Berlusconi and Blair: an open letter to Anthony Barnett

6 May 2003

Dear Anthony Barnett,

I am an Italian who has been working in the City of London for many years: a conservative at heart. As time goes by I am more and more convinced that free market capitalism and democracy go hand in hand.

As a believer in democratic capitalism, I think that the case against Saddam was just. I followed with great interest openDemocracy’s debate on the war. You may argue that it is madness to impose enlightenment values (freedom, tolerance, open markets, rule of law) on an Islamic country. But I think it a worthwhile experiment. Even if Baghdad ends up short of a Bill of Rights, this quest for greater variety, tolerance and justice, for as long as it lasts, is no bad thing. Even were the motives behind this drive to war just plain wrong, it is clear that after the event, the so-called ‘coalition’ did the right thing in smashing a horrible dictatorship.

It may be typically Italian of me to indulge in such a wordy introduction: but I have a reason for this. Actually, I am writing to tell you that I myself am ashamed of having an appalling government: one that is steadily turning into the kind of regime which might one day add Italy to the list of those countries where ‘regime change’ would only be too welcome. How else am I to begin to put into words the embarrassment I feel at the spectacle of Tony Blair kissing and hugging the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, outside number ten Downing Street?

Trails of power, paths of deceit

Am I going too far? The day before the meeting between these two politicians, Berlusconi’s closest associate and former Italian minister of defence, Cesare Previti, was sentenced to eleven years in prison for corruption. This was for bribing judges in the late 1980s, while pocketing a cool £8 million in return for finessing the outcome of a trial revolving around a dispute between the state and the heirs of SIR, an Italian company, over a £300 million mega-transaction.

This trial was linked to a second court case where Previti acted on behalf of Silvio Berlusconi himself. Here, Previti stands accused of helping his boss take over the publishing company, Mondadori, by bribing the judges. Luckily for Berlusconi, he will not appear in the witness box, having managed to secure the statutes exempting him.

A third case involves the same pair: this time, in the takeover battle for SME, a state-controlled food company. Business tycoon Carlo De Benedetti reached an agreement with Romano Prodi, then head of IRI, the SME State holding company, for his £200 million offer in 1985. The then prime minister, Bettino Craxi, opposed the sale, encouraging his friend Berlusconi to oppose De Benedetti’s plans. In 1986, a court ruled against De Benedetti, preventing him from buying the company; according to the Milan judges, it was again Cesare Previti who fixed that sentence. Berlusconi did not buy SME either: he pulled out of the deal. Only in 1993-94 was the company broken up and sold to different buyers.

On Monday, Berlusconi appeared in the Milan courts to argue that he deserved a medal for obstructing De Benedetti, who was on the point, thanks to state favouritism, of procuring the company at a very low price. Berlusconi hinted at corruption behind the deal. In the process of defending himself, Berlusconi – the coming president of the European Council when Italy assumes its six-month presidency in July – has had to point the accusing finger at many other people, including Romano Prodi, current president of the EU Commission. This is a deep and dangerous game.

Soon after the judges’ verdict on Previti, just before the Blair embrace, Berlusconi launched a furious volley against the Italian judges, accusing them in turn of undermining the Italian government, and pledging revenge. The National Association of Magistrates reacted angrily, charging the prime minister with challenging the very legitimacy of the Italian judicial system. This stand-off has plunged Italy into a serious crisis.

Silvio Berlusconi and his associates, who have a parliamentary majority, are now attempting to reintroduce a parliamentary immunity lifted in 1993, when the extent of the corruption in Italian politics was first laid bare. Once this measure goes through, it will be impossible to pass any further judgment on this group of operators.

Many Italians are flabbergasted. Sentiments are running very high. Those who oppose Berlusconi, thinking he bribed his way to power, have once again locked horns with those who allege that he is the victim of a judicial persecution inspired by former communist forces. Until now, Berlusconi has defended himself and his associates from charges of tax evasion simply by arguing that it was the only way to survive as a poor Italian entrepreneur in the corrupt state that was 1980s Italy.

These recent trials, however, have made it impossible to ignore the steady encouragement to this endemic corruption which Berlusconi and his acolytes offered. Too many sordid details are emerging every day from these trials to make his protestations of innocence convincing.

An overweening ambition

For a conservative like me, this is a rude awakening: even the most libertarian thinker will tell you that contracts must be honoured if we are to avoid the law of the jungle. When Berlusconi paints himself a defender of free markets, he seems to me to confuse the ideal of market freedom with a very different personal freedom on his part: to tyrannise his neighbour.

A conservative such as myself is against all forms of dictatorial control on the grounds that they destroy variety, kill democracy, inhibit market freedom and impoverish civil life. Berlusconi is a one-man monopolist at the centre of a titanic conflict of interest, who owns three TV channels at the same time as leading a government which controls a further three; as if all this were not enough, he has even managed to fill the top posts in a seventh independent channel with his own friends. Berlusconi is utterly consistent in doing virtually nothing to promote market openness. He is a living personification of anti-competitive behaviour.

Since Berlusconi took power, the privatisation process has virtually ground to a halt. Government allies (former fascists and the Northern League) now talk openly of the need to defend ‘national champions’. Independent market-regulating bodies have seen the reduction of their powers, in favour of strengthened government control. This anti-market attitude contrasts with the keen determination the prime minister has shown in changing all the laws (including one on fraudulent accounting which is now much more lenient) that could threaten his own personal interests.

This pattern of behaviour has a wider reach. On 25 April, the day of celebration of Italy’s liberation from fascism in 1945, Berlusconi decided to ‘go on holiday’, reasoning that the process has been habitually hijacked by the left, which played a significant historical role in the liberation. This cleared the way for some of his former fascist allies to attempt a revision of such terrible stories as that of Marzabotto, a village where Nazis killed dozen of civilians in retaliation against a partisan attack. The ex-fascists now ventured to suggest that the Nazis were provoked into this action. But this initiative badly backfired on them, when it emerged that Silvio’s second wife, Veronica, a former soft porn star who possesses both common sense and judgment, had written a heartfelt piece for the leftist magazine Micromega in memory of her grandfather, who was killed in Marzabotto!

A missed opportunity

To conclude, dear Anthony Barnett, I do not understand why Berlusconi is finding himself praised by George Bush and even hugged by Tony Blair. I understand the need of international alliances and Realpolitik; but in fact they are here cherishing a bond with a man who has no enthusiasm for the allied effort during the second world war, who despises competition and free markets, and who is setting up a soft Orwellian dictatorship-by-media: a man who from the start was at odds with the rule of law, which he equates with ‘communism’, in exactly the same way as the Mafia used to do.

What has Blair got in return? Moral support for the Iraq war, with an insignificant commitment amounting to a few hundred soldiers for peacekeeping missions, scarcely more than a dozen other (and far smaller) states contributed; and support for the Lisbon agenda on European economic reform (somewhat compromised by Berlusconi’s negligence in reforming the Italian economy).

In exchange for such virtual pledges, Berlusconi acquires legitimacy on the world stage, impressing his electorate with the high regard in which he is now held. That is the greatest favour you could do a man who seeks to close a historic window of opportunity that was presented to Italy: to rid itself of the excesses of three forces – the left, Catholicism, and neo-fascism – in order to become a normal country: more tolerant, market-friendly, intellectually open and law-abiding.

This is the opportunity Silvio Berlusconi has squandered.

Berlusconi should be publicly named and shamed rather than embraced. I am not alone in thinking and feeling this. Many other Italians working in the City of London share my sentiment. That is why so many of us are here in the first place. These are people who have more sophisticated ambitions than Italy’s backward domestic financial market can satisfy in the foreseeable future. This too is thanks to Berlusconi, who is in no hurry at all to improve matters: who now instead is a major part of the problem.

Yours sincerely,


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