You can bring your friends

I hate to admit it, but some of these Tories talk sense. I heard a Conservative IT guy (Richard Bacon) dissecting the proposed NHS computer system on the radio today, and there wasn’t a word I could dissent from. If you’re designing and building a huge IT system, you just don’t do it like that.

I find I can agree with Tory critiques of the government more and more often these days. I’m not sure why – it could be that the Tories are making an overdue pitch for the libertarian Marxist vote, but I somehow doubt that. Or it could be that I’m, classically, moving Right with age; I doubt that too (but look at the evidence – I’m 45, I’ve got a mortgage and two kids, the effect’s got to kick in some time…) It could be that Labour’s moved so far to the Right that even the Tories have got to attack them from the Left – certainly Mr Bacon’s voting record compares well with that of my own Labour MP. Or it could just be that the last days of Blairism are such an extraordinary panorama of authorianism, incompetence, populism, venality and desperation that they’re an open goal for almost anyone.

But I do say ‘almost’. The Daily Mail are never going to get it right. “Italians dub Blair ‘The Scrounger'”, the Mail on Sunday told us two days ago:

The Mail on Sunday has learned that Downing Street has tacked on an ‘official’ meeting with new Italian Premier Romano Prodi, prompting questions about whether taxpayers will be forced to subsidise the Blairs’ spring break.This time last year, the Prime Minister – whose fondness for free holidays at other people’s homes has earned him the nickname in the Italian media of ‘Lo Scroccone’ (‘The Scrounger’) – flew to and from a similar Italian vacation on a Royal Air Force jet from the Queen’s Flight.

This is either wrong or wrongheaded in just about every way. The Italian story does offer grounds for quite a powerful critique of Blairism, but this isn’t it.

Start with Blair and Prodi. The implication of the Mail‘s story is that Blair is getting chummy with Prodi just as he did with Berlusconi: Blair goes on holiday, Blair meets an Italian Prime Minister, the British taxpayer picks up the tab. But what’s interesting about the meeting with Prodi isn’t that it’s tacked onto a holiday trip. What’s interesting, as the FT pointed out, is that it’s likely to be an extremely frosty meeting.

The most awkward part of Mr Prodi’s round of Euro-diplomacy is likely to be on June 2 when he meets Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, in Rome. Mr Blair had little respect for Mr Prodi when he was Commission president – although he initially nominated him for the post – and spent the last five years courting Mr Berlusconi as an Atlanticist ally. “Our policy is devoted to getting back to the role traditionally played by Italy in European politics,” Mr Prodi said. He would support a pragmatic policy programme in areas such as research and energy but would also back EU integration more than his predecessor did.

Romano Prodi is a former Christian Democrat; he leads the centre-left coalition, but for himself he’s an economic liberal, a time-served Eurocrat and a careful, long-game-playing machine politician. He’s about as much of a leftist as the late Roy Jenkins, in short. But Blair doesn’t get on with him; he won’t be coming to dinner at the villa. Someone else did, though:

San Gimignano (Siena), May 29 – “I’ll have dinner with Tony Blair tonight: a man who has been a friend of mine for years. Therefore, it is a pleasure for me to be here with him and his family” Silvio Berlusconi told journalists shortly before entering Villa Cusona (San Gimignano) few minutes before 8pm.

Berlusconi, whose massive stake in the Italian media should have disqualified him from government in the first place; who would have had a hefty criminal record by now if he had been tried in the English rather than the Italian legal system; and whose actions in government were conspicuously dedicated to maintaining his business empire and warding off criminal prosecution. Berlusconi, who likened himself to Napoleon, described his political opponents as admirers of Mao and Pol Pot, and spoke favourably of Mussolini. Berlusconi, who refused to admit that he had lost this year’s election until two weeks later, refused to congratulate Prodi even then, and who is still talking about one more heave to get the election result reversed. That Berlusconi. Right now I don’t see how any principled Conservative could tolerate Berlusconi as a dinner guest, let alone a leader of a party that’s ostensibly on the Left. But the Blairs still invited him.

For the Mail, though, the story is all in that word scroccone – which made me wonder where it had come from. It’s all over the English-language Web, for sure: googling without Italian sites (blair scroccone -site:it) brought back “Results 1 – 100 of about 569”. It seems to have appeared first in the Independent, from where it was picked up and amplified by assorted blogs (Blairwatch adds that the nickname is used by “the Italian press (left and right)”). Search for sites under the .it TLD only, though, and it looks a bit different: I get “Results 1 – 42 of about 61”, and most of those are references to films whose titles include those words. Trawling through all the results, I only found three pages which actually called Blair a scroccone, and one of them was from a comment thread. Of the other two, one was a leader column unambiguously headed “Tony lo scroccone”; unfortunately this appeared, not in any of the high-profile national dailies, but in a September 2004 issue of a paper called Il Corsivo, which was published in Cagliari (Sardinia) and went bust in February 2005. The Corriere della Sera furnished the second example, which initially looked more hopeful:

hanno affittato gommoni, si sono dotati dei più potenti tele-obiettivi, lo hanno fustigato dandogli dello “scroccone”

Which is to say:

they’ve hired rubber dinghies and fitted themselves out with the most powerful long lenses, then they’ve laid in to him and called him a scrounger

The context here – as with the Il Corsivo comment – is Berlusconi’s 2004 visit to the Blairs’ holiday retreat. Unfortunately the ‘they’ in question are English journalists. The Italian press don’t call Blair a scroccone; what they do report, occasionally, is that the British press call him a scrounger.

Italy’s a bit too close for us to talk about Orientalism, but something similar seems to be at work here: a kind of romance of the swarthy peasant whose rough common sense lets him see through the pretensions that we urban sophisticates fall for, and whose blunt plain speaking lets him puncture them in ways that we would never dare. It’s nonsense, of course – we’re the ones who put the words into the swarthy peasant’s mouth, so we get to say what we want to say, play at being unpretentious and plain-spoken, and congratulate ourselves on our sophistication, all at the same time. It’s awfully useful nonsense, too – properly invoked, it gives an aura of unarguable rightness to any old myth or prejudice.

Or, in this case, any old red herring. The problem with Tony Blair isn’t that he’s a scrounger; the problem is who he scrounges from. If it’s hard to realise quite how right-wing Blair is – quite how removed from the values and culture of the party he leads – one reason is that neither his friends nor his enemies on the old Right have any interest in acknowledging it. Last Monday’s dinner date is a handy yardstick.

Q: What kind of politician is Tony Blair?

A: He’s the kind of politician who, a few days before his first official meeting with Romano Prodi – little more than a month after Prodi narrowly won the most bitterly-contested Italian election for decades – would invite Silvio Berlusconi round for dinner.

No further questions.

[Italians and New Labour – I’m nothing if not predictable. Philosophy tomorrow, I think. Philosophy or 1970s jazz-rock. Terrors of the earth, I’m telling you.]

One Comment

  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 31 May 2006 at 12:43 | Permalink | Reply

    That orientalist tendency definitely does exist with the Italians. Tobias Jones’ ‘The Dark Heart of Italy’ – well, the title says it all, really – dedicates the first couple of chapters to painting the country with a cod-Sciascia fatalism, a kind of hegemonic and monolithic omerta-dominated culturalism.

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