Berlusconi's borrowed strip: Thatcher's words, A C Milan's triumphs . . . who needs policies?

Click to follow
THREE months after he officially entered politics, Silvio Berlusconi, media magnate, flamboyant entrepreneur and football supremo, is to form the next Italian government. Few know anything of his political programme; far more is known about the policies of Umberto Bossi's Northern League and Gianfranco Fini's neo-Fascists, with whom he remains in shaky alliance.

How on earth did he get there? How has a man who has never offered himself to public scrutiny reached the pinnacle of politics? The simple answer - too simple - is television. Night after night the electorate was bombarded with brief, repetitive commercials belting out a jingle that culminated in a football chant 'Forza Italia]' (Come on, Italy) - the name of his party. Berlusconi's own three television channels ceased all pretence of reporting news, replacing it with exhortations to the voters.

But it was not just the medium, it was also the message, and the style and language of it. These were new to Italy, but they would have been familiar to the British. Berlusconi is reported to have studied Margaret Thatcher's autobiography. Like her, he attacked 'chatter, abstractions, ideologies' and he, too, pitted against them the common sense and decency of ordinary people. He referred to action rather than ideology: 'getting things done' rather than 'beautiful debates'; people with 'good heads on their shoulders' rather than 'intellectuals'.

Thatcher came to power in 1979 when failure to halt economic decline had led to IMF intervention and to the Winter of Discontent. Berlusconi 'took the field', a football image, after Italy had witnessed daily revelations of political and economic corruption.

It was time to turn away from the old rulers and appeal to 'the people', who are always wise and good. Thatcher flaunted her upbringing in the grocer's shop; Berlusconi presented himself as the self-made entrepreneur. Like Thatcher, he promotes individual initiative. The 'people' to whom both refer are not the poor: Berlusconi praises 'solid people, competent and sensible, who have demonstrated their worth in the workplace', the technicians, skilled workers and small businessmen to whom Thatcher appealed. They are upwardly mobile, hostile to trade unions and critical of the welfare state.

They feel no guilt for their prosperity. Making money is a holy and wholesome activity. Like Thatcher, who argued that the Good Samaritan could not have been generous had he not been wealthy, Berlusconi considered his television networks as weapons of freedom in the battle against state television, enriching the lives of the viewers who bought the cars and detergents they advertised. And 'good' people need 'evil' enemies. In Britain it was 'socialists', an insult so potent that even socialists retreated before it; in Italy it was the Communists.

The language of Berlusconi and Thatcher, despite its appeals to action and common sense, uses parables and myths. The protagonists of the main myth are the individual, the family firm and the nation (or in Berlusconi's case, la patria). The antagonist is the state, which preys off the family and is almost always Communist. When she invoked the 'nation', Thatcher drew on the glories of the British past. General Galtieri offered her a chance of re-enactment. Berlusconi had no Falklands factor and Italy's colonial empire was a sad failure. Moreover, Italians are less prone than the British to patriotism. However, there is one exception: football.

Berlusconi's team, A C Milan, are supreme in Italy and have reached the final of this year's European Cup, the blue riband of club competitions. During the campaign, he avoided alienating supporters of other teams by fusing Il Milan with the national side. His campaign workers were 'the blues', the colour of the Italy team. Berlusconi turned the campaign into a football match. When Il Milan clinched the Italian championship three weeks after he won the election, Berlusconi told the people that he would do the same for Italy. He has even dragged religion into this extraordinary metaphor: the Pope, he said, had 'the same urge to win as my Milan team . . . the urge . . . towards the victory of good over evil'.

Berlusconi has to offer A C Milan as an example because his conglomerate, Fininvest, is hardly a modern economic model: it uses little high technology, it does not export and it has debts estimated at about dollars 2bn. Nor is he a particularly 'new' figure. He owes his television channels to political friends in the old regime, especially Bettino Craxi, who faces countless charges of bribery. Even more bizarre is the triumph - at a time when Italy's huge national debt makes austerity essential - of a man whose fortune was made persuading people to consume.

Here Berlusconi diverges from Thatcher. While she offered Churchillian austerity he has called on the electorate to be 'confident': tax cuts would revive the economy without the need for belt-tightening. In an image straight from one of his all-singing, all-dancing television channels, he told his election team to set off in the morning with 'the sun in their pockets'.

Italians are not sure whether they are behind the rest of Europe or in advance. Has Thatcherism come to Italy 15 years on? Or is Berlusconi a new phenomenon: economic power discards political intermediaries and rules itself, using television, organisation and the myth of the manager?

Berlusconi has still to tell Italy how he is going to deliver his dream. But his response to his first practical problem - whether, as Prime Minister, he should divest himself of his business empire, particularly his television channels - was suitably Thatcherian. He told his allies last week: 'I would say that the solution probably lies in common sense.'

The author is Professor of European studies at Johns Hopkins University, Bologna Center.