Enter the Independent Republic of Padania

The antics of Italy's northern secessionists are starting to look serious, writes Andrew Gumbel
In the affluent plains of northern Italy, in the fields and on the factory shop-floors, in the picture-postcard medieval towns and sprawling industrial suburbs, the countdown to revolution has begun. The grievance: anger and frustration at the costly ineptitude of central government in Rome. The goal: nothing less than the establishment of an independent state in the top third of the Italian peninsula.

Umberto Bossi and his mercurial, irrepressibly anti-establishment regional party, the Northern League, are at it again, denouncing the iniquities of central government and the wasted billions that have been poured into the underdeveloped, Mafia-ridden south. Now, however, their talk of separatism is more than just rhetorical whimsy. This time around, they mean business.

Fortified by an unexpected show of support in April's general elections - as high as 40 per cent in some areas in the north - the League has pushed secession to the very top of the political agenda. In the past few weeks Mr Bossi has spoken to packed rallies across the north-east, calling for a "Czechoslovak solution" to Italy's problems and comparing himself to Gandhi at the head of a massive popular uprising.

The mythical country that Mr Bossi wants to establish does not yet have well-defined borders, but it already has a name, Padania, after the river Po, which rises in the Piemontese hills and flows across the great Italian plains to its delta just south of Venice. The League has also established a rival parliament that sits at Mantua, and a separate government - rather like a shadow cabinet, except that Mr Bossi calls it a "sunny cabinet" - based in Venice.

Last Sunday, while the top echelons of the Italian establishment were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the republic in Rome, Mr Bossi was in the northern town of Pontida, presiding over an alternative national day dedicated to the Independent Republic of Padania.

Each of his 10 "ministers" swore allegiance to "the principles of liberal democracy and the self-determination of the Padanian nation". Then they burned "documents from Rome" (actually some scrap paper grabbed at random in the enthusiasm) in a giant barbecue and threw custard pies at a cardboard likeness of the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi. Throughout the proceedings you could buy Padania T-shirts, spoof "Bank of the North" treasury bills and fake 100,000 lire notes with Mr Bossi's scowling face superimposed on the usual Caravaggio.

If it were not tinged with absurdity, this could look seriously frightening. The League has the men and, in one of the richest regions in the world, it definitely has the money to create no end of havoc. It even has that prerequisite for successful revolutions in Italy, coloured shirts. Garibaldi chose red for his landing at Marsala, Mussolini black for the March on Rome; these days, scores of leghisti are sporting a Boy Scout-ish shade of green.

Up to now the temptation has been to dismiss the League's antics as entertaining, impressively organised but ultimately meaningless. After all, the small businessmen of the north might be sore about paying too many taxes, but almost none of them would consider separatism a serious option. What's more, Mr Prodi's government can hardly be an object of hatred. It has only just taken office - and on a platform promising greater regional autonomy anyway.

Ever since his first appearance in Italian politics 10 years ago, Mr Bossi has been a consummate performance artist, hurling insults - he regularly calls his opponents "fascists" - and outrageous proposals - such as calling on his followers to "oil their Kalashnikovs". But he has never betrayed any hint of real menace. When the League took part in Silvio Berlusconi's short-lived government two years ago, its two most highly placed members, Roberto Maroni at the Interior Ministry and Irene Pivetti as speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, behaved with impeccable respect towards the institutions of state.

The received wisdom has been that Mr Bossi merely wants to pressure Mr Prodi and his ministers into diminishing the powers of Rome and establishing more robust regional government within a German-style federal structure. Now, though, the experts are not so sure.

The affable Mr Maroni has gone native at the head of the so-called Committee for the Liberation of Padania, and urged local councils run by the League to evict central government prefects from their offices. The prefect of Mantua is due to receive his eviction order tomorrow, while the prefect of Treviso risks being turfed out of both office and home.

Next on the agenda is a campaign of general civil disobedience, very possibly in the form of tax evasion, although the League has been careful so far not to advocate direct law-breaking. But given the rising hysteria, it does not seem too fanciful to imagine the more ardent greenshirts indulging in vandalism against state property and possibly physical aggression - even if it is without the blessing of the party leadership. "Bossi is playing with fire, and if he continues in the same vein he's going to get burned," warned Fabio Mussi, floor leader for the left-wing PDS in parliament.

One incident in particular has alarmed the establishment. On Thursday night, Mr Bossi took the unprecedented step of throwing two national television crews out of a rally in Lodi. "Raus, raus!", he shouted, just like a German stormtrooper, pillorying the hapless journalists as "riff-raff" and "fascists". Mr Bossi did not consider the episode any departure from his usual flamboyance.

But what is really going on? "The League has been demanding greater regional autonomy for years, but so far nothing has happened," explained Francesco Speroni, a member of the Rome Senate and the speaker of the Mantua "parliament". "Europe is going ahead at two speeds anyway, so why should we be held back by the backwardness of the south?"

This is the argument that really spooks the establishment: the possibility that the north will walk off with the country's wealth and talent into the warm European sunset, while the rest of the country is left far behind.

The campaign is undoubtedly having an effect. The new Minister for the Regions, Franco Bassanini, has promised a draft law outlining a new federalist structure for Italy within a month, and Mr Prodi is undertaking an immediate review of tax procedures to see if there is room to lighten the load for small businesses.

"If you want to get someone down from a tree, you have to bring him a ladder. We will provide this ladder," promised Piero Fassino, junior minister for foreign affairs. For the moment, though, it seems Mr Bossi and his band of merry men are having far too much fun up their tree to contemplate climbing down.