Books: Dirty hands and dirty lives

Silvio Berlusconi has done little to stem the endemic corruption in Italy, and these books are not about to give him the benefit of the doubt, says Matthew Gwyther.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What is one to make of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister?

On the one hand, you have the most successful businessman Italy has produced since the war. A man worth around £8 billion and the ninth-richest person in Europe; a leader who remains an intensely charismatic and glamorous figure for many inhabitants of a country where bella figura counts for everything.

On the other hand, however, we have burlesquoni, the clown with the facelift and the bandana; the joker who caused a major diplomatic incident when he recommended that Martin Schulz, the vice-president of the German social democrats in the European parliament, should take a film role as a concentration camp guard; the apologist for Mussolini who claimed the fascist dictator 'never murdered anyone'; and the attacker of the Italian magistrature ('To do that job, you need to be mentally disturbed, you need psychic disturbances').

Neither of these books is willing to give Silvio the benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, the charges against their subject are far worse than a dodgy sense of humour and impropriety. This prime minister is on trial for allegedly bribing judges, false accounting and paying off tax inspectors. He has even had the law changed to protect himself. He stands accused of conflicts of interest and political manipulation, which, if perpetrated in Britain, would see any political leader hounded out of office in an instant. But that may not be the point.

Italy has a poor record on governance issues - civic, political and corporate.

In the latest corruption ranking produced by Transparency International, Italy takes 42nd place, beaten these days by cleaner countries such as Oman, Costa Rica and Botswana. One is left thinking - as so often with things Italian - that the only real excuse for taking part in corrupt acts is that they are commonplace in Italy: everybody's doing it.

'Italy is not a normal country,' Fedele Confalonieri, an old friend of Berlusconi's and chairman of Mediaset, the PM's television group, has said. 'Even an anomaly like Mr Berlusconi must be understood in the context of the country. He has done nothing worse than any businessman in Italy.'

But the measure must be that Berlusconi should have done better than any other Italian businessman. From the business point of view, he presented a great opportunity. After decades of political instability and mismanagement by the old order, he was a ruthless tycoon who knew how to run organisations.

His companies - both in property from the early days and media from the 1980s onward - were hugely successful. The foundation of his political party Forza Italia ('Go for it, Italy') in 1993 was a source of hope.

However cheesy its marketing methods, something big could have changed.

But Berlusconi has failed. What is doubly disappointing is that once in power and in a position to do something about the bad situation, he tried to dismantle the very forces that sought to make Italy a better country in which to live and do business.

Both books are written by Brits with considerable track records in Italy.

Ginsborg is an academic originally from Cambridge University, who now teaches in Florence. David Lane is the Economist's man on the peninsula - a position that has endowed him with some notoriety. Lane's now legendary cover article in the magazine on the eve of the Italian general election in 2001 declared that the Fininvest boss was unfit to govern Italy.

Ginsborg's biography is a short and elegantly written essay. Lane's lengthy volume is a hymn of admiration to the magistrates - the praetorian guard of the mani pulite (clean hands) movement that took off in the 1990s.

He shows little mercy as he digs into Berlusconi's past, revealing dubiously acquired wealth, brushes with the Mob and general political ineptitude.

Lane writes compellingly of the occasion on which the magistrate Piercamillo Davigo, a major thorn in Berlusconi's side, first encountered graft as a young man in the late 1970s. His investigation of a tax office near Milan found that 29 of the 30 employees were on the take. Corruption is not a preserve of the Mezzogiorno (the South), as many Northerners would have one believe. Davigo asks a young man why he sold himself for L250,000, an amount equal to a month's pay for a junior civil servant. 'You cannot understand this because courage is not asked of you,' replied the taxman.

'Davigo,' writes Lane, 'would have wished to live in a country where courage was needed to be a crook, where courage was not needed to be honest.'

On the evidence of these two books, Berlusconi is the last person who is going to lead his nation into that Brave New World of clean hands and clean lives.

BERLUSCONI'S SHADOW

By David Lane; Allen Lane £18.99 MT price £16.99; Silvio Berlusconi - Television, Power and Patrimony; By Paul Ginsborg; Verso £16 MT price £15; To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime