It is twilight in Sardinia. The sun has vanished behind the beetling crags. The crickets have momentarily stopped. The machine-gun-toting guards face out into the maquis of myrtle and olive, and the richest man in Europe is gripping me by the upper arm. His voice is excited. ‘Look’ he says, pointing his flashlight. ‘Look at the strength of that tree.’ It is indeed a suggestive sight.

An olive of seemingly Jurassic antiquity has grown from a crack in the rock, and like some patient wooden python it has split the huge grey boulder in two. ‘Extraordinary,’ I murmur. My host and I stand lost in awe at olive power. If Silvio Berlusconi, 67, Italian Prime Minister, is secretly hoping that a metaphor will form in my head, he is not disappointed.

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What does it show, this outrageous olive, but the force which through the green fuse drives Berlusconi himself? And what does it stand for, this colossal cracked stone? You could try the Italian political establishment; or the European liberal elite; or just civilised Western opinion: all things which Silvio has scandalised and divided. Only last week the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh, anathematised not just Berlusconi, but Italy itself.

Under the government of Forza Italia, she claimed, Italy could no longer be said to be part of Western European tradition or share its values. You may think that a flaming cheek, given that Europe’s founding text is the Treaty of Rome. Where was Sweden, hey, at the 1955 Conference of Messina? You may find, like me, that at the sight of Berlusconi being monstered by Anna Lindh, your sword instinctively flies from its scabbard in his defence. But it was the attack by the Economist newspaper that, I suspect, got in among Berlusconi and his team, not least because it is read in – or lies inert on the coffee tables of

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated