Last week The Spectator interviewed Silvio Berlusconi, and there followed a political furore that dominated the Italian news for – well, at least a couple of days. The cause of the crisis was the opinion of Italy’s 57th Italian post-war prime minister on the subject of judges. This is a field in which he is expert, as a result of 500 raids in the past decade by the Guardie di Finanza on the various tendrils of his media empire. Il Cavaliere – as he is nicknamed – told us that Italian judges are ‘antropologicamente diversi’ from the rest of us for two reasons: (1) they are left-wing; and (2) they are mad anyway. All hell broke loose. Even I became newsworthy. One of Berlusconi’s supporters went so far as to claim that Boris Johnson and I were drunk when we conducted the interview, an allegation with no foundation whatever.
On the whole, I think Berlusconi – a Latino Thatcherite – a very good thing for Italy. A dictator? Come off it. Tony Blair has far more power. Yet Martin Jacques in the Guardian last July called him ‘the most dangerous political figure in Europe’. This is very condescending to the Italian people. Il Cavaliere is Prime Minister by popular demand, with a bigger majority than any of his 56 predecessors. As for the conflict-of-interest point, he may be a media mogul, but he is a media mogul who – contrary to what the media keep telling us, so disproving their own point – does not control the media.
In my biography of Mussolini, published in July, I argue among other things that Il Duce was hugely popular with Italians. Rather mischievously, I had wanted to ask Berlusconi, ‘Why was Mussolini more popular than you?’ The right moment failed to pop up. But Mussolini did: while discussing Iraq, Berlusconi said, ‘I understand the difficulties in teaching democracy to a people who for nearly 40 years have known only dictatorship.’ To which I said, in a jocular way, ‘Like Italy at the fall of fascism.’ He replied, ‘That was a much more benign dictatorship – Mussolini did not murder anyone. Mussolini sent people on holiday to confine them [banishment to small islands such as Ponza and Maddalena which are now exclusive resorts].’ This, though extraordinary, is more or less true. Unlike the Russian communists, the Italian fascists did not use mass murder to retain power. There was no need. You see, Mussolini – until he started losing battles – was very popular.
Part of the reason Berlusconi’s remark about mad Italian judges caused such a crisis is that his opponents on the Left are desperate to deflect attention from a scandal of immense proportions which threatens to engulf them. The scandal is this: in 1997, when the EU commissioner, Romano Prodi, was Italian prime minister, the state-owned Italian telecommunications company – Stet – bought 29 per cent of Telekom Serbia from Slobodan Milosevic for roughly £300 million; then, in 2002, Telecom Italia (by then Stet had been privatised) sold back the share for about £100 million. The scandal involves all the usual allegations of massive bribes, not to mention the chucking of so much public money down the drain. Worse, Milosevic used the money, according to a CIA report, to finance his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Berlusconi may think Italian judges mad but that is not necessarily a criticism, coming from him. For in a lavishly produced autobiographical brochure published in 2002, he says that his favourite book is In Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam. The central theme of the book is that folly is a vital creative force – that true wisdom does not spring from sterile rational conduct but from visionary folly. ‘In Praise of Folly,’ writes Berlusconi, is a book ‘for scholars and, even more, for men of action.’
The forces of political correctness trashed my Musso book because I have dared to challenge received wisdom in Britain that the dictator was nothing but a grotesque buffoon – punto e basta. As I point out, grotesque buffoons do not hold power for more than 20 years more or less bloodlessly, as Mussolini did – even in Italy. The review that most annoyed me was by Tobias Jones in – where else? – the Guardian. Jones reckoned, for example, that my village of Predappio, where Mussolini is born and buried, is ‘not exactly neutral and neither, therefore, is the resultant book’. Would Clapham do? Predappio, Jones explains, is ‘an eerie place: full of skinhead pilgrims decorated with swastikas’. Actually, Predappio – which has been ‘red’ since the war – is a very fine place in the Romagnol Apennines where nightingales sing and which has a bunch of grapes on its coat of arms. The Romagna is like adjacent Tuscany but has yet to be transformed into Chiantishire, so you do not hear English voices at the next table in restaurants, thank God, or Germans singing in the dead of night. As for skinheads, they turn up only for Mussolini anniversaries and behave themselves, unlike skinheads in Clapham or wherever it is Jones comes from.
When Berlusconi makes his so-called gaffes, he is, I feel sure, speaking from the heart. He comes across, therefore, not as a politician but as a human being. How unlike the baleful Alastair Campbell. I was at the same college at Cambridge – Gonville and Caius – as the departing spokesman, at the same time. I recall a dreary figure who sat in the college bar in a military green jumpsuit glaring from behind his bottles of Newkie Brown at anyone he suspected of being guilty – guilty of having gone to public school. I am sure people prefer Berlusconi to Campbell. As I tell him in my column: ‘Bravo, Berlusca, bravo! Speak from your heart and the people will follow.’
In Renaissance Italy, it was a capital offence to cause people to argue with each other. The offence was called zizanium. I know this because at the age of 44 I have just become a father for the first time. Caterina Farrell was born on 20 August. Her mother is Italian and both she and Caterina are creatures of staggering beauty. Reading up on the name Caterina, I came across St Caterina of Siena. In 1375, St Caterina converted a man condemned to death for spreading zizanium as he was being topped, thus ensuring that he went to Heaven. Perhaps Alastair Campbell – as guilty as hell on this one – should make contact with St Caterina.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 13, 2003