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Sunday 13 November 2011

Arrivederci Duce

For much of the last two decades, one man has been Prime Minister of Italy: Silvio Berlusconi, media magnate, serial adulterer, peddler of dishonesty, pillar of corruption, yet nevertheless a great survivor. While he has survived, his country has enjoyed minimal growth, organised crime has flourished – particularly the Camorra in and around Naples – and debt has ballooned.

And now he has tendered his resignation, to the relief of many of his fellow citizens who would rather he had done it earlier. Looking back, one has to wonder what, apart from control of five of the country’s top seven TV stations, making it easier to get away with false accounting and embezzlement, and flunking his response to the Credit Crunch and Euro crisis, he has achieved.

Press freedom – paradoxically for a country with a media man as PM – has declined significantly, while the Heritage/WSJ economic freedom index also shows a decline, to a world ranking of 87th, and 36th out of 43 European countries. The Berlusconi years have seen, above all, so little progress, so little reform. And the man himself has compared himself to a previous Italian leader whose tenure ended badly.

This blog has often referred to Berlusconi as “Duce”, the nickname preferred by Benito Mussolini, who ruled the country as a dictator from 1922 to 1943. But Mussolini at least attempted to benefit his country, despite the violence and intimidation that came with the consolidation of power by the fascists. Berlusconi has been more interested in benefiting himself.

And, as if to confirm my characterisation, Berlusconi has himself made the Mussolini comparison, telling that he has “felt in the same situation”. He has an interesting view of his predecessor, having asserted that Mussolini “never killed anyone ... [he] sent people on holiday in exile”. Thus he has built up the view that he holds a less than complete grip on reality.

But Italy’s progress – or lack of it – under Berlusconi sounds one warning for countries like the UK: we have plenty of powerful and opinionated media figures ever ready to give advice to the Government of the day. “Duce” Berlusconi shows the kind of result we might get if one of them were to get their hands on our own levers of power.

That’s one thought that the Fourth Estate will not be discussing with its readership over the coming weeks.

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