Arrivederci, thieving Roma: Umberto Bossi is loud in the land, a disconcerting voice with disturbing echoes, says Keith Botsford

No one, least of all the Italians, would deny Italy's political system is on the verge of collapse. The Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, faces successive confidence votes; a party rival and reformist, Mario Segni, plans a congress to found a party or movement; worst of all, a fortnight ago, the Northern League - unheard of a few years ago - captured 34 per cent of the vote in Mantua. A recent opinion poll shows that in the big cities north of Florence, the league would average 27 per cent of the vote, while the Christian Democrats would rank a poor third.

The last thing Italy's quarrelling deputies want is a new election, but even if the Amato government's new economic plan survives its votes of confidence, the league and its leader, Umberto Bossi, are now a major force, marginalised though they may be in the process of consensus by which Italian politics operates. Do they have a chance to gain power? Only the most cynical would say yes; can they be kept out of power for ever? Again, only the most cynical would say yes.

The league is a movement of the north. Even were it to project its current popularity into a new election, it would be no more than Italy's largest party. But that means no other party or alliance of parties could govern without it. Mr Bossi is very much the man of the hour. He and his league have threatened a tax revolt; successfully carried out, that alone would cause the government's fall.

So who is Umberto Bossi? And what is the Northern League? Fifty-one years old, he was born in the province of Varese of a poor rural family. His mother was supposed to have Mrs Mopped for years to pay for his studies. As a youth, he says, he was 'a good-time boy without a thought in my head. I didn't like problems nor having demands made of me.'

He rebelled against the 'strict morality' of his parents and while he faced one dread alternative - 'work, work' - his real mind lay in the society of 'consume, consume'. At 21 he took his first job with the Automobile Club of Gallarate. This was taking life seriously: 'I made the move from casual labour to a full-time job.'

To advance he needed the diplomas he had scorned, so at 25 he went to the private Italian equivalent of a polytechnic. He lived at home, and because he was working, and because of girls, took six years to finish the course. Politics? All he remembers is attending a demo against Pinochet. If ideas there were, they derived from observation and from his maternal grandfather, Angiolino, 'as big as a mountain and solid as a rock', a skilled labourer who 'underwent those years of savage industrialisation' and noted that 'people from the south worked for less' and displaced the old artisans.

That last is the nucleus of Mr Bossi's political thinking. At least it identified his enemies: 'Immigration was the fraud big industry used to screw the workers'; 'For the philo-communists on the left immigration was an attempt to construct a new underclass to counter its electoral defeats'; and for the Church, cut off from those who had, 'it became policy to seek souls among those who had nothing, to court the Third World'.

Whatever the development of these simple (but of such resonance among his followers) ideas, he continued his studies at Pavia, reading medicine, and was preparing his thesis (on a computer model of the relationship of heart and lung) when political lightning first struck, in 1979, and he was nigh on 40. The lightning was the idea of autonomy. He dropped his studies and became a man of political action, first in words, and then in 1982, by founding his party's current newspaper, and throughout by brawling when necessary. He became general secretary of the league at its foundation and was first elected deputy and senator from Sondrio-Como-Varese in 1987.

Two years later he met Professor Emilio Miglio, a teacher of political science with a long, austere history of theorising on the ills of the Italian state. The league, given intellectual content and reputation, took off.

To many, Mr Bossi's ideas seem racist and fascist, something that he, who is married to a half-Sicilian, by whom he has a child, hotly denies. 'The league believes we should look after our own people first.' He denies being Italy's Jean-Marie Le Pen: 'Federalism is democratic and liberal. . . . I believe all people are equal . . . but also that all should contribute to the national wealth' - and, by implication, not live off it. The south, he feels, and doubly so immigrants from the Third World, have 'no intention of integrating with our way of life.'

His 55 deputies and 25 senators are all his sort of people - relative outsiders, uncomfortable with the rich or the desperately poor. Many are disillusioned conservative Catholics, some are farther to the right. But all are respectable; they have influence throughout the complex structures of Italian society. None is notable. The process of joining the mainstream and influencing the government in Rome, proposing referendums that in effect bypass the central bureaucracy, is just starting.

As a movement, the league is the modern equivalent of Mussolini's 1922 march on Rome. Mussolini marched on Rome to seize power; Mr Bossi's league marches to take the power away from Rome. The slogan? Roma ladrona, la Lega non perdona. No pity for thieving Rome.

As last October's elections show, and Italy well understands, the league's triumphs have split Italy in two. The north, the league thinks, belongs to it; let the Christian Democrats, Socialists and others deal with the south. The league's ideologist, Professor Miglio, says he feels uneasy when he reaches Florence. Farther south, the famous 'style' and that prosperity which enabled Italy to force itself into the Group of Seven super economies stop, giving way to poverty, bossism, corruption, bureaucracy and the desperation that produces the Mafia.

The Christian Democrats' electoral base, fed by patronage, is mainly in the south. This is no less true of the Socialists, who, besides being beset with scandals, traditionally are supported by the poor and deprived.

Bringing all this to the fore is not all that Mr Bossi has done. He had the good fortune, and the discernment to act on it, to arrive on the scene at a time when, throughout Europe, the old political aggregations were falling apart. Because of that timing, his effect has been disproportionate.

Would there have been a full-scale attack on the political corruption of Milan (and a dozen other cities and institutions) without the impetus provided by the league and its uncorrupt 'little people'? What better serves to prove a central theory of Mr Bossi's that from the south comes that 'criminality' which infects all of Italy than the assassination outside Palermo of Judge Falcone? Without the league would the old parties be pursuing the Mafia with such energy, even to the point of revealing their own connections with the Family? Finally, and in the long run more importantly, would Italy ever have recognised the size of its public debt, the appalling paternalism of its government, its need to modernise its financial structures, if the country had not felt truly threatened by a revolt from below in its most prosperous and efficient part?

The parallels to Mussolini are significant: in the simplicity of the ideas and the support they receive from the little people. Mussolini galvanised the state; he zapped the traditional parties and reduced the institutions to satrapies; he had a base among those who worked hard, saved and were seeking a leader to take them out of the desert. If those with the power are awake, they will know they are threatened, and seriously. They will remember that the last man in a hurry was Benito Mussolini and they will ensure Umberto Bossi misses that train.

(Photographs omitted)