What made you want to write a book about Berlusconi?
Before I came to Italy I remember being incredulous at the fact that this character, from whom you wouldn’t buy a second hand car, kept being elected prime minister of a G7 country. Having been in Italy for a while and seen the context and the combination of factors that allowed it to happen, I decided to write about it, as well as describe his fall from power.
Your book describes him as a “bright and ambitious man from a lower-middle class family who shook off his humble origins and rose to become rich and powerful”. Then came all the scandal...What happened to that bright, ambitious young man?
I’m sure Berlusconi would argue that “he came good”. After all, he did become a billionaire businessman and win three general elections. Even if you look at his underhand methods, and allow for the good luck he may have enjoyed and the generally pitiful state of the political opposition during most of his heyday, it still takes an exceptional person to achieve all that, though not, I repeat, necessarily a very ethically one.
After doing your research, what do you think is the most intriguing thing about him?
I’m intrigued about what happens to a person when they have that much power. Who else in the western world has been a billionaire head of government with vast media power?
If you watch some of the videos - particularly the rant he released after his definitive conviction - he clearly believed in his innocence and in his assertion that there had been a witch-hunt against him. He seemed to go from knowing to delusional - actually believing his own nonsense and propaganda…
Was there anything at all you found to like about him, or that made you better understand why Italians put up with him for so long?
His friends say he’s great fun and he’s certainly generous to his nearest and dearest. His sheer chutzpah is amusing. This ability is so extravagantly developed it goes beyond hypocrisy into the realms of outrageous cheek, or faccia da culo, as Italians say.
The way he sucked up the Catholic Church (for votes), while living the life of Don Giovanni is an obvious example. And on a more prosaic note, did I mention tax? I’ve finally discovered someone I know here – a friend of mine - who voted for Berlusconi! She admitted to a mutual friend that she always voted for the mogul because she thought she’d be taxed less. The next time I see her, I’m so going to mention it! But this also hints at the tribal nature of Italian politics. Some people would have voted for Berlusconi if he’d changed his name by deed poll to Al Capone and started dressing in a French maid’s outfit because they would never have felt able to vote for the left.
His popularity might be on the wane, but he still has swathes of supporters. Why? What is his enduring appeal for some people?
I think a large of part of Berlusconi’s enduring popularity in certain sections of Italian society can be explained by his status as “one of us” or as “an ordinary guy”.
Of course, really, there’s nothing very ordinary about being an orange, billionaire media mogul sex dwarf and three-time prime minister. But compared to all the stuffy politicians that came before, Berlusconi spoke ordinary people’s language. And there was the vicarious thrill for millions of middle-aged ordinary Joes on seeing 'Berlusca' flying from one swanky party to the next. There’s one incident I describe in the book, in which Berlusconi snubs an opening night at the Scala for an evening out at the local cinema multiplex, and then stands up and takes a bow at the end of the film, which sums up this role as jester/man of the people.
With Berlusconi you can laugh with him or more probably at him - but at least you laugh.
Does he still hold much influence in Italian politics, despite supposedly being shunted to the “sidelines” now?
His time in frontline politics appears over but he still leads the biggest centre-right grouping in parliament, Forza Italia.
But the wheels now appear to be falling off that, too. Some people close to the Berlusconi camp – those that haven’t yet jumped ship - have said that he now plans to channel his vast wealth into new political parties and projects that will enable his business to prosper in the coming years, even though he will not be in office.
This might explain why he appears to be selling off the family silver. He's edging towards the sale of a 48 per cent stake in AC Milan to a Thai businessman. He might use this vast amount of liquidity to bring behind-the-scene pressure to bear to stop, say, conflict of interest laws that threatened his monopoly of the private media - self-serving laws that would be to the detriment of Italy, once again.
But the other upshot of the disintegration of Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party is the creation of a vacuum in Italian politics - and something nastier is stepping in to fill the gap. The xenophobic Northern League, whose leader Matteo Salvini once “joked” that non-white immigrants should travel in separate train carriages, is on a roll, and the second biggest party in the polls.
Much of the blame for Italy’s current woes has been pinned on the Berlusconi governments. Do you think this is the case, or has Italy always been a bit of a basket case?
Of course, Italy’s problems are not entirely Berlusconi’s fault. But his record in office isn’t good. Back in 2009, just after he’d won his third general election, he said: “I am, far and away, the best prime minister that Italy has ever had in its 150-year-history.”
But despite three terms in office he never made any inroads against tax evasion and organized crime, or in protecting the cultural patrimony or reforming justice and politics and above all, creating opportunities for everyone – and particularly young people and women.
As I point out in the book, Margaret Thatcher - love her or hate her - achieved a lasting change in Britain because she was determined to do things she believed were for the good, even if they proved unpopular. Berlusconi didn’t really believe in anything, apart from staying popular so that he could remain in power, keep out of jail and make more money. So in a sense, he was the anti-Thatcher.
Who’s worse – Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi?
Trump’s hair is even worse than Berlusconi’s – it looks like it might blow way or maybe bite you. And so are his immigrant-bating, neo-con politics. Berlusconi isn’t really an ideologue and doesn’t believe in much apart from having fun and looking after his business. But thanks to luck, business acumen and vast media power, he has been able to do more damage the Donald Trump will ever do.
“Being Berlusconi: The Rise and Fall from Cosa Nostra to Bunga Bunga”, (Palgrave MacMillan) is on sale in the US and in the UK from August 24th. It is also available on Amazon.