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How Silvio Berlusconi was brought down by laughter, smiles and sniggers

I have a bit of a soft spot for lovable rogues and morally ambiguous characters. I think Malcolm Hardee, the late ‘godfather of British comedy’, might fall into that category.

If someone else had done some of the things he did, it would have been appalling. With him, people who knew him just shrugged their shoulders and said, “Oh… It’s only Malcolm being Malcolm…”

As in ‘real life’, so in politics.

I worked in Ireland fairly regularly for a few years in the 1990s and it seemed that, every time I landed in Dublin, there was some new scandal or exposé involving gun-running, womanising, hard-drinking, horse-race-fancying, dodgy-dealing former Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey.

You could not but laugh at some of his scams and I think Irish voters had a tendency to shrug and say, “Oh… It’s only Charlie Haughey being Charlie Haughey…”

In the same way, the diaries, comments and escapades of womanising wayward British Conservative MP Alan Clark were always a joy to read because he was so rich (he lived in a castle and had inherited his father Lord Clark of Civilisation’s millions) and had such a superiority complex and was so inwardly secure that he did not give a shit what he said about people and events – he tended to tell the normally unspeakable truth about them – except on one occasion when he admitted he had been “economical with the actualité”. All this to the detriment of his career.

Today, we have Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi.

Boris is currently Mayor of London, but you feel he may suddenly re-invent himself as a Richard Branson balloonist or an Evel Knievel daredevil costumed figure or start a travelling circus with himself as ringmaster. He is a fascinating character because the word “buffoon” has been occasionally applied to him but he used to simultaneously be an effective editor of the Spectator and a reputedly very hard-working and efficient constituency MP as well as being a regular on TV shows like Have I Got News For You. The first two alone each require a high level of efficiency – just being editor of the Spectator would be enough for most serious people. But then there are also the stories of him having “an eye for the ladies” and saying jokey things about Liverpudlians.

The common thread through all those people seems to be womanising, which brings us to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Silvio’s brightly-coloured and joyously eccentric OTT reign is coming to an end amid national financial collapse, dodgy business dealings and scandals involving sex parties. I have always had a sneaking admiration for Silvio – who won some early respect by building up a major media empire before he lost that respect by becoming a politician. Yesterday, I asked an English friend living in Italy for almost 25 years what the view of Silvio was over there now.

“He was a rogue,” she told me, “but he admitted he was and everybody knew he was. I think Berlusconi’s view on his own peccadilloes was always, Ooh! All you Italian males out there – You know you would all do what I’m doing if you could!…  and the Italian public, by and large, seemed to shake their collective head and say: Oh! The rich and powerful! Look how they live! and accept it.

“But, since the continual revelations of call girls and the sheer number of women who have come forward to say they have been paid for favours by him, the general public response seems to have changed to seeing Berlusconi as a dirty old man. Although people do still think, How on earth does he get the energy to do all that when he’s 75 and supposedly running not only the country but also the biggest commercial enterprises in it? 

“I think he has not seen this change in public opinion and does not understand it. Whereas before he could get away with saying, Look how successful and wealthy I am – That’s why I’m worthy to run the country, now he can’t get away with that because all his business associates are seen to be dodgy at best and illegal at worst.

“The last straw was the interplay of exchanged looks between Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France at the International Monetary Fund’s recent emergency meeting. They were asked if they had been given sufficient assurances from Berlusconi about austerity measures in Italy. Instead of answering (both were listening to simultaneous translations on headphones), they looked at each other and broke out in grins, then half shook their heads as if in mirth and said, unconvincingly, Yes, yes.

“It was a moment of national shame here in Italy.

“It was confirmation that Berlusconi had become a laughing stock among other international politicians. That’s definitely not macho. That’s deeply offensive to the Italians’ frail sense of worth. The footage was repeatedly screened here on TV every night for one reason or another and that’s why it has stuck in the national psyche as something to be embarrassed about… and Italians do not like being embarrassed!

“Berlusconi was the only European leader as far as I know not to condemn Gaddafi over the months of conflict in Libya. Never did he say a word against him, and why is quite obvious: he had privately-owned joint-venture companies with Gaddafi who was his trusted ‘friend’. Only last year, Gaddafi came to Italy and was treated like royalty. There were hundreds of beautiful young girls hired by Berlusconi to be present at Gaddaffi’s public appearances and about fifty of Gaddaffi’s horses were shipped over with him to parade in Rome and demonstrate the friendly relationship the two had. Berlusconi still hasn’t made a statement on the situation in Libya.

“This morning’s national newspaper the Corriere della Sera prominently displayed a zoomed-in shot of a piece of paper in front of Berlusconi on his desk during the no-confidence vote he faced in the Italian Parliament and he had written 8 TRAITORS which is how he sees the people who voted against him.

“He ‘gave’ them high positions in local and national government, but it still wasn’t enough to buy their co-operation.

“Berlusconi sees himself as an independent who doesn’t need to play by the rules because he’s above the law. He doesn’t live in Rome; he lives in Arcore (near Milan in northern Italy) and takes private helicopters back and forth. He doesn’t need to keep up appearances, he was and still is too powerful to bow to that kind of thing.

“Two weeks ago he flew to Russia to attend Vladimir Putin’s birthday bash at a dacha in remote countryside and gleefully told the Italian Parliament he would be unavailable that weekend as he was with his good friend Putin. He was particularly eager to let them know he wasn’t using state-funded transport to get there… He doesn’t need to. He is a multi-millionare.

“The saddest part about Berlusconi however is that – despite all this – there’s no-one better to take over from him. There is no viable alternative at all. Berlusconi has given Italy more stability than it had ever had since World War Two ended.

”It is just a pity he is who he is.”

Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the perfect example of someone who has always had within him the seeds of his own destruction. And an example of how major financial, corruption and sex scandals may weaken you but being laughed at may ultimately bring you down.

Comedy can be mightier than the sword.

Though, in the case of Boris Johnson, it may actually get him re-elected.

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