Sunday, 27 April 2014

Just like Italy, but without the sun: the Berlusconification of British public life

Oops, I've done a silly! But I think I got away with it..
According to a recent YouGov Poll 57 pc of Ukip supporters would prefer to live in continental Europe if they could. Here is the link, go check for yourselves if this seems just too damn ironic for your head not to explode.
But the irony doens't stop there. In many ways Ukip's effect on the public discourse in the UK has brought a little, disfunctional, corner of the continent right on your doorstep. 
 You might still wish to move for the weather and the beaches, but there's no need to go anywhere to experience the dizzying Emperor's New Clothes, world-upside-down, day-is-night and 'everyone's at it', shameless 'whatever'-ness that dominates, for instance, Italian public life. 

I call it the Berlusconification of British media and politics.

Time was when my British husband, during our first few regular trips to my Italian home town, would marvel at the timid reporting of the brazen lies of the Berlusconi regime and the muted reaction of the rest of the political world.  

"I was misquoted", was Silvio's favourite refrain, when caught telling the umpteen porkie, wilfully forgetting that a televised clip  is not an off the record briefing. 

"But everyone heard him say x, didn't they???" my poor husband would ask, bewildered. Or: "Didn't you tell me that the magistrates investigating him have x on tape/ proof of y /testimonies of z?"

My family and I would smile indulgently at the crazy, earnest Englishman with his reverence for facts and reason, logic and consequences.

Berlusconi could promise specific things one day, then deny he ever said anything the next. A trial could find someone else guilty of accepting a bribe from him yet simultaneously clear him of corruption. He could court the Vatican and entertain teen-age lovers. When denial did not work the interpretation of the subject matter would be flipped on its head. You would do it too, if you could. Or: everyone else does it.

His explanations for political failures, disastrous policy outcomes and even, increasingly, the criminal implications of his own behaviour (corrupting judges, paying off members of the opposition ahead of confidence votes, ensuring the silence of loquacious escort girls with political candidatures and sinecures) where noted, like celestial events, but never challenged. "Silvio, what about x?" reporters would bleat. And after a five minute soliloquy there was never a supplementary question.

This is because somewhere along the journey between founding his own personal, private party,  Forza Italia, and becoming Prime Minister (the first of many times), Berlusconi stopped being a person, equal to every other citizen under the law, or a politician, expected to lead by example and to present an impeccable front - at the very least. 

Berlusconi, as any Italian commentator would tell you, with the cynical defeatism that characterises our chattering classes, was a phenomenon. And he was immensely popular. The two things fed into each other and merged into each other: you could not expect the same standards of factual truth or logic or causality to apply to him and his narrative. Plus, taking him on meant annoying his supporters and risking the wrath of his formidable economic, mediatic and financial network.

Now fast-forward to present-day Britain. When no one was looking Nigel Farage arrived seemingly from nowhere with his personal, private band of mavericks, to shake things up. Hopelessly underestimated at first, he then pivoted right into the 'phenomenon' territory. I don't even have to mention the 'immensely popular' bit. 

Having indulged Ukip's leader like he were a mix between stand up comedian, pub bore and old-fashioned family entertainer for the past handful of years, a reflexively anti-European, apathetic media has now woken from its nap and is trying to apply some scrutiny to the guy. But it's far too late. 

Farage is a phenomenon, and yes, immensely popular to boot. It is unwise to challenge him too closely; plus journalistic enquiry is a muscle that needs to be kept exercised - it's no use trying to flex it every five years. 

In the past couple of weeks Farage slithered through allegations of misuse of tax payers' money relatively unscathed and received phenomenal free advertising for his ridiculously over the top posters on all public and private channels. His ratings are up, people.

"But Nigel, aren't you sorry? But Nigel, aren't these posters racists?" Cue indignant or sardonic soliloquy. There is no cogent supplementary question, ever. The reporters following him around haven't a clue about the reality Nigel is bending, cannot tell fact from fiction and -frankly- are no longer paid to care. None of the media outlets employing them wants to annoy his supporters, many of whom are also viewers/readers. 

Cynical defeatism is now the default setting of the British chattering classes too. Explaning how Europe  (Nigel's totemic raison d'etre) works, exploring whether it is reformable and what we stand to gain or lose by staying or going, (validating or puncturing Nigel's arguments, in other words), is considered terribly earnest, unwise and frankly pointless too. 

So should Nigel, the phenomenon, sweep unchallenged into victory at the EU and local election, brace yourself for a sharp turn into Emperor's new Clothes, world-upside-down, night-is-day territory by the rest of the political class.

Mainstream parties will likely react to defeat by basing future policies and diplomatic efforts on Nigel's fantastical version of reality. Such policies, by definition, will not resolve imaginary problems nor address real ones. Such meaningless negotiations cannot result in meaningful deals.

All but the most blinkered or ideological of politicians and commentators will know this but it won't matter: they won't be able to afford to care about that. It will be Nigel's world - we'll be just living in it.



  1. Spot on, and well written. It amazes me that the media allows Nige to get away with being part of the establishment, whilst still promoting his rebel new kid on the block image.