Benito Mussolini was born and is buried in the Apennine village of Predappio, between Bologna and Florence. It is here, in this Fascist Bethlehem, where I have spent the past five years working on my biography of the dictator.
Every now and again, as I wander about town, my mind drifts from Mussolini and Fascism, the subject in hand, to another matter: Tony Blair and New Labour. Odd, but I cannot help noticing that Blair and Mussolini have rather a lot in common. I am not saying that Blair has consciously copied Mussolini. But Blair, probably without even realising it, does seem to have imbibed quite a few things from the Duce.
For a start, Blair extols the virtues of the Third Way, which was the phrase coined by the Fascists, no less, to describe their alternative to capitalism and communism. Blair began as a left-wing pacifist and became a right-wing warmonger. He is dictatorial and ignores Parliament if he can and he is a master of propaganda (spin). He is also a bit of a musician - always a dangerous sign in a politician - and plays the electric guitar. So was Mussolini. He played the violin.
Before Mussolini, the region where I live - the Red Romagna - was left-wing and it reverted to type after its most famous son had gone. Left-wing politics is in the blood around here and it did not take my left-wing Italian friends long to figure Blair out. "Blair is not one of us. He is our enemy," they say.
On the face of it, though, Blair and Mussolini would appear to have little in common: Mussolini was a serial womaniser who fought duels. He was also a serious intellectual and historian, even though he was from a poor family and did not go to university. Blair, on the other hand, is a pious, church-going family man who, though middle-class and Oxford-educated, does not know his history. Blair is called Tony - which hardly matches up to Benito as a name for a dictator.
Let the facts speak for themselves. Both men started out as left-wingers but to get power both moved right. Then, to keep power, they both moved righter still. Both marketed themselves as of the left. But their product was not of the left. It was something else.
People, especially people on the left, tend to forget - presumably because it is inconvenient to remember - that Mussolini was a revolutionary socialist before he was anything else. They forget, too, that he founded Fascism not as a right-wing dictatorship but as a left-wing revolutionary movement that provided an alternative first to socialism then to communism.
When, during the second Bill Clinton presidency, Blair and Clinton started holding summits on the Third Way, they really were verging on the truly Fascist. The Fascist Third Way between capitalism and communism aimed to abolish class war and replace it with class collaboration. This meant the promotion of the productive elements in society from whatever class and the abolition of the parasitical elements from whatever class.
The means by which the Fascists attempted to impose their Third Way was the corporate state. This did not involve the nationalisation of the workplace as in Marxist-inspired solutions, but its incorporation. Shareholders, whether in the form of the state or private individuals, still owned the means of production. Both workers and bosses, however, were members of the corporations that ran enterprises, with the state acting as referee if the need arose.
The Fascist corporate state was never really tried. But one finds traces of its corporatist ideas in Blair's Government. The Prime Minister has quickly but quietly dropped the phrase "Third Way" from the vocabulary. But he talks, with mounting frenzy, of "public-private partnerships".
I assume that Clinton and Blair were unaware of the Fascist origins of their much-talked-about crusade for a Third Way. Otherwise, surely they would have run a mile before associating themselves with such a phrase. But the similarities between Blair and Mussolini do not just end there.
Take their respective attitudes to war. Like Blair, who was a member of CND, Mussolini started out as a pacifist and led anti-war demonstrations. He even went to jail for six months after an anti-war demonstration in 1911 in which he was responsible for criminal damage to trains and railway lines at Forli, the provincial capital near his birthplace.
But it was war (the issue being whether or not Italy should enter the First World War) that caused Mussolini to abandon the Socialist Party. The socialists wanted no truck with what they saw as a bourgeois war. Mussolini, on the other hand, like Lenin, realised its revolutionary potential.
His refusal to toe the party line led to his expulsion from the Socialist Party in 1914. "You cannot get rid of me, because I am, and always will be, a socialist. You hate me because you still love me," Mussolini shout- ed above the din at the Milan meeting where his fate was decided.
Events were to prove Mussolini right. The Socialist Party refused to change its policy and was consigned to the political wilderness. Mussolini got power and then went on to make a name for himself as warmonger in not such a totally different way from Blair.
For like Mussolini, Blair has ended up declaring aggressive and legally dubious wars amid much protest from grassroots members of his own party. Neither his war in Kosovo nor that in Iraq had a UN mandate. In war, like Mussolini, Blair has played second fiddle to a greater force; in Mussolini's case Hitler, in Blair's case, first Clinton, and now George Bush.
But it is in the field of propaganda - or spin, as it is known these days - that the similarities between Mussolini and Blair are perhaps most apparent. Mussolini was a brilliant journalist and orator. It might be said that he was both the first tabloid newspaper editor and the first spin doctor. His aim was to instill faith in Fascism among Italians. For, as he was so fond of saying, Fascism was "a religious conception of life" and "faith moves mountains".
This idea of the political importance of myth creation came from an important late 19th-century work, La Psychologie des Foules (The Psychology of the Crowd), by the French socialist Gustave Le Bon. The crowd, argued Le Bon, was moved not by reason but by emotion. Blair, too, has created a myth - New Labour - that bore Labour to power and his speeches, especially at times of crisis, reflect the Mussolini creed, appealing more to emotion than reason. "If I believe this, you must believe it," he says in a trembling voice, his face full of anguish.
A phrase Mussolini often used to describe the Italian parliament was that it was "invincibly nauseous". Fascism transformed political participation from an isolated act involving the ballot box into a daily act of religious faith. Blair has not - heavens, no - abolished democracy as Mussolini did, but democracy has diminished under Blair. The Opposition languishes in torpid impotence. The Prime Minister appears increasingly to resemble some whacky kind of cult leader. He avoids debate in Parliament if he can. He talks to the people direct, via television, as Mussolini did via the piazza. Mussolini was famous for his balcony speeches - his "dialogues with the crowd". A modern Mussolini would not need to do anything so obvious as to tackle democracy head on. He could just side-step it with spin.
Mussolini's attitude towards the people at times of war bears more than a passing resemblance to Blair's decision to ride roughshod over the clear majority view that was opposed to war against Iraq. Mussolini wrote in a preface to an edition of Machiavelli's The Prince that popular sovereignty, even in a democracy, was "a cardboard crown". "You see," wrote Mussolini, "the sovereignty graciously extended to the people is snatched back from them at times when its need is realised. It is left in their hands only when it is innocuous or it is felt to be so, namely in times of normal administration... Can you imagine a war being declared by referendum?"
British journalists based in Italy are desperate to portray Berlusconi, the media magnate who became Italian Prime Minister, as a modern-day Fascist. They do this because that is the fashionable thing to do. As a result, they criticise Blair "the socialist" for cosying up to Berlusconi "the Fascist". But the truth is that Blair is closer to Fascism than Berlusconi. Berlusconi is a mild Thatcherite. He may own much of the media, but he does not control it. You just have to watch Italian television to see that. It is incredibly biased in favour of the left.
Berlusconi does not have half the power that Blair has. His majority is much smaller and he relies on coalition partners to sustain his majority.
Distinctions such as "right" and "left" are tricky, of course, because they have a strange tendency to meet up at either extreme. Far right, for example, often equals far left. So instead of dealing with a line, one finds oneself dealing with a circle.
Indeed, despite all the uncanny similarities between the two leaders, there are, of course many differences, not the least of which is that Blair is in many ways more right-wing. Mussolini, for example, founded Italy's welfare state. Presumably, most people would agree that such a move was fairly left-wing. Blair, on the other hand, is doing his best not just to hack away at the welfare state but also at workplace rights traditionally regarded by the left as sacred. Clause Four - the Labour Party's commitment to common ownership of the means of production - went years ago and Blair has forged an axis with the European Union's two Thatcherite leaders, José Maria Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi, to make the labour market in Europe more flexible - making it, for example, easier to sack people.
While Blair has doggedly pursued Daily Mail-reading Sierra Man, Mussolini despised the middle classes above all (like all left-wingers, he called them the bourgeoisie) even more than communists, whom he called "state capitalists", because his view was that the middle classes were riddled with parasites. They lived, Mussolini sneered, "la vita comoda", the comfortable life.
And unlike Mussolini, Tony Blair has not made the trains run on time.
Nicholas Farrell's 'Mussolini: A new life' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25)Reuse content