Friday, 14 April 2006


Tribune column, 14 April 2006

 If, as seems likely, Silvio Berlusconi is on his way out as Italian prime minister, it will soon be time to crack open a bottle in celebration.

Of course, it’s not clear that we have seen the back of him: as I write, he is refusing to concede defeat and demanding that spoilt votes be recounted. But as things stand it appears that the centre-left has beaten him. And that is a Good Thing.

It’s not that Romano Prodi, the leader of the centre-left, is the answer to all of Italy’s dreams. He’s a dull cove, familiar from his none-too-successful stints as Italian PM in the late 1990s and then as president of the European Commission until 18 months ago. Nor is Prodi’s coalition too promising: it takes in everyone from bits of the old Christian Democrat centre-right to bits of the hardcore Leninist left, and it’s as unstable as unstable can be. Just about all that the disparate elements of Prodi’s supporting cast agree on is that they want Berlusconi out. The narrowness of the centre-left’s victory – if victory it is – is also something of a surprise: the opinion polls taken before the poll-free end of the campaign had suggested that the centre-left had a clear lead. This too could make life difficult for Prodi, particularly in the upper house of parliament.

But Prodi is (a) a democrat; (b) a ­moderate social reformer; (c) not a media magnate; and (d) not, as far as we know, a crook. Even if he runs an incompetent administration that fails miserably to address any of Italy’s problems, he ­starts with advantages over Berlusconi. 

Berlusconi is – I hope was – a disgrace to democratic politics. He made his way to the top in business during the 1970s and 1980s by developing an unhealthily close relationship with Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, which was then in power as the minor partner in a coalition dominated by the Christian Democrats. Craxi in turn gave him the breaks to become effective controller of commercial television in Italy. Under investigation for corruption and with his old allies on the ropes, Berlusconi in 1994 made one of the most cynical entries into electoral politics a media baron has ever made, using his media empire to create and promote – from nothing – a populist right-wing party, Forza Italia, that won the subsequent general election in coalition with the separatist Northern League and the post-fascist National Alliance.

His first administration soon collapsed, and Berlusconi made way for the centre-left, which won the 1996 general election. But he was back in 2001 – despite having several corruption charges outstanding – and for the past five years has ruled the roost through patronage and bullying, again in league with the National Alliance.

 The most disgraceful thing about Berlusconi is not however his manner, his friends or indeed his business methods. It is the fact that, as prime minister, he has controlled something like 90 per cent of Italian broadcasting, owning three channels and appointing the controllers of state broadcasting. Such a concentration of media power makes a mockery of democracy – and breaking it down should be one of Prodi’s most urgent tasks.

 * * *

On the domestic front, all the hoo-hah over Adair Turner’s proposals on pensions has got me thinking about how I’m going to survive in my old age. And after looking at the statement from my pension scheme, I reckon that I’m going to be one of those pensioners who have to rely on the state pension and means-tested benefits. After 25 years of working my occupational pension is utterly pathetic. Now, that might change in the next 20 years if I stick in the same scheme and keep up the payments – but it might not even then, and I can’t really see the point of saving like crazy if all it’s going to mean is that I’m not entitled to means-tested benefits.

OK, if I give up on saving completely, I’m vulnerable to a future government changing the pensions regime to remove means-testing. But as things stand I am one of many people who feel a disincentive to save because I think it will probably be all right on the night. To read much of the commentary on the future of pensions, you’d think I was the lowest form of life. Virtuous people are thrifty people who put money aside and never become a burden on the state. I can’t be bothered to save because I reckon that hard-working taxpayers will bail me out in the end.

Could anything be more degenerate? But I look at it another way. Were it not for us non-savers, the British economy would be in a far worse state. The high levels of consumer demand we sustain keep millions in work. Surely our selfless consumption should be rewarded generously when we hit 65?