Published on 27 Feb 2013

The comic and the criminal sound a warning for us all

No one willingly looks to Italy for lessons in the future of democracy – when a comic and a convicted tax fraudster can together command over 50 per cent of the national poll, one has to wonder. But perhaps we should look more closely.

Italy is a remarkable country – remarkable as a major manufacturing force. Remarkable for its vast cultural effect on the rest of the world – achieved not through Empire but through emulation. Remarkable too for being a sum of its parts. For Italy boasts a stronger sense of the “local” than perhaps any country in Europe.

So what’s gone wrong? What produced so corrupt a situation that a man charged with having sex with an under-aged belly dancer ran the country for so long. Is it any wonder that a highly intelligent clown all but beat his party in the election?

Italy’s political ingredients are not dissimilar to what has happened in many western European countries. The politicians got into bed with military interventionism and money. In so doing they broke trust with the people who elected them. The one million who marched against the invasion of Iraq in Britain were ignored, as they were elsewhere in Europe. And whilst there were key divisions in Europe over the war on Iraq, there was less over the war on Afghanistan.

What united them all was there forbearance of, and encouragement of bankers and financiers to go rogue with the citizens’ cash. The world economy was crushed and crashed by the wanton failure of governments to regulate and prosecute the banking classes.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the war on Iraq, and as we begin our run from Afghanistan, there is much to ponder. No-one realistically thinks such so bold a military adventure will ever come again in our life times. It is not that we have learned our lessons, it is that we simply cannot afford it. Some might argue that that at least is the good the bankers have wrought.

Italians may not pay their taxes; there may be problems with organised crime, money laundering and more – that was ever so. What has brought Italy to its knees is the mis-performance of the bankers and the global regulatory system.

The Italians may not have learned their lesson about Berlusconi. People seem to have forgotten that Italy used to change it governments as fast as many used to change their underclothes – without consequence.

Now there is a consequence for the Italy, for the Eurozone, and for us.

The moves needed to establish global regulation to cope with the globalised movement of money are in their infancy – sovereign governments still rule.

We are in the foothills of global understanding as to what went wrong in 2007/8, and the drastic steps needed to put it right.

But whilst we await transnational co-operation in sorting the global banking, commodity, and monetary trading system, our frustration and in some cases, despair with national politics is deepening. In Greece, Spain and Italy it is palpable. In Britain it has born us the first peacetime coalition in UK political history.  But the clock is ticking. Many of our national institutions in many countries are creaking. In many cases, including the UK, many argue our governance needs urgent reform.

Wait long enough and the comic, the criminal, the extremist can arise. That is what both Germany, and Italy taught us in the last great extended period of depression and austerity in the 1930s.

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19 reader comments

  1. Robert Taggart says:

    Talking political comics… how else could anyone describe Ed Millibund ?!

  2. Britt_W says:

    It’s not the first time a comedian becomes a real threat to the establishment. Remember the late Coluche, the French comedian who announced his candidacy for the French presidential elections back in 1981? After first having shrugged him off as merely an attention-seeker in funny costume, the French political stage became worried as polls showed a significant part of the electorate actually might vote for him. He had 16% at one stage, apparently.
    After – alleged – death threats, Coluche then decided it was time to leave the race, but… I have often wondered what would have happened, had he continued to become Président de la République. I mean, would the UK be a better place if we had Dara Ó Briain at number 10? We shall probably never know.

  3. richard says:

    This is just a collection of nonsensical emotional assertions. True, the bankers do not come out of the global financial crisis with much credit, but what exactly did they have to do with Italy’s deficit, it’s failure to adapt to the huge shifts in global manufacturing, or the economic imbalances in the eurozone? “Nothing” is the answer. So why blame them for things that were the clear responsibility, and failure, of European governments. What a very poor article Mr Snow. You can do better than this rubbish.

    1. jon snow says:

      Richard you are talking through the back of your head..Italian manufacturing has driven the UK out of a good number of markets in the last decade not least that of the massive contracts with China for generating sets..the Italian banks were as bad as anywhere else..there is not a country in Europe that wasn’t let down by the Banks – not least, incidentally, Germany. Oh and by the way, how about the continuing italian capacity to make Italian cars..we can only make other people’s cars..with the signal UK exception of Morgan cars still managing 1,000 units a year!

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    “Military interventionism”? “Military adventure”?

    How about “illegal colonial invasion,” “imperial genocide” and “mass murder by US and European fascists”?

    Why can’t you mainstream media people bring yourselves to tell the truth as opposed to standardised lying jargon manufactured in the Pentagon and its military apes in Europe?

    With such obvious and unashamed war crimes by “Western Civilisation,” why be surprised when everything else follows naturally and becomes rotten to the core?

    And things didn’t “go wrong in 2007/2008” – not unless you cauterised your memory and common sense to everything that went before. Have you somehow done a Winston Smith and erased knowledge of Vietnam, the closing days of European empires, US invasion and mass murder in central and South America, all the other “financial crises,” the socioeconomic horrors inflicted by neocons in the USA and UK in the 1980s and since?

    Do you want me to expand the list or do you want to keep your head buried in that desensitised suburban ghetto you occupy?

    Your late conversion is welcome. But don’t kid yourself the axis of planet Earth somehow tilted in 2007/2008. What you are seeing is the logical outcome of neocon ur-facist policies. We on the Left predicted what would happen. Here it is. No point whining about it now. DO SOMETHING.

    1. Moonbeach says:

      and we pragmatists predicted what would happen to left dominated economies!

      So what?

      I agree that over the past 20 years we have been “Lions led by donkeys” to quote Ludendorff. It is time that the views of the “Lions” were listened to in Westminster.

      This is not a left/right extremist fight but a democratic one.

      Parliamentary Democracy stinks.

  5. Geoff Mead says:

    Thank you Jon, well said. And I wish there was a politician in this country that would say the same but from what I can see they look out for the 1% and the top professional classes (whether public or private) and I wouldn’t have said that five years ago. I have become radicalised but it is for a more equal society in which we all have a voice and can start to tackle the very real existential problems that face us. And looking at the UK today that sounds like a ridiculously idealistic dream.

    1. Lisa Chung says:

      Geoff, I think your comments are so well said. Our own country is a mess, I am unemployed through standing up for the rights of vulnerable people. I took a friend to the mental health unit the other day and firstly while in A@E I had to shout at someone for talking to another human being who was asking for their help so badly, people are looked down on by that 1%. I watched a young girl take drugs in front of the staff at the hospital because she had not been given anything to come off her drugs with, lots of broken girls dream sitting in our dirty hospitals on the outskirts London in the UNITED KINGDOM. David Cameron and Nick Clegg may not have their badges yet.. This country is being run by bullies, cowards and liars.

  6. Maura Chanda says:

    I think that your analysis of Beppe Grillo is not quite correct. Beppe Grillo unlike Berlusconi is not the leader of a party and he has not run as a candidate in the elections. The Movimento 5 Stelle is not a party in a traditional sense of the term. The candidates are normal citizens who have been chosen directly by the “5 stelle web community”. Beppe Grillo acts as a catalyst and provides the forum for all Italians who want to participate in the debate about the policies which need to be implemented in Italy. Movimento 5 Stelle is a realisation of “direct democratic involvement of people through the web in national and regional politics”. If you really are interested in understanding what Movimento 5 Stelle is about, you need to check the actions of the candidates of Movimento 5 Stelle who have already been elected at municipal and regional level as well as its manifesto on Beppe Grillo’s Blog.

  7. Philip says:

    ignoring the fatuous partisan first comment, we shouldn’t be surprised What we have is (a) a conservative party which is blindly following policies that egregiously failed in the 1930s – but in view of their basic philosophy, it’s a good excuse to cut public spending & demonise “shirkers”. The results of this are e.g. locally people defecating beside local shops because the public toilets have been closed. (b) the libdems have adopted the same policies in government while arguing against them before the election. (c) labour have failed to apologise about its failure to regulate the banking system effectively (not that anyone should believe that the conservatives would have behaved any differently in that regard) and its profligate assessments about the country’s ability to pay for increased public expenditure. All parties were caught up in the expenses scandal. Virtually no politician tells the truth without some degree of spin. You only have to read “Factcheck” to realise how often they misuse statistics. Virtually all the time they are looking to their own advantage rather than that of the country. So UKIP – a party with one main policy (& a ragbag of unachievable policies at the side) – gains because it hasn’t been in Government. Until politicians realise that voters want to be told the truth, to hear apologoes when things go wrong, to hear them admit mistakes or lack of knowledge, to work together for the common good rather than antagonistically for their own advantage, the risk is of the “man in the white suit” who is almost always a snare & a delusion, but by compariosn with what we’ve got, looks like the answer. (On the other hand, most of my Italian friends are desperately seeking ways to live & work here!)

  8. IGiveUp says:

    I am sitting here stunned by the sheer accuracy and eloquence of this summary of the state of western democracy.

    I don’t think I have ever seen it expressed so succinctly.

    I’m gob smacked.

  9. Ivor Bigrednose says:

    Is not the House of Commons already a bit of a circus? Ministers juggling with their portfolios, the Prime Ringmaster announcing the acts and whipping up the mood of the crowd, exotic MP performers asking often self-promoting questions and checking their resultant twitter ratings. Meanwhile the country just forgets trying to survive outside the tent, in the real world. The words ‘Nero’, ‘fiddle’, ‘Rome’ and ‘burning’ all come to mind.

  10. Muggwhump says:

    In the end you realise we don’t have political parties any more just a ruling elite.
    It literally makes no difference who you vote for. Everyone has worked this out now.
    The great and the good spend their lives drifting from one top job to another.
    Parts of our society once separate and distinct are now blurred. Take the BBC for instance Bradshaw and Gove go from there into politics and government, Purnell and Patten – who also has private healthcare interests – move from government to the BBC.
    Even Cameron’s propaganda man came straight from a top job in BBC news into no10.
    Bankers get peerages and sit round the cabinet table running the country, politicians end up on the boards of banks.
    I’d vote for a nurse campaigning to save the NHS before I voted for any of our so called mainstream politicians any day of the week.

  11. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    John Redwood has an interesting analysis of the Italian problem @ http//;

  12. Ron White says:

    Re Italy, watch Bill Emmott’s excellent BBC4 programme which explores in more depth issues raised above plus more that are specific to Italy.

  13. Richard says:

    Good article, but I think it’s their forbearance not there, Jon.

  14. Mahesh Nirmalan says:

    Jon, as you know the rise and fall of civilisations has been a cyclical event throughout human history. Could the events that you outline above be the first indications that the Western civilisation has perhaps passed its hay-day? Is the failure of many of our cherished National Institutions – banks, NHS, parliament etc, merely the initial manifestations of a failed paradigm and hence the harbinger of bigger surprises yet to come?

  15. Meg Howarth says:

    Of course sovereign governments can’t stand up to challenge of globalisation. That’s why the little-Englander mentality of anti-EU protestors is so dangerously misleading. Talk about babies and bath water!

    As for clowns: Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle supports a 20-hour week, the only way to rescue us from the myth of full-employment (youth ‘unemployment’ now an average of 11% across Europe, much higher in Spain(5 MILLION!)/Greece/?Italy), the myth that’s used to keep us in political order, accepting lower wages, zero-hours contracts/loss of job security (another myth) etc. ALL European countries need to adopt 20-hour week, together with Basic/Citizens Income – sometimes called Guaranteed Living Income. We need a new economic model fit for purpose in our globalised C21. The increasingly absurd GDP ‘growth’ model – which counts as positive the activity of cleaning up environmental disasters like Gulf of Mexico oil-spill, for example – has to go, as lots of economists/even politicos know: we cannot ‘grow’ our way out systemic, environmentally damaging human activity, and we can’t all go on competing. Traditional politicians are bankrupt of progressive economic ideas – which is why we ignore M5S at our loss.

    I’m optimistic – as long as ‘clowns’ keep arising, there’s hope!

  16. Meg Howarth says:

    Another heartening example of community action – ‘How the corrala movement is occupying Spain’ – demonstrates the employment myth and shows why every country needs a Basic/Citizens Income and a shorter working-week: the families are being evicted from their homes because in many cases they can no longer afford the mortgages which they paid for on the back of construction-related jobs during the property-building boom:

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