Monday, November 19, 2007

Berlusconi dons the helmet and lifts the sword.

That old friend of Tony Blair is at it again. The man who offered the ex PM of the UK the use of his holiday home and a shoulder to cry on now wants to merge all the centre-right groupings of Italy into one party under, presumably, his leadership.

Mr Berlusconi – one of Italy’s richest men, thinks it is time to for the Italian centre-right “to unite against the old fogeys of politics”.

Mr Berlusconi is no stranger to controversy. He has survived a number of scandals and has been the object of a number of enquiries into alleged shady business dealings. He is also the man behind some, shall we say, ‘colourful’ quotes. Comparing himself to Napoleon, then Jesus Christ. Understatement and restraint would not seem to be two qualities he is in possession of.

What is worth remarking on, regarding Mr Berlusconi’s new initiative, is his assertion that this new party, entitled, The Italian People's Party for Freedom, is to be a “protagonist of freedom and democracy for decades". Which to my ears sounds somewhat chilling. It is almost a threat.

The term ‘freedom and democracy’ is coming to sound like one of those political terms leaders love, such as, ‘joy through work’ or ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It is now bandied about as though it actually means something. It is also generally used in quite an aggressive and confrontational manner.

Democracy is not a political ideal. Neither is it a political ideology. Democracy is a political process. It is a method of government. It comes from Greek, meaning broadly ‘government by the people’. It is not a ready-made. A system that once put in place yields instant results and unites a populace. In fact whenever imposed or transplanted onto a society that has previously not been ‘democratic’ it often has the exact opposite effect to that desired. It disunites and cause a form of political free for all. A populace used to adhering to a centralised or dictatorial system suddenly finds itself with the freedom to indulge every form of political opinion and aspiration. And frequently does- resurrecting old grudges and agendas. Or breaking up along historical or ethnic lines. We forget our societies have developed our understanding of democracy over a long period and in response to differing social pressures and needs. And they are still far from exemplary.

Freedom too is a difficult concept. The reason why, certainly in Europe and North America it has taxed the minds of philosophers for centuries. One person’s freedom can be another’s prison. And freedom is also relative to the special values or principles one culture or people hold in particular importance. Therefore in cultures that hold family and extended family in very high regard, western freedom from family obligations and ties is often seen not as freedom but as chaos and a lack of responsibility. Cultures that hold community as central to identity find our need for ‘individual’ freedom as difficult to understand – certainly to condone.

And this is the problem with the new slogan, ‘freedom and democracy’. Because it is just that. A slogan. Interchangeable with ‘our way of life’. Mr Berlusconi wants his Italian People’s Party for Freedom to be a protagonist for ‘his way of life’. And given his track record it has to be said his instincts would appear to be anything but democratic. In fact based on the evidence one would have to say they are oligarchic. Or at the very least populist.

Mr Berlusconi may call this new party an appeal to the centre right, but in truth it is no more an appeal to centre right than it is an appeal to far right or hard left. Or perhaps all three.

Mr Berlusconi is branding his beliefs with the slogan of our time. "Come with us, against the old fogeys of politics to form a great new party of the people," he says.

We have heard this sort of thing before. Join with us and we will march on the future. The trend in western politics for messianic style crusading is at best unnerving.

Perhaps next time Tony visits he could have a word with Silvio about where this sort of thinking leads. That is when not licking his wounds over Iraq. Another initiative that started with cries of ‘freedom and democracy’.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Nov 2007

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