Italian election cut'n'paste special
Just in time for tomorrow's Italian elections (which will hopefully see Berlusconi booted out on his corrupt backside), Tobias Jones in the Guardian provides one of the best brief summaries of the complex madness that is the Italian political system I've seen in a fair while. Read the whole thing, but if you don't have time, an expigated version (more traditionally known as wholesale plagiarism and copyright infringement, but at least I'm giving him credit...):
"There are 174 officially registered symbols in this election... That astonishing number of symbols is part of the reason why political debate is so rare. Much of the electoral discussion in the last few months has been about coalitions. The central element of debate is partitica, not politica: it's about party politics... there are 33 parties represented in Romano Prodi's coalition, 35 in that of Berlusconi...
"Unlike Britain, the politicians are all older and more established than their parties. Of all the major parties, only the Partito Radicale was founded before the 1990s... In the previous parliament, a staggering 158 politicians changed party or coalition. Above all, it means politics appears characterised by old-fashioned patronage, in which reciprocal favours are more important than ideals and policies...
"The First Republic (1945 to 1993) was the archetypal PR system. It meant the Italian equivalent of the 1997 "Twigging" of Portillo was simply inconceivable. Proportional representation "lists" guaranteed that the mighty never need fall... At the birth of the Second Republic, 90% of Italians voted to adopt a first-past-the-post method. But what emerged was 75% first past the post and 25% still PR. It was a system so complicated that at every election, large newspaper graphics were dedicated to explaining something called the scorporo. The next time you're idling in Italy, try asking someone to explain it. You'll need a calculator, a lot of coffee and at least a couple of hours...
"To top it all, the process is hostage to outside influences. No one knows how influential they are, but various mafias certainly make their presence felt during elections. Read what you like into the fact that Berlusconi, in 2001, won 100% of the parliamentary seats in Sicily. Organised crime also means politics is affected by the bullet as well as the ballot box... More strangely, this election sees 12 seats in the Camera and six in the Senate decided by the worldwide diaspora of Italian descendants in four electoral colleges (North and Central America, South America, Europe and the Rest of the World)...
"Yet such are the contradictions of the country that its democracy is envied throughout the west. Voter turnout at the last general election, in 2001, was 82.7%. Compare that with 61.3% in Britain in 2005... everyone understands the responsibility of casting their vote. And that despite the fact that proxy and postal votes are unheard of. As you read this, Italian trains will be overloaded with electors returning to their home town to vote. Casting your vote is still seen as of such importance that, for instance, Parma town council offers to pay the train fare for foreign-based Parmigiani to return on election day...
"everyday life is extraordinarily politicised. You can tell someone's politics by the strangest things: which football team they support; which coffee they drink (the Illy brand has leftwing connotations as its owner, the president of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, Riccardo Illy, is part of the centre-left alliance); which books they read (Tolkien was, during the 1970s, an unlikely icon of the fascist movement); even which shoes they wear (Tods shoes are made by Diego Della Valle, the owner of Fiorentina football team and vociferous critic of Berlusconi). In a country in which politics is so often conducted through symbolism and gesture, there's a kind of livery that allows you to recognise, almost on first acquaintance, someone's political sympathies.
"But the democratic engagement goes deeper than symbolism. There's a quality of debate that is rarely seen in Britain. There are frequently referendums on topics that are politically soft but morally hard, like stem cell research; the debates regarding such subjects are impressively profound...
"In any democracy there's a simple equation that suggests that voters get the politicians they deserve. For more than a century it's been one of the greatest enigmas about Italy. How did a country with such intelligent, inventive and generous constituents end up with such uninspiring politicians? The generous reply is that the democratic equation is invalidated because Italian democracy is skew-wiff. The harsher reply is that the iconic politicians of postwar Italy - Giulio Andreotti, Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi - really are representative of the Italian majority. The greatest hope for tomorrow's election is that, for once, the result may reflect the idealism, and not the cynicism, of the voting public."
For more, check out a nice overview of the campaigns
from di Gondi at European Tribune, and Beppe Grillo getting angry
"The world press... continues to give the image of an Italy that is like a poverty-stricken ruffian... They are right. They say things that we would be aware of, if it weren’t for the media control here. When will we be free of it? I feel that I’m carrying a weight on my back. I feel a leaden atmosphere around, it’s sickly, it imprisons thoughts, it’s oppressive. Basta! Enough!"
Mandelson and the art of selective quotation
Mandelson in "words distorted" shocker. Yep, Mandy's said something vaguely sensible about the scrapped EU constitution only to find himself selectively quoted to make it look like he's a delusional nutjob. (Which he normally is, it must be admitted...)
Blair's dodgy buddy (who at least had the decency to resign after organising suspect loans from wealthy friends), the EU's Commissioner for Trade, has admitted that
"the present constitutional treaty in the eyes of many does not provide a solution. It was a very good basis and in many respects it has ideas proposed that we should not lose sight of.
"But I don't think people are ready to adopt, let alone rush to embrace, at this stage."
Unfortunately, Mandy also had a bit of a poor choice of words when attempting to explain that a union of 25 states necessitates a reworking of the (in any case outdated) rules and regulations that govered the EU of 15. (Which, as I've said many times, should all have been sorted out a decade ago, as the possibility of expansion started to become more of a reality - but everyone was still smarting from Maastricht and the ERM debacle, so rational debate about the future of the EU was hardly on the agenda. And that's hardly Mandy's fault - it wasn't his watch back then.)
Anyway, sadly, Mandelson got a bit muddled, stating "we have to create rules, we have to create institutions that accommodate a growing population and a growing number of member states" in a rather blunt manner without, apparently, offering any wider explanation or contextualisation.
Unsurprisingly, the "rules" bit has been jumped on by a Tory MEP from the East Midlands, desperately trying to stave off the heavy UKIP threat in his region, where euroscepticism is so rife they even elected Robert Kilroy-Silk. (There are some local elections coming up, you see, and the Tories are a bit worried about the ex-Conservative lunatic fringe - hence the recent spat
between David Cameron and the UKIP lot. Who aren't at all racist, oh no...
So we have our faithful Tory trying to regain the eurosceptic vote by launching an attack on Mandy (a fairly easy target, it must be said), asking
"'What part of "no" does Peter Mandelson not understand? Mr Mandelson's calls for more rules, regulations and expensive institutions just goes to show how much more out of touch he has become since moving to Brussels...
"'Most people in Britain want the European Union to be doing less, not more.'"
Which rather ignores the fact that Mandelson was acknowledging that the constitution has been rejected, but pointing out that aspects of it are still worth keeping (very true - a lot of it was rubbish, but there were some genuine, democratic improvements in there which it would be foolish to jettison entirely).
It also misses the point that it's not necessarily MORE rules, regulations and institutions that Mandy's calling for, merely new ones. Which considering the immense changes that have affected the EU over the last few years is really only sensible - and as Mandy doesn't specify what these new rules and institutions would do, it's a bit silly to reject such hypotheticals before even listening to what's being proposed. Hell, it may even be a reduction and rationalisation of the current bureaucracy and red tape that is the cause of so much eurosceptic anger...
No one in the EU hierarchy knows what the hell's going on, and even if a few of them have plans, these plans are nowhere near finalised - because they have to make sure that whatever they propose will be acceptable to all 25 member states. As two member states rejected the thing (for whatever reasons), and there remains a good chance that at least a couple of others would have followed suit had they gone down the referendum route, they need to at the very least rework the constitution before trying to progress with the much-needed reforms of the EU that Mandy was rightly saying will have to happen at some point (relatively) soon.
In other words, let's not leap to conclusions, even if the person speaking IS an erstwhile Labour stooge.
Yet more dismantling of the constitution
No matter your opinions on having an antirely unelected former flatmate of the Prime minister as the head of the judiciary, the fact that the Lord Chancellor Charlie "the Lord" Falconer has today given up one of his office's most central roles is a tad worrying. As that BBC report notes,
"The title will continue but the post may in the future be filled by an MP who is not a lawyer. Presently, it has to be taken by the most senior lawyer in the House of Lords."
So we go from a situation in which the final say on legal matters is (supposedly, at least) taken by the person with the most experience and qualification so to do to one where any Tom, Dick or Harriet who happens to have sucked up to the head honchos of the governing party can set new legal precedents with little or no knowledge of how the system is supposed to work.
So now we get Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers
, the Lord Chief Justice, taking over as head of the judiciary, effecitvely ending one of the few English traditions which can genuinely be claimed to have lasted for a thousand years. The Lord Phillips seems well qualified (certainly more so than did Charlie "drinking buddy" Falconer at any rate). But it's quite hard to tell what he stands for, having apparently never voted on any issue since being elevated to the Lords in 1998
. He has, however, criticised the government
over their handling of the BSE crisis, so there is at least some hope of a certain degree of independence.
But this is beside the point. When these plans were first announced there was a good deal of controversy
, and rightly so. For such a serious alteration of the way the constitution works, you'd have thought they'd have a bit more discussion, and try to come up with a genuine solution rather than mere window-dressing. (Well, you would were you not used to the way this government conducts all of its constitutional affairs, at any rate).
Yes, we need an independent head of the judiciary, and this new set-up could be considered an improvement on what's gone before. But why are they introducing it before setting up an independent supreme court? The Constitutional Reform Act 2005
, from which these changes stem, also states that the long argued-for supreme court will finally be set up. But the building to which the Law Lords are supposed to move will not be ready until 2008, and the new court has yet to be convened.
An independent head of the judiciary while both the head and the judiciary itself are still a part of the legislature smacks of the half-arsed 1999 reform of the House of Lords, getting rid of one problematic system but having nothing well thought out to replace it, and leaving us with a mish-mash arguably little better than the thing it is replacing. The only benefit is that instead of having a head of our legal system who has gained his position purely by dint of being mates with the Prime Minister, we have someone who should at least know what they are doing. Constitutionally, however, we are no better off, as the Law Lords remain installed in the Upper House.
Changing a part of the system a good two years before the rest is ready strikes me as a tad silly - like putting on your tie before your shirt. But if there's one thing you can't accuse this government of, it's paying due care and attention to constitutional reform... Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill