As I for one predicted, the defenestration of Silvio Berlusconi last November in a palace coup orchestrated by Europe’s bores has made no difference. Italy may well be governed by a dour former economics professor, Eurocrat and international adviser to Goldman Sachs, Mario Monti, but Italy is still in a total mess.
So I greeted the news that Silvio il Magnifico, as I call him, will stand for the fourth time as Premier in the next general election by trying to high-five my Italian wife Carla in the kitchen. ‘Dammi un cinque!’ I shouted.
Bravo Silvio! Che uomo! Yes, Il Cavaliere (the Knight) is a bit long in the tooth. He will be 76 in September and has survived not just prostate cancer but Italy’s cancerous judges and lynch-mob lefty media, any of which would have finished off lesser mortals years ago.
And yes, ovviamente, Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man and owner of three of its four national private television channels, is a very controversial figure. But the Italians are a controversial people. The question is this: who else if not il Cav can govern Italy as elected prime minister? I cannot think of anyone. And I am sure that is why, like the gecko that waits for hour after hour on the wall as if dead until the fly comes within range and then pounces, he bided his time to see which political figure if any would emerge as a potential prime minister. When none did, he seized his moment.
Since Berlusconi resigned, I have more or less given up watching Italian television or reading Italian newspapers. All I need to know is that Italy is up the creek without a paddle thanks to its fatal decision — taken by the left-wing Italian government of the time — to abandon the lira in favour of the euro in 2001.
Berlusconi, they say, who was Prime Minister three times, had years to sort out Italy’s economic problems and he failed. Yes, but no one else could have sorted them out either. He had a better chance of doing so than anyone else, but did not fail because, as the Times declared on Tuesday, ‘what time he spared from the adornment of his person was devoted to the neglect of his duties’. Silvio is a workaholic, a self-made multi-billionaire who idolised Margaret Thatcher. But Italians, like so many in the West, are addicted to big government. Too many people even within Silvio’s coalition, let alone in the media and in the workplace, opposed his attempts to make cuts and lower taxes. Italy’s constitution, written just after the war with the memory of Fascist dictatorship very much in mind, gives few executive powers to the Prime Minister alone — they go to the Cabinet as a whole — and the electoral system is designed to stop one party dominating.
Since Berlusconi’s departure, however, the disgust Italians feel towards their politicians has reached potentially violent levels. Incredibly, the only politician whose star has been rising in Italy is a raucous rabble-rousing professional comedian called Beppe Grillo who looks like an ageing rock-star. His slogan is ‘Vaffanculo!’ to everything, as far as I can tell, except wind farms. The young, especially lefty atheists, cannot get enough of him.
A recent opinion poll showed support for Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo Delle Libertà, is at just 17 per cent. But that poll was conducted last week before the news emerged that Berlusconi, having said he would resign from politics, had now changed his mind.
His traditional enemy, the Partito Democratico, has not benefited from his departure from political life. It has only 25.5 per cent support and is led by an old-style ‘ex’ communist. There is no one else.
The ranting Grillo is right up there in second place, well ahead of Popolo Delle Libertà, with 20.9 per cent. But surely no country on earth could elect the Latin equivalent of Billy Connolly as Prime Minister? Not even a country as weird and wonderful as Italy? The same opinion poll showed that 40 per cent of Italians were either undecided or would abstain if an election were held now.
Berlusconi, the Euro-bores and the leader-writers would doubtless argue, was a professional comedian as well, and worse, a corrupt dirty old man. But what non-Italians need to ask themselves is this: how come, then, the majority of Italians wanted Berlusconi as their prime minister? And it is no good saying that they were all brainwashed by his television channels and newspapers. He owns three out of seven television channels but they are left-wing regardless of him. He does own newspapers which are very pro him — but just two.
Anyway, let’s not beat about the bush: in Italy, as in all the countries around the Mediterranean which are imprisoned inside the eurozone, there is little governments can do to sort out their disastrous economies except condemn their citizens to penury; either that, or leave the euro, which they will not do until things get even worse, which of course they will.
All that the non-elected prime minister Monti has done is to raise taxes and invent new taxes, thereby stifling economic growth even more, and at the same time bore everyone into a trance-like state while he repeats his hypnotist’s mantra: ‘tax after tax, after tax, after tax’.
This does not even keep the markets quiet. The spread between German and Italian ten-year bonds hovers just below the default level of 500 points (on Monday it was 488) just as it did when ‘they’ decided to get rid of Berlusconi last November.
Monti has not dared to do anything to tackle Italy’s stratospheric public debt, the third highest in the world as a percentage of GDP. In fact, debt has increased from €1.8 trillion at the start of his watch to €1.9 trillion (123 per cent of GDP). Last week the credit agency Moody’s downgraded the Italian government’s bond rating from A3 to Baa2 (two notches above junk status and only one above Spain’s). And Italy, according to latest Bank of Italy’s forecasts, will enjoy negative growth this year of 2 per cent.
Meanwhile, the last of the outstanding trials in which Berlusconi is a defendant, such as the notorious ‘Bunga Bunga’ one, are, like all those before them, collapsing for lack of evidence. How on earth do you prove that a man of 75 who has had prostate cancer paid a 17-year-old girl called Ruby the Heart Stealer for sex when both of them deny it? Did anyone see them at it? Of course not.
Il Cavaliere has now reached his El Cid moment. But unlike the Castillian knight, as he rides out one more time to lead his men into battle, Silvio il Magnifico is not dead. He is very much alive and kicking.