Listening to Italy
POLITICIANS AS ENTERTAINERS
The major Italian papers ran detailed reports of the recent UK elections. Part of the reason must have been the relevance to Italy (and the rest of Europe) of the UK’s endless agonising about the EU. However, Italian press coverage of our affairs is both regular and detailed, while the reverse isn’t true. It is regrettable that papers such as The Guardian or Independent, who would expect their readers to be knowledgeable and interested in Europe, have few reporters based on the continent. As a result the lack of information can only encourage and entrench the native insularity of the English. Any UK press coverage of Italy is rare. Little is written about serious matters, because of the complexity of the political scene. So predictably, and thanks to its shallow amusement value, only Silvio Berlusconi’s girlfriends and scandals appear in print.
For example, at the end of May John Hooper of the Guardian featured Berlusconi posing with his dog on Instagram. Matteo Renzi uses Instagram, so Berlusconi has to compete. Silvio cuddles fluffy white Dudu and looks sweetly endearing. It all seems harmless, funny and entertaining and Hooper is reporting what he sees. But his serious point was only subtly made. He could have said that Berlusconi is an increasingly tired and pathetic figure publicising himself and his dwindling party. Poll ratings for the regional elections in the last weekend in May had been bad and this was a desperate tactic to catch voters’ support. The UK wouldn’t have been aware of the presence and significance of this poll because it wouldn’t have been reported.
On 10 May Eugenio Scalfari, the venerable co-founder of La Repubblica, published a polemical article about democracy in Italy and Europe and made reference to the elections in L’Inghilterra to give a neatly contemporary comparison. Scalfari’s article started by sharing everyone’s surprise at the result. He immediately went on to mention that what appears to be a majority government actually represents a democratic unfairness. And the system’s disproportionality is, as we all know, that the numbers of seats bear no relation to national voting totals. Scalfari’s thrust had been to use this as part of an illustration of a discussion about Renzi’s, and indeed other European countries’ gradual shift from what he calls the democratic sovereignty of the people to dangerous levels of executive power.
Scalfari was interested in an article by Timothy Garton Ash that had appeared in the previous day’s La Repubblica. He had been particularly struck and obviously impressed by his ideas for a new, proportionally elected UK upper house based on the regions. The current relevance to Italy is that at the beginning of May the new electoral system, Italicum, had been approved and it is planned to come into force in July 2016. The effective implementation date gives time for the detailed plans for the upper house to be finally agreed. Unlike Garton Ash’s ideal for the UK, these are not to be directly elected, hence Scalfari’s reference. The proposal is for the regions to nominate their Senators, which is a departure from the current elected upper house.
Italicum was named by Renzi and will supersede Porcellum (loosely, a dogs dinner of a system). Its gestation and passage was made possible by the hugely controversial cross-party pact or patto del Nazareno organised in secrecy between Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi. This eventually fell apart in acrimony and Renzi had to adopt some brutal tactics to complete the passage of the bill. There were significant modifications and before the final vote thirty of the left-leaning PD Deputies removed themselves from the chamber as a protest. This was to make a point against Renzi’s tactics to force the bill’s passage through to the end.
Italicum’s main points for the lower chamber are:-
- to base the number of seats on a national number of votes cast. Two areas, Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, which currently have more autonomy, because of ethnic and linguistic differences, will be treated separately .
- the constituencies will be equal and have around 600,000 voters each.
- a party that takes 40% of the vote receives a premium so that they receive a majority of 55% of the seats.
- a threshold of 3% of the votes are necessary before a party can have a seat.
- a further ballot will be held if no party has a majority.
As already mentioned, the UK election was reported in Italy’s press. A pre-election article in La Repubblica had a smiling Rupert Murdoch heading a piece saying that he had told his papers, particularly the Sun, to jack-up their campaign against Ed Miliband. Then on the 8 May, the day after polling, La Stampa ran a headline saying literally: Murdoch, the City and the Eton Club. The elite that have stayed on top. It mentions, the chic town of Chipping Norton, Cameron the aristocrat who cultivates an ordinary person’s image although he doesn’t know the price of milk. etc.
Then inevitably, given that Renzi models himself on Blair, Blair’s 10 May Observer article telling us in his patronising way why Labour had lost, was swiftly translated and published on 11 May in La Repubblica. There was a photo of Blair waving his arms about explaining his theories. La Repubblica’s Editor Ezio Mauro could be seen on that morning’s editorial conference, (these are often screened on La Repubblica TV) choosing Blair as his first topic of the day. There was further reporting on other pages, including a piece making reference to Peter Mandelson the architect of Blairism, co-written by John Lloyd.
The Italians aren’t all serious and do appreciate some levity, like the Brits. A 10 May article in La Stampa was the most enjoyable. It also showed a depth of knowledge, interest and humour. Alberto Simoni, a La Stampa journalist and Tweeter specialising in UK affairs, wrote the piece. I 10 cult momenti del voto britannico, i.e. the ten defining moments from the election. The first point tells the Italians how the English have learned to know Nicola Sturgeon. The election campaign was so monotonous, he said, that even though Sturgeon said nothing special we were seduced by her red jackets and Merkel-esque hair styles. Rather exaggeratedly, he reported, she was even called Godzilla in miniature by Piers Morgan and Lady Macbeth by Boris Johnson.
There were a few more serious references to Cameron making use of Margaret Thatcher’s name, then a discussion using the English phrase: “the right to buy”, and then mention of David Axelrod who had worked successfully to elect Obama and couldn’t transfer his magic to Ed Miliband: flop for Ed, flop for Axelrod. And of course, there was Ed and the EdStone and the panino al bacon.
But finally, Simoni mentioned a lovely string of gaffes from the incomparable Nigel Farage, the best of which he thought was the one involving immigrants and AIDS, but also the choice, Little Englander one that gave the Royal baby’s weight in pound and ounces, rather than using the measuring system of, as Nigel put it, the colonisers of Brussels. He must be (with Boris Johnson) the UK’s own answer to Silvio Berlusconi, politician as entertainer.