Contemporary Italian Politics
James L. Newell, Silvio Berlusconi: A study in failure, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019, 248 pp., £80.000 (hardback), ISBN: 978-07-190-7597-1
The question is, as the author of this excellent book puts it, Can one consider Silvio Berlusconi to be ‘a remarkable politician’? Berlusconi’s answer would probably be prefaced by a sudden and scornful rejection of the word ‘politician’. He would emphasize above all his stature as an entrepreneur and, having joined the political fray, would define his role as that of a statesman. In both fields, Berlusconi and his many acolytes would immediately add that he has been ‘successful’, extremely successful, more successful than anybody else in Italy and, possibly, than anybody in any other European democracy. In a way, Newell’s book is designed to call into question exactly what is most cherished by Berlusconi: his success obtained thanks to hard work, intelligence, devotion to ‘a certain idea of Italy’ (I am on purpose paraphrasing the first sentence of de Gaulle’s Memoirs), and his intense desire to improve the country and the lives of his fellow citizens.
Newell gives the reader an anticipation of what he will admirably do in his book by stating that ‘the basic argument is that Berlusconi is significant far more for what his career tells us about Italian politics and how it has unfolded over the past quarter century than for how he has changed it’ (13). The first chapter is devoted to a precise and succinct analysis, full of details and interesting comments, of the entrepreneur and his successes up to his decision to ‘take to the field’. The second chapter deals with Berlusconi’s political message, attempting to identify whether, as a set of attitudes and beliefs, what has often been referred to as Berlusconismo is in any way distinctive. The answer is substantially negative. At most Berlusconismo has amounted to a combination of elements of populism; anti-political and anti-establishment statements and behaviours; expressions of support for individualism, entrepreneurship and the market. In politics, Berlusconismo revealed itself to be ‘anti-liberal in its attitude to political competition … and in its lack of tolerance of institutional checks and balances … but it has not seriously pursued a project of regime change’ (49). Repeatedly, Newell stresses that indeed one of Berlusconi’s most glaring faults has been his inability to reform the political and institutional system he was constantly blaming for frustrating his reformist elan. Newell’s reproach is not entirely fair because in 2005 Berlusconi (and his centre-right coalition) did proceed to a significant reform of the Italian Constitution, affecting 56 of its 138 articles, only to see voters, mobilized by the centre left, decisively reject it in a referendum.
The 1994 transformation of the Italian party system offered Berlusconi the chance to enter politics or, as many commentators wrote at the time, almost obliged him to create a political vehicle in order to protect his many interests against a likely electoral victory of the unreconstructed Communists, the former Communists, the post-Communists. Assessing his sizeable electoral victory, Newell writes: ‘Berlusconi’s achievement was entirely without precedent’ (63). Indeed, no party making its debut in an electoral competition in any European democracy has ever done as well either before or since. Still, too often does Newell underplay Berlusconi’s electoral achievement and his significant capacity to act as a coalition-maker without which the Italian centre right would not (have) exist(ed). Was Berlusconi just adroitly exploiting three major trends already under way: the personalization, mediatization and presidentialisation of politics? Most certainly – but much better than anybody else: not a minor accomplishment. Thanks to a number of serious political mistakes and an abrupt about-face on the part of the Lega Nord, Berlusconi was in December 1994 ousted after a few months in government and subsequently lost the April 1996 elections. I remember at the time being asked by many sceptical journalists whether he would remain in politics and play the role of leader of the opposition, or whether he would return to his cherished occupations of media magnate and owner of the highly successful football team, AC Milan. My answer was that he had invested quite a lot in his ‘political’ career and, in any case, he badly wanted a rivincita, not a revenge, but a rematch.
The road from 1996 to 2001 was a very long one, but Berlusconi ‘crossed the desert’ (incidentally, this expression was used by General de Gaulle who laboured for twelve long years, from 1946 to 1958, to cross his own desert) and won an unprecedented parliamentary majority in 2001. Newell considers Berlusconi’s role as party leader (founder and owner of Forza Italia) not so significant and not so innovative as most scholars have claimed. ‘Many of [Forza Italia’s] distinguishing features were, by the turn of the century, to be found in most if not all of the major parties in Italy’ (79). I am not convinced; and, even if I agree that ‘FI is [should be?] more accurately seen as the expression of general processes of political and social change’ (80), I would stress that more than any other Italian and non-Italian political organization, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia interpreted and exploited those changes.
Berlusconi led the longest-serving Italian government, which remained in office for 1,413 days, from 11 June 2001 to 23 April 2005. In fact, he was the Prime Minister of Italy four times, for more than eight years in total. Newell goes a long way towards exposing and analysing Berlusconi’s efforts to defend himself from the judiciary, and at the end of his meticulous tour de force cannot refrain from asking: ‘How was it possible that a man with Berlusconi’s background, profile and credentials could so dominate, for so long, the politics of an advanced industrial democracy?’ (109). The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind, but is to be found in the nature of Italian society. Here, indeed, Newell, who knows better, has identified and highlighted a fair amount of disregard for the distinction between the private and the public spheres; widespread acceptance of major and minor conflicts of interests; heightened levels of individualism and acquisitiveness; more than just a few residues of amoral familism. It is in the light of these elements that one can, perhaps, appreciate the very limited impact that Berlusconi the head of government has had on the Italian political and economic system. His very poor performance can also be attributed to the fact that his ‘ambitions did not really extend much beyond securing his own interest as a private citizen’ (173). Or, perhaps, he did want to go down in history as the best Italian Prime Minister ever, but when forced to choose between his private interests and his public role, he always chose the first.
A man having enjoyed a tremendous amount of power for a long period of time, even when in opposition, is bound to leave a legacy affecting the quality of Italian democracy. In a beautifully crafted chapter, intelligently providing his criteria for a sober and convincing evaluation, Newell comes to a highly negative conclusion. Probably contrary to his intentions, he somewhat softens his judgement by repeatedly stressing that Berlusconi has intercepted and perpetuated ‘tendencies and trends already present in Italian society’ (196). I would go farther, stressing that Berlusconi has boosted and aggravated existing tendencies and trends. It is a small consolation to find that the president of one of the two oldest and most revered democracies of the world, the United States, shares several features with Berlusconi who in a way can be considered Donald Trump’s precursor. ‘Italy has given to the world a leader of unusual qualities that then reappear, more strongly, in another leader elsewhere’ (211, God save the Queen!). There is much to learn and to challenge in Newell’s outstanding book, well documented, full of ideas, very readable, and quite provocative.
Yes I do have a conflict of interest. I have been in the past and hope to be in the future a contributor to the many important initiatives launched by my friend James Newell.