligence, without – an effect of the long absence of national unity – any corresponding sense of the state as an objective structure of power and obligation. This is the combination already visible in Machiavelli, whose inverse could be found in the Imperial culture of Spain which cut off his dreams. After a decent interval of days, the identity of the new Prime Minister was no surprise.

There was a cost to this elegant operation. Prodi’s resentment, when it threatened to become dangerous, was deftly neutralised by exporting him to Brussels as President of the EU Commission, where he was soon out of his depth. But a spectacle of intrigue and division, recalling only too vividly the mores of the First Republic, had been given to the public, damaging the credibility of the Ulivo as a renovating force. Still, for the PDS the Parliamentary coup was a necessary step towards Italian normalcy in a sense that was more important in its view. The heirs of the PCI were the centrepiece of the ruling coalition – in fact, the only substantial party organisation in it – and freely referred to as the ‘principal shareholder’ in the Government. Yet an anachronistic prejudice still prevented them from converting effective into symbolic power, as would have occurred in any other European country, so they argued. Determined to break this taboo, D’Alema installed himself in the Palazzo Chigi.

What were the fruits of this closing of the gap between the pays réel and the pays légal in the Centre Left? The top priority of the PDS had all along been to change the electoral system. Constitutional reform, much bruited, was always a means to this, rather than an end in its own right: a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Right, which had initially wanted a strong Presidential system. But the former Communists were not alone in feeling that drastic electoral reform, abolishing the hated ‘Mattarellum’, the hybrid system concocted in the throes of crisis five years earlier, was the key to founding a stable Second Republic. Virtually the entire press clamoured for it, while Segni and Pannella – the authors of the original referendum abrogating proportional representation – were agitating for a second referendum to finish the job. Different foreign models, most of them Anglo-American in inspiration, were advocated by the interested parties. By far the most trenchant and lucid intervention in these debates came from Giovanni Sartori, the world’s leading authority on comparative electoral systems, occupying a chair at Columbia and columns in the Corriere della Sera, who in a series of coruscating polemics championed the French model of a directly elected Presidency and two-round majority voting.

The PDS was not enamoured of a French-style Presidency, fearing that its personalisation of power would give an advantage to Berlusconi or Fini. But it urgently wanted the double tour. In fact, this had been its overriding strategic priority from the start. The reason was always clear. Under the existing rules, the Party was stuck at around 20 per cent of the electorate – the largest party in the mosaic of the Centre Left, but a smallish one by European standards. Unable to advance further in straightforward electoral competition, it needed a restriction of the range of voter choice to eliminate its rivals to the left, and potentially somewhat to the right of it. Above all, the PDS wanted to clear the decks of any challenge from Rifondazione, as a force capable of attracting disaffected voters from its own ranks, and subjecting a Centre-Left Government to unwelcome pressure from without. This was an objective, however, that had to remain tacit. Sartori, more candidly and consistently, argued that the double tour was vital to wipe out both the Lega and Rifondazione, as twin menaces to the emergence of a stable, non-ideological order in which all policies converged towards the liberal centre.

A huge amount of energy was invested by D’Alema and his party in trying, by one means or another, to force this change through, in the hope that Berlusconi would find it to his advantage, too. But, though tempted for a time, Berlusconi soon realised that a much quicker and surer route back to power lay in renewing his alliance with Bossi, who was implacably hostile to the double tour. The eventual result of five years of unremitting, and increasingly desperate, efforts by the PDS to change the rules of the political game was little short of farce. After strenuous demands for the double tour on the French model, when D’Alema fell from office in the spring of 2000 with only a year to go before new elections, the PDS suddenly backed the Segni-Pannella referendum for a complete first-past-the-post system of British stamp (which it had always hitherto rejected) and when that failed, unsuccessfully converted to a full proportional system along German lines (anathema to it for a decade) purely as a means of staving off looming defeat in the upcoming polls. A more futile and ignominious pilgrimage of self-interested opportunism would be difficult to imagine. As for the ledger of Constitutional reform, it remains bare.

Far more pressing, in reality, was the need for reform of Italian justice, with its mixture of a Fascist-derived legal code, arbitrary emergency powers, and chaotic procedural and carceral conditions. Here, indeed, has long been a panorama without equivalent elsewhere in Western Europe. There is no habeas corpus in Italy, where anyone can be clapped into jail without charges for over three years, under the system of custodia cautelare – ‘preventive detention’ – that is responsible for locking up more than half the prison population in the country. Not only can witnesses be guaranteed immunity from prosecution under the rules of ‘repentance’ or pentitismo: they can be paid for suitable testimony by the state without even having to appear in court, or any record being visible of what they receive for their evidence – perhaps from the manilla envelopes that, according to Sisde operatives, were pocketed every month by Scalfaro and his peers. In the magistracy, there is no separation of careers, and little of functions, between prosecutors and judges: in Italian parlance, as in French or Spanish, those who lay charges are simply identified with those who are supposed to weigh the evidence for them, as giudici. In the prisons themselves, some fifty thousand inmates are jammed into cells built for half that number. The trial system has three stages, the average length is ten years, and the backlog of cases in the courts is now some three million. In this jungle, inefficiency alone rivals brutality, in part mitigating, in part compounding it.

Such was the system suddenly mobilised by crusading magistrates against political corruption in the North and the Mafia in the South. The personal courage and energy with which the pools in Milan and Palermo threw themselves at these evils had no precedent in the recent history of Italian administration. In Sicily, investigators risked their lives daily. But they, too, were the products of a culture that discounted scruples. Custodia cautelare was deliberately used as an instrument of intimidation. Illegal leaks of impending notices of investigation were regularly employed to bring down targeted office-holders. Tainted evidence was mustered without qualms: in the case against Andreotti, a key witness for the state was a thug who, embarrassingly, committed another murder while on the payroll of the authorities for his deposition. Any idea of separating the careers of prosecutor and judge was attacked with ferocity. The rationalisation of these practices was always the same. Italy was in a state of emergency; justice could not afford to be over-nice about individual rights. But, of course, they were not just responses to an emergency, they also perpetuated it. A widespread contempt for law is not to be cured by bending its principles. ‘We will turn Italy inside out like a sock,’ declared Piercamillo Davigo, the clearest mind of the Milan pool, as if the country were a discardable item from the laundry basket.

At the height of the prestige of Mani Pulite in the first half of the 1990s, when its star prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro topped all media ratings, few doubts were voiced about the work of the magistrates on the left. D’Alema himself was never caught up in this uncritical acclaim. But here, too, short-term tactical calculations overrode any coherent set of principles. For the most part, conscious of the popularity of the magistrates, the PDS sought to capitalise on their role. D’Alema eventually recruited Di Pietro as a Senator in a safe PDS seat in 1997, even while upholding Berlusconi’s credentials as a national leader, regardless of the legal charges against him. Whatever private misgivings may have been felt in the upper reaches of the Party, there was no public criticism of the worst features of Italian justice – preventive detention, mercenary testimony, fusion of prosecutors and judges. The field was thus left open for the Right to make a case for more defensible alternatives, with a cynicism that only discredited them. In this field of force, no structural reforms of any moment were possible. At the end of five years of Ulivo Government, the magistrates had over-reached themselves in pursuing Andreotti with assorted gothic accusations of which he was acquitted, yet failed to clinch much more plausible charges against Berlusconi. Meanwhile Italy was treated to the tragic spectacle of the head of the Milan pool applauding Adriano Sofri’s imprisonment, on the evidence of a pentitismo that the Left defending him could never bring itself to disavow. Conditions in the prison system remained as disastrous as ever.

Elsewhere the Centre Left’s performance was more respectable, if nowhere very striking. Administrative regulations were to some extent simplified – no minor matter for the citizen, in a country with over fifty thousand laws where Germany has about five thousand – and fiscal resources devolved to the regions. Higher education saw a limited reform of the university system, where traditionally three-quarters of students never complete their degree; but without more funding, substantial progress remains unlikely. On the other hand, the chance of improving the quality of the Italian media was thrown away when the PDS, in its pursuit of a deal with the heads of Mediaset in the Bicamerale, chose to reject the term-limits independently set by the Constitutional Court on Berlusconi’s television franchise. In foreign policy, D’Alema made the country the runway for Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, a step further than Christian Democracy ever went in bending to the will of the United States. In general the Centre Left showed less independence of Washington – in the Middle East as well as the Balkans – than the regimes of Andreotti or Craxi had done.

Little in this record was calculated to inspire enthusiasm among the electors of the Ulivo coalition, let alone those who had voted against it. In the spring of 2000, regional elections handed the Centre Left a heavy defeat. With a national reckoning only a year away, D’Alema quickly stepped down to avoid responsibility for impending fiasco. The most astute Italian politician of his generation, he once remarked tersely after meeting Blair: ‘manca di spessore.’ ‘A bit thin.’ But if he noticed the beam – the disc-jockey’s vacant smirk – in the eye of the other, he could not see the mote in his own. His culture was no doubt a little more solid. But it was not enough. Excess of tactical guile, shortage of ideal reflection: the eventual upshot was a self-destructive reduction to standard neo-liberal clichés of even the poor remains of ‘European social democracy’ to which the PDS nominally aspired. The Party would have done better to remain loyal to Prodi, who was respected by the public, and accept the rules on which he was elected. Voters had looked to the Ulivo for steady government, which D’Alema’s ambitions had undermined. As it was, the experience of the Centre Left came full circle, when its final Premier became the initial retread of the decade, Craxi’s former counseller Amato. Understandably, it did not care to present him as its candidate to fight the Centre Right a year later.

In these conditions, Berlusconi’s victory in May 2001 – with Bossi securing his flank once more in the North and Fini in the South – was a foregone conclusion. The actual shift in votes, as in the previous election, was small. The Centre Right, which already had a majority of voter preferences in 1996, this time converted it into a Parliamentary landslide. Berlusconi had retained his following among housewives, conservative Catholics, small entrepreneurs, the elderly and the thirty-year-olds. But now the renamed ‘House of Liberties’ got more votes than the Centre Left from the bulk of the working class, in the private sector, as well. The key to the scale of its victory lay in the electorate’s damning verdict on the record of the Centre Left in power – large numbers of those who actually voted for the Ulivo confessing they had more confidence in the capacity of the Centre Right to solve the various problems facing the country. In the two epicentres of the crisis of the First Republic, Lombardy and Sicily, Berlusconi scored the cleanest sweeps of all.

Retrospectively, the Centre Left is now faced with the bill for its manoeuvres to abort Berlusconi’s Administration in 1994. Then his Parliamentary majority was far smaller; his political experience shorter; his financial empire weaker; his legitimacy more fragile. Thinking to gain time for itself by keeping him out of power, the Centre Left merely allowed him to become better prepared for exercising it. For this time, Berlusconi’s position is much stronger. Forza Italia is no longer a shell, but an effective party, capable of playing something closer to the role of Christian Democracy of old. Fininvest has recovered from its difficulties. His allies are unlikely soon to challenge him. His opponents have conceded his status as a national leader. In these conditions, fears can be heard that Italian democracy will be at risk should Berlusconi and his unsavoury outriders succeed in consolidating their grip on the country. Could Italy be staring at the prospect of a creeping authoritarianism, once again organised around the cult of a charismatic leader, but this time based on an unprecedented control of the media – now public as well as private television – rather than squads and castor-oil?

Two structural realities tell against the idea. Fascism rose to power as a response to the threat from below: the danger that the revolution Gramsci had hailed in Russia might spread to Italy. Today there is no such ferment in the lower depths. The working class is atomised, there are no factory councils, the PCI has vanished, radical impulses among students and youth have waned. Capitalism in Italy, as elsewhere, has never looked safer. Historically, the second condition of Fascist success was nationalist self-assertion, the promise of an expansionist state capable of attacking neighbours and seizing territory by military force. That, too, has passed. The days of the autarkic state are gone. Italy is closely enmeshed in the European Union, its economy, military and diplomacy all subject to supranational controls that leave little leeway for independent policy of any kind. The ideological and legal framework of the EU rules out any break with a standard liberal-democratic regime. There is neither need nor chance of Berlusconi becoming an updated version of Mussolini.

Programmatically, not a great deal separated Centre Right from Centre Left in the electoral contest last year. The familiar agenda of governments throughout the Atlantic world – privatisation of remaining state assets, deregulation of the labour market, scaling back of public pensions, lowering of tax rates – belongs to the repertoire of both. How far the House of Liberties in practice proceeds with these remains to be seen. Private education and health care will be given a longer leash. Berlusconi has also promised tougher measures against immigrants, whose fate – this is the one terrain on which a knuckleduster Right has space in Europe – will certainly get worse. But in general socio-economic direction, far from representing any radical form of reaction, Berlusconi’s regime is already suspected of being too moderate – that is, insufficiently committed to the market – in the judgment of the business press, distrustful of his pledges to launch a major programme of public works and steer investment to create a million and a half new jobs. In the EU, the new Government has been less automatically compliant with establishment opinion than its predecessor, earning furrowed brows in Brussels and laments from the opposition in Rome that it is jeopardising Italy’s reputation abroad. But its self-assertion has so far been essentially gestural, amounting to little more than dropping the dreary functionary from the WTO first imposed on it as Foreign Minister, and quarrelling over the location of a branch office of the EU’s alimentary bureaucracy. On issues of any real significance, there is unlikely to be any serious departure from today’s Euroconformism.

All this might suggest that the upshot of Berlusconi’s Government will be as unexceptional as that of its closest ally in Europe, the Centre Right in Spain. Aznar’s party, after all, is the direct descendant of a Fascist regime that lasted twice as long as the Italian, and killed many more of its citizens; yet today it is a veritable model of political propriety, indeed a favourite interlocutor of emissaries of the Third Way from London. What is to stop Forza Italia from emulating the Partido Popular, and becoming yet another indistinguishably respectable member of the comity of democratic parties? Not much, it would seem. Yet there remains a fly in the ointment. Since taking office, one objective alone has been pursued with real energy by Berlusconi: to change the laws that still might bring him to book in the courts. The speed and determination with which his Government has acted here – ramming through measures designed to make evidence against him found in Switzerland unavailable for adjudication in Italy, and attempting to set the Ariosto case back to zero, so as to defer a verdict till after the statute of limitations – is a measure of its fear that he could still be struck a mortal blow by the magistrates. Manipulating accounts and evading taxes may attract little censure in Italy. A conviction for corrupting judges on a grand scale would be more difficult to shrug off. Given the record of Italian justice to date, few would bet on one. But a surprise cannot be excluded.

Should that come, it would be a test of what has happened to the political culture of the country in the past decade. Already leading figures in the opposition have been explaining that Berlusconi should not necessarily resign as Prime Minister – ‘after all he was democratically elected’ – even if he is found guilty of suborning the judiciary. A rebellion of public opinion against such complaisance is possible but not certain. Ideological demobilisation, long called for by proponents of ‘normal’ Italy, has been among the fruits of the Centre-Left experience. About a quarter of the electorate now abstains from expressing any preference at the polls. But if the US is taken as a model of normalcy, only half the population should vote anyway – the surest sign of popular contentment with society as it is. Gramsci thought Italy was the land of ‘passive revolution’. Maybe this will prove the right sort of oxymoron for the birth of the Second Republic. Its arrival has not yielded a new Constitution, rationalised the party system, modernised justice or overhauled the bureaucracy in any of the ways its advocates hoped it would. But – so they could equally contend – corruption has dropped from its intolerable peak in the 1980s back to the manageable levels of the 1950s and 1960s; the Mafia has retreated, after defeat in the battlefield, to more traditional and inconspicuous forms of activity; Parliament is at least now divided along conventional lines between government and opposition; no deep disagreements set the policies of the principal parties apart; public life is increasingly drained of passion. Isn’t this just the passive renovation we need?

Judged against these standards, the First Republic, however decomposed it became towards the end, appears in a better light. At its height it included a genuine pluralism of political opinion and expression, lively participation in mass organisations and civic life, an intricate system of informal negotiations, a robust high culture, and the most impressive series of social movements that any European country of that period could boast. Intellectual conflict and moral tension produced leaders of another stature. In that respect, as well as others, there has been a miniaturisation. Italy needs honest administration, decent public services and accountable government, not to speak of jobs for its unemployed, which the old order failed to provide. But to create these, destruction of what it did achieve was not required. ‘Normality’ is little more than the ideal of a provincial conformism.

Even today, not all the traces of this better past have disappeared. Impulses of rebellion against the worst aspects of the new order persist. In the autumn of 1994, the trade union movement was still capable of the largest mobilisation in the postwar history of the country, putting a million people into the squares of Rome to block Berlusconi’s first attempt at pension reform. In May last year, the vacuous rituals of the G7 were finally shattered by multitudes of young protesters in the streets of Genoa. In Italy alone was there a march of some 300,000 – from Perugia to Assisi – against the war in Afghanistan. Where French Communists or German Greens have been painlessly annexed as fig-leaves or sandwich-boards of the status quo, Rifondazione has remained resistant both to sectarian closure and to absorption. Of the three European dailies born out of the radical movements of 1968, Libération in Paris and Tageszeitung in Berlin are demoralised parodies of their original purpose: Il Manifesto, flanked by its monthly, is unswayed. The most striking political cinema of contemporary Europe is arguably the work of Gianni Amelio. Whatever the wisps of dew in each, the two leading visions of globalisation from the Left to date both come from Italy, via America: Empire and Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System – originators, Antonio Negri and Giovanni Arrighi.

The hope of the Second Republic has been to root all this out. But to standardise a society at the expense of its past always risks being a violence in vain. Where, after all, does the idea of ‘normalisation’ come from? The term was coined by Brezhnev for the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, designed to force it back into conformity with the Soviet bloc. We know how that ended. Contemporary efforts to normalise Italy have sought to reshape the country either in the image of the United States, or of the Europe now moving towards it. The pressures behind this process are incomparably greater. But its results may not be quite what its proponents had in mind. For rather than lagging, could not Italy be leading the march towards a common future? After all, in the world of Enron and Elf, Mandelson and Strauss-Kahn, Hinduja and Gates, what could finally be more logical than Berlusconi? Perhaps, like others before them, the travellers to normality have arrived at the terminus without noticing it.

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Vol. 24 No. 9 · 9 May 2002

While I am flattered to be described as Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘tough chief executive’ and delighted to read an article, in English on Italy, that covers the ground so widely and fairly, Perry Anderson (LRB, 21 March) makes a couple of errors that must be corrected.

There is not, nor has there ever been, any evidence to support the claim that Berlusconi had links in his early career with the Mafia. Anderson knows Italy well enough to realise that, in terms of social stigma, such a slur is comparable to being charged with the sexual abuse of minors. It is therefore inexplicable and offensive that he should repeat it in an otherwise very fine and substantially balanced summary of recent Italian history.

Not enough has been made of Berlusconi’s contribution to making Italy a more ‘normal’ country, i.e. more similar to its neighbours. He has done so not once but twice, first by introducing commercial television and, second, by forcing Italy towards a more bipolar political system. By challenging a status quo in which the spoils of government were used not only to pay off political debts but to restrain ‘uncongenial’ development, Berlusconi has rendered two fundamental services to his country. The advent of commercial TV – against the wishes of a Constitutional Court dominated, perhaps inevitably, by conservative elements – created the conditions for a consumer-led boom that drove economic growth in the 1980s. The creation of a brand new political party in the 1990s, meanwhile, offered the Italian electorate clearer choices and an opportunity to break with the discredited ‘party-ocracy’ of the past.

Anderson no doubt knows that I initially opposed Berlusconi’s decision to enter politics. Subsequent history and Italian voters have proved me wrong. A pervasive institutional hostility to ‘uncontrolled and uncontrollable’ economic growth, which was the defining characteristic of both the Left and a wide cross-section of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Christian Democrats, is now largely a thing of the past. Even if Berlusconi were not my oldest friend, I would be enormously grateful to him for that.

Fedele Confalonieri
Chairman, Mediaset

While clearly not supportive of Silvio Berlusconi – as either a businessman or a political leader – Perry Anderson is at pains to show that many of Berlusconi’s claims to the effect that he has been the target of concerted, politically inspired hostility, both in the media (over which he supposedly has a stranglehold) and in the courts, are true. It is facile, however, to say that there can be ‘little question’ as to the ‘factual validity’ of the ‘prevailing foreign view’ of Berlusconi as a ‘danger to any free society’. Such assumptions, although based on conjecture, have been constantly reiterated by elements in the justice system, including what Anderson marvellously and aptly describes as ‘the posse of Mani Pulite’. One of the terrors of falling into the Italian legal quagmire is, again as Anderson points out, the presumption of guilt that attaches to someone who is merely under investigation.

I was dismayed, therefore, at the facility with which Anderson repeats the claim that through ‘one of his key aides’ Berlusconi had ‘links to the Mafia’ at the beginning of his business career. While this may be true, it has yet to be demonstrated, and Anderson should know better than to suggest such a damning association without naming names (and thus risking prosecution). If one accepts that Giulio Andreotti, the favoured bogeyman of the Italian Left for more than forty years, could have been pursued by magistrates with ‘assorted gothic accusations’, it is difficult to see why the same thing might not also be true for Berlusconi and his unnamed aide.

Although it is true that in 1983 Berlusconi ran two national TV channels, the claim that he did so ‘in defiance of the Constitutional Court’ is technically inaccurate and does not give a complete picture. As Anderson says, but does not make explicit, the broadcasting system in Italy, like much else, had been carved up between the dominant political forces in the country, none of which was in a hurry to lose its control, moral as much as anything, over the pernicious medium of TV. By breaking the deadlock Berlusconi did a number of things. First, he gave Italians the opportunity of seeing dire American soap operas such as Dallas, and, guess what, they loved them. Second, he brought Italy out of the dark ages when TV advertising had to be camouflaged in coy little sketches to be shown to children before bedtime. Unsurprisingly, both public and advertisers were enthusiastic and the economic benefits that resulted from sustained growth in consumer spending are too often overlooked.

I congratulate Anderson for acknowledging that, contrary to the weeping and wailing claims of the losers, there is no danger of a fascist-type regime emerging in Italy. Not so much because Berlusconi is a dyed-in-the-wool democrat or is without lordly tendencies, but, quite simply, because the Italian people, and consequently Italian democracy, is a good deal more mature and consolidated than commentators, both inside and outside the country, will allow. Indeed, even the politicians, again on both sides, fall down in this respect by consistently refusing to accept the legitimacy of their opponents. Oddly, though commendably, Anderson has little to say about the much-trumpeted conflict of interest deriving from Berlusconi’s business concerns and control of the media. It would be foolish to claim that there is no conflict, but the element of control has been much exaggerated.

Like his idol Margaret Thatcher, Berlusconi may be a punishment his country does not deserve. But, again like Thatcher, it is one it has brought on itself. The Italian electorate gave Berlusconi a clear mandate and, however unpalatable his jokes, style and gaffes, he must be given the opportunity to fulfil his electoral promises.

Michael Cruickshank

The one thing which no one ever mentions when comparing, as they often do, Berlusconi and Mussolini is TV. Mussolini’s propaganda looks like child’s play set beside the subliminal messages which Mediaset broadcasts for hours every day. TV is Berlusconi’s ‘electronic balcony’, from which he can woo and subdue millions of voters. Switch on the TV in your hotel next time you’re in Italy and you will realise that there’s nothing on other than soft porn, B-movies and hours of adverts. In that cultural desert, Berlusconi on screen appears a dignified and generous oasis of calm and benevolence. Unlike Mussolini, he hardly has to use the stick: the televisual carrot is enough.

The real debate doesn’t centre on whether Italy is a democracy or not: it’s about the kind of democracy it is. Many would say it’s a ‘videocracy’, in which the man who makes the news also reports it.

Tobias Jones

Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002

Fedele Confalonieri, one of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest and reputedly most intelligent friends, tells your readers (Letters, 9 May) that ‘there is not, nor has there ever been, any evidence to support the claim that Berlusconi had links in his early career with the Mafia.’ How does Confalonieri explain Vittorio Mangano, who, in the 1970s, when Berlusconi was on the way to becoming one of Italy’s richest businessmen, was employed by him, and housed in his villa near Milan? Mangano was described by Paolo Borsellino (one of the top two Italian anti-Mafia prosecutors in the 1970s and 1980s, along with Giovanni Falcone) as ‘one of those people who have become the Mafia’s bridgeheads in Northern Italy’. He said this (in an interview for a TV programme which was never shown) on 21 May 1992, just weeks before being blown up by a bomb planted by the Mafia. Berlusconi and Marcello Dell’Utri (the latter is, together with Confalonieri, one of the top managers of Berlusconi’s economic empire) were actually indicted for the murder of both Borsellino and Falcone (who was killed a few weeks before): they were acquitted of this charge last month, but the judge also concluded that ‘links have been ascertained between companies which are part of Fininvest’ – Berlusconi’s firm – ‘and people who are in various ways linked to Cosa Nostra’ (Corriere della Sera, 5 May 2002).

Confalonieri also points to ‘two fundamental contributions’ which Berlusconi has made to the wellbeing of Italians: ‘introducing commercial television … [which] created the conditions for a consumer-led boom that drove economic growth in the 1980s’ and ‘forcing Italy towards a more bipolar political system’.

On the first count – the ‘consumer-led boom’ of the 1980s – the claim is, to say the least, extravagant, given that the average rate of GDP growth dropped in the 1980s by more than 30 per cent, from 3.6 to 2.4, the rate of growth of private domestic consumption dropped from 4.2 to 2.9 and the contribution of private domestic consumption to the growth of GDP dropped by 30 per cent. On the second count (‘a more bipolar political system’), Confalonieri omits to report that in August 1993, i.e. several months before Berlusconi chose to run in the general election to be held the following spring, a Bill was passed by the Italian Parliament that introduced a new electoral system, on the basis of which three-quarters of the members of the lower house were to be elected by a first-past-the-post system.

Of all the claims made by Confalonieri on Berlusconi’s behalf, the most bizarre is the suggestion that Berlusconi has made an important contribution to ‘making Italy a more “normal" country’. Berlusconi directly owns three of the six national TV channels – and as Prime Minister more or less directly controls the other three. On top of this, he also owns national newspapers (though because this is against the law, the technical owners are his wife and his brother), as well as the country’s main publishing house, the titles of which include one of the two main political weeklies, and so on. And I know of no ‘normal’ country where the members of the judiciary have virtually unanimously decided to go on strike against the Government, because the ‘reforms’ it is introducing are an attempt to undermine the judiciary’s independent powers.

Giancarlo de Vivo

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