A tale of two revolutions

It was 25 years ago when Nigel Farage started out as a parliamentary candidate, taking the first steps to a very British revolution. At the same time, Italy began a revolution against corruption. One revolution succeeded, the other did not

Demonstrating in Italy
Tim Hedges
On 26 February 2017 17:15

Twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five. It makes me feel old. We had set up the Anti-Federalist League, which would become UKIP, and were preparing for elections in April 1992.

John Major, little more than a year after taking over from an ousted Margaret Thatcher, would submit himself to the electorate, seemingly without a chance. He won, but quietly the Eurosceptic movement grew, with the results we see today.

I had just signed off the candidate’s application of a keen recruit called Nigel Farage. ‘Bliss it was to be alive that dawn, but to be young was very Heaven’, as Wordsworth wrote of another revolution, just over two hundred years earlier.

In Italy there was also a revolution taking place, noisier and even more profound. On 17th February, 1992, a socialist politician called Mario di Chiesa, of no particular note to the public, was arrested on the orders of judge Antonio di Pietro, accused of receiving bribes from a cleaning company.

His colleagues, including party leader Bettino Craxi, disowned him vociferously.

Di Chiesa was incensed at being ostracised for what, he felt, was a peccadillo everyone was up to. Invited to give examples, he did, and soon began to sing like a canary.

There followed hundreds of arrests of senior figures in industry and all sides of politics. Several MPs committed suicide. The people were, naturally, sickened.

In the elections that year the vote of the ruling Christian Democrats fell by 50 percent. The Government of Giulio Amato resigned and was replaced by a government of experts.

Eventually, all five major political parties, which had ruled Italy in coalition since the war, disappeared. Craxi, the leader of the Socialist Party, was also accused of corruption and resigned. He admitted that his party had received $93 million in illegal aid. He would later be sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Craxi had lived in the upmarket Hotel Raphael, near the Piazza Navona. I once asked who paid for this and the answer was ‘Well, I paid a bit, you paid a bit..’

He had two important friends; one was Zine Ben Ali, President of Tunisia, who gave him sanctuary when he fled justice. It was said that Craxi’s last act was to dismantle one of the fountains of Rome and have it exported to his villa in Hammamet, where he would die in 2000, a fugitive.

The investigation was called Mani Pulite, clean hands, and dozens of politicians, scores of policemen and hundreds of businessmen were convicted. More would have gone down if it weren’t for the delaying tactics exercised by politicians of both sides: the Establishment fought tooth and nail to protect its own. Mani Pulite marked the end of Italy’s First Republic, which had lasted since the war.

Craxi’s other friend was a millionaire businessman called Silvio Berlusconi. He had made his money building a suburb to Milan, called Milan 2, and starting a cable TV company. Eventually he busted the governmental monopoly on nationwide TV advertising and became richer than the Agnelli family, which owned FIAT.

Berlusconi made his own political run by forming his Forza Italia! (Go Italy!) party from the political wreckage in 1993. He was clever and successful, had evaded Mani Pulite, and was thought by many to be incorruptible due to his extreme wealth.

Silvio won the 1994 elections and was Prime Minister four times, the only person since Mussolini to maintain a government for its full five year term. He was deposed in 2011 and was the last Prime Minister to have been elected as such; his successors Monti, Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni never having presented themselves to the electorate as party leader.

Berlusconi was not, of course, as incorruptible as the electorate had supposed. He was sentenced to four years for tax evasion, had several corruption trials cancelled under the statute of limitations, and has several cases still pending.

Was it worth it? Today the official figure for institutional corruption in Italy, published by the Court of Accounts, is €60 billion annually of which, on average, around €15 million worth, a fortieth of a percent, is punished.

Italy ranks 47th in the World Corruption Index, well behind Rwanda, Namibia and Jordan.

So, there were two revolutions a quarter of a century ago, in Italy and Britain. The first, hot blooded and urgent, seems to have produced little of value. The British version was slower and, we must hope, longer lasting.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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