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Boo! Why populists keep surprising liberals

Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

July 17, 2018   3 mins

This column usually unpacks the written word, but today I want to focus on BBC Radio 4’s Letters From Italy – which, despite the name, is an example of the spoken word.

Each episode of the five-part series, featured a letter from a prominent Italian. First broadcast in April 2013, the purpose of the letters was to reflect on the state of the nation, following the general election of that year. As you may recall, the ‘shock’ result was the arrival of the populist Five Star Movement as a major political force.

A much bigger shock was to come in the 2018 general election, in which country’s political establishment was booted out of power. Five Star, which won, is now in government – in partnership with the League, a party of the hard right. The latest polls show the League surging into first place, as it gobbles up support from the mainstream centre-right.

Italy is the Eurozone’s third largest economy, a founder member of the European project, a member of the G7. To have such an important country governed by a deeply Eurosceptic, defiantly populist coalition is a nightmare for the European Union.

But did anyone see it coming? They should have. As with Brexit, as with Trump, the signs were clearly there to be read. So why weren’t they?

Letters from Italy provides part of the answer – though not in a way that does the BBC much credit.

When I stumbled across the programme on BBC iPlayer Radio, I thought it might have contained some early warnings of what was to come five years later. At the very least I was hoping for an insight into the already growing divide between the Italian people and the political establishment. Unfortunately, the people who the BBC chose to peer into the void were drawn from Italy’s cultural establishment.

The BBC website has some helpful biographical details:

“Economist Professor Gustavo Piga is the first contributor in a series of five letters from leading Italians from the fields of politics, economics, television, art and journalism… Lucia Annunziata is editor of the Huffington Post, Italy but spent many years in Italian television including a period as head of RIA, the Italian equivalent of the BBC… Dacia Maraini is a novelist and playwright and an established figure in the Italian literary landscape… Annalisa Piras is an Italian Journalist based in London.”

These are all highly accomplished individuals – but all possessed of much the same metropolitan liberal outlook. One wouldn’t expect an Islington dinner party to understand Brexit Britain; or a Park Slope book club to understand Trump supporters; and this was the basic problem with Letters From Italy.

The only real variety came from the fifth contributor, Carlo Sibilia – a Five Star politician from southern Italy. He made a pretty good job of explaining his party’s rising popularity. However, the issue he mainly referred to was the environment. That’s not so surprising, because matters of sustainability are a major part of Five Star’s platform. Nevertheless, an awful lot was left unsaid.

Much was made of emigration from Italy, but almost nothing about immigration to Italy – especially the super-sensitive issue of illegal immigration. When the matter of the European Union came up it was, for the most part, aired defensively. There was no proper examination of the impact of the single currency on Italy’s economy. There was, however plenty of complaining about Silvio Berlusconi.

It is the whole of Italy’s establishment, not just its most wayward member, that is to blame for country’s problems. The Italian people know this, which is why, in March this year, they threw the scoundrels out.

As with Brexit, as with Trump, liberals were taken aback – which they will continue to be, if they only listen to other liberals.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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