Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Beware the seduction of the charismatic leader

We have Boris, our own loveable rogue. That cheeky chappie look, the unkempt hair, the low cunning

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The droll and incisive cartoonist Gerald Scarfe used extra-sharpened pencils to lampoon Berlusconi at the weekend. The toppled premier was drawn naked, paunchy, red-nosed, hunched over and hiding his overused bits with a small, very small Italian flag while a stripped blonde fled. A scrawled rhyme lamented the exit of a leader who inspired never-ending satire and amusement: "You old buffoon, I'll miss you so." So will millions of Italian voters and other supporters of the raffish casanova and Teflon tycoon. What a guy, they say, he brought fun, porn, soap-opera storylines and delicious absurdity to the tedious business of politics. Just listen to Nancy Dell'Olio, our spangled and painted self-styled leaderine who now regularly calls upon herself to comment on world events and figures. Silvio's just lovely, so clever when you sit next to him at dinner parties, she trills – with both his hands on the table, one hopes.

Berlusconi used his popular appeal to great effect. The former cruise-ship crooner knew how to please a crowd. Over many years he smiled and joked while dipping and ducking, craftily avoiding legal intrusions into his murky business affairs and scrutiny over policy decisions some of which led Italy down to where it is today. More cynical still was his strategic use of charm and showmanship during the gravest of crises. Three thousand people died and many more were left homeless when an earthquake hit Abruzzo in central Italy. Silvio arrived like Flashman, ensured tents were set up, promising reconstruction. How they cheered even when he joked that the tent dwellers should enjoy the experience like a camping holiday and then asked a young female volunteer if he could fondle her a little. A year later, no reconstruction at all had been carried out and an acclaimed film, Draquila, by Sabina Guzzanti about Berlusconi's handling of the quake, alleged a series of shocking failures and draconian restrictions on the freedom of expression of residents. But he was so lovely, so clever. Certainly the last.

In Britain, we have Boris, our own democratically elected loveable rogue. That cheeky chappie look and bike, and unkempt hair – an Eton mess – which even I have sometimes felt the urge to tousle, high intelligence and low cunning, he is a cross between Just William and Boswell. He has just published a new book, Johnson's Life of London: The The People Who Made The City that Made The World. Unkind reviewers say the tome is a shoddy, publicity stunt for the coming mayoral election. It will sell well. Londoners enjoy Boris just as much as Italians enjoyed Silvio. Both know how to lighten up the public mood and beguile voters.

Gordon Brown had no feel for that, Blair had too much, which is why he got on swimmingly with Silvio. Reagan was a masterful operator, as are Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin but Obama is not. Nor is Ed Miliband who tries hard to play the game with obvious discomfort. Cameron personifies style over substance.

I met Bill Clinton twice briefly and he twinkled his eyes, but I still don't understand why people find him irresistible, forgetting Lewinsky and his illegal bombing of suburbs in Baghdad when that scandal erupted. Today people speak of Tony Blair as the best leader ever, as if Iraq was just a detour, a slight wrong turn following a dodgy satnav. A million Iraqis died, but hey, Tone was some orator, had the key to the people's hearts, took and kept Labour in power. That's what counts, surely.

In many developing countries, charismatic rulers are initially ecstatically welcomed– Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, even Idi Amin who was fabulously witty and knew just how to woo his people. We understand the dangers of demagoguery and easy manipulation in those countries. Yet, the same seduction tricks are used in Western democracies and the people fall for them, a naivety that imperils their futures.

Professor Noel Turnbull of RMIT university in Melbourne, has studied the wizardry of mainstream Western populism: "... it gives the appearance of responsiveness to the populace while simultaneously making sure the public puts up with policies which are against their own best interests". We see the phenomenon in the Coalition's e-petitions facility, which is turning into a virtual riot mob, shrieking at MPs to adopt policies which have no place in a modern state: repatriation of European law and dusky foreigners, a return to hanging and corporal punishment. If they succeed I would happily go off on a boat to nowhere. Increasingly, winning elections is for those who grasp populism and are able to deploy it to their advantage.

Boris's victory is assured; Berlusconi may even ride back, Nancy and her lively bosom may enter parliament. Good luck to them. Some of us are grim and humourless enough to believe the adulation of colourful figures corrupts democracy. We are a fast-dying species. The winners will take it all.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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