Leading Article: Italian lesson for Labour

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The Independent Online
ONCE again, the square-jawed, jutting features of Benito Mussolini stare out from Italy's newspapers. Old photographs, cartoons and postcards are summoned up to illustrate the presence of the neo-Fascist party in Italy's winning right-wing alliance. The reality of Silvio Berlusconi's victory in last Sunday's elections has begun to sink in. Italian left-wingers, liberals and reformers must come to terms with a result that will be as great in its significance for Italy as Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979 was for Britain.

Rather as Mrs Thatcher's new brand of Toryism aimed to overthrow the consensus that had ruled Britain since 1945, the Berlusconi coalition brings together almost every set of values that the architects of the first Italian Republic tried to exclude. First, it centres on the figure of one man, a trusted leader, a business genius, whose reassuring smile and undemanding rhetoric promise simple solutions which brook no alternative. Four months ago, Mr Berlusconi was just another heavily indebted Italian businessman, with a chain of monopolistic companies and a string of dubious political connections. Suddenly, he has emerged as the most likely prime minister.

Second, the post-1945 constitution enshrined Italy as one unified state. Central government put an end to plots for an independent Sicily backed by the Mafia. Yet the unity of Italy, the holy grail for which Mazzini campaigned in his London exile, for which Cavour intrigued and Garibaldi fought: this, too, is now at issue. Mr Berlusconi's most important partner, the Northern League, preaches autonomy if not outright secession for the wealthy, tax- paying north. On the threshold of power, the League bargains for a federal Italy organised on the lines of the Swiss cantons or the German Lander.

And the neo-Fascists? Their leader, Gianfranco Fini, speaks smoothly and wears nice suits. The past is history, says Mr Fini. He does not talk of empire, race or authoritarian rule. Mr Berlusconi has explained to French television that his allies should not be compared to Jean-Marie Le Pen but to the respectable Jacques Chirac and the Gaullist right. Here is the perfect example of Mr Berlusconi's talent for distortion. It is of no concern to him that the Gaullist party takes its name and inspiration from the leader of anti-Fascist free France. But, then, Italian Fascism was once wittily defined as a tyranny tempered by complete disobedience of the law.

The combination of Mr Berlusconi, the League and the neo- Fascists makes it plain what the future of Italy is to be. Already Mr Berlusconi speaks of creating a presidential system on the lines of the French Fifth Republic. It may readily be imagined who he sees as the first incumbent of that autocratic office. At the same time, in deference to the League, there are plans for a decentralised state. And while the neo-Fascists can be titilated by a strong president they are also lured by the prospect of devolution, because it would allow them to control the south and Sicily. Dressed up in the costumes of privatisation and reform, this amounts to the dissolution of Italy into regional fiefdoms, ruled over by a television magnate who will control almost all private programmes and every state channel. If any safeguards are to be imposed, let them come quickly.

The defeated left, meanwhile, remains in its traditional enclave of central Italy, practising good civic government and dreaming of its day in the sun. That will not come for a long time now. The lesson of this election is that Italy remains a fundamentally conservative country, where long periods of entrenched rule are punctuated by episodes of chaos: the Great War, the collapse of Fascism, and the judicial revolution of 1992-94.

But the British left should also learn from what has happened in Italy. The country's ruling establishment became deeply unpopular, regarded with distrust and cynicism by the majority of people. The parties of the left, however, were not the beneficiaries: they were unable to offer a more appealing vision, to articulate either the frustrations or the aspirations of the Italian electorate. Opposition parties can no longer rely on the routine alternation of democratic politics; they cannot sit back and wait for power to drop into their laps. As Britain's wounded Tory government lumbers towards its nemesis, John Smith would do well to ponder the lessons.