'EXCUSE me, Prime Minister Berlusconi…"
"Ah, buongiorno! You bring me the telephone number of Signorina Carla Bruni? Grazie! I think I gotta one digit wrong – she not answering my calls."
"I'm afraid not, Prime Minister. I just wanted to ask what is your reaction to the court judgment denying you immunity from corruption charges?"
"My reaction? Whatta you think my reaction is? I spend ?200 million on judges – scusi! on lawyers – money I could spend on presents for beautiful ladies – and this is thanks I get! From now on, no more Meestair Nice Guy – I gonna abolish the judges!"
"Is that not a bit extreme?"
"Extreme? Whosa extreme? You think I Mussolini? All this legal crap is distraction from statecraft. What I wanna do is build, 'ow you say, Entente Cordiale with France. I discuss with Signora Sarkozy over dinner – no need for Nicolas, like all 'usband he just getta in the way. Now, you get mobile number for Carla. Excuse, please, I gotta comb my hair."
It has been a trying week for Signora Berlusconi's wee boy, with obstreperous judges denying him the immunity from prosecution which, like all politicians, he regards as his basic human right. Yet, if he has reacted with what seems to Anglo-Saxon commentators surprising insouciance, he may well have good grounds for taking so relaxed an attitude. Last week he claimed to have made more than 2,500 court appearances; that is a record that would inspire respect in Easterhouse.
"I am without a doubt the person who has been most persecuted by judges in the entire history of the world and the history of man," he told journalists, with a degree of pathos that suggests his current strategy is to imitate Lord Byron by bearing across Europe the pageant of his bleeding heart. No judge has nailed Berlusconi yet, but he undoubtedly faces certain embarrassments.
Last February, tax accountant David Mills, the estranged husband of Cabinet Office Minister Tessa Jowell, was convicted in Italy of taking a 377,000 bribe from Berlusconi to lie in court and was sentenced in absentia to four-and-a-half years' imprisonment. He is now appealing the case in a Milan court, demanding the right to call Berlusconi as a witness, which was previously denied. Since, however, the original charges affecting Berlusconi were dropped when the immunity law was passed, they may have to be initiated again and are likely to be timed out by a statute of limitations.
The same applies to a further trial the Prime Minister faces on tax evasion charges, though another recent investigation could prove more problematic. What is of greater significance than the fate of Silvio Berlusconi is the wider context of the Italian – and European – political culture that has made the whole charade possible. Corruption is now the defining characteristic of so-called parliamentary democracy throughout the European Union, including Britain.
British and other journalists have joyously joined in the baiting of Berlusconi; but they have neglected the bigger picture. Of course, it is concerning, even intolerable, that an individual with the massive media ownership that Berlusconi embodies should dominate the politics of a nation. Yet why is it that he continues to enjoy significant public support?
Some of it is cultural: Berlusconi is typical of the Italian male who breathes "Bellissima!" in the wake of every woman who passes in the street. Many Italian men acknowledge that, if they had his wealth, they would operate towards the opposite sex in the same style as the Prime Minister. Italian women have a soft spot for highly sexed men: political correctness is an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.
At a more sophisticated level, there is also a recognition that Berlusconi's complaints, though totally self-interested, are not entirely unfounded. Judicial activism, as epitomised by such bodies as Magistratura Democratica, is seen by some as a threat to democracy in Italy. In the words of Donatella della Porta, of the University of Florence, writing in the European Journal of Political Research eight years ago: "Italy seems therefore to have the most committed judges in the struggle against corruption, but also more than a few judges involved in impropriety."
In the land of the Mafia, corruption is endemic. Since the squalid Risorgimento in 1861, it has been the birthright of the unitary kingdom and republic. The rigged referendum that endorsed the forced incorporation of the Bourbon kingdom of the Two Sicilies into a united Italy ludicrously claimed 98 per cent support for annexation – yet Bourbon loyalists sustained a civil war for eight more years. By a happy congruence, the plebiscite that expelled the House of Savoy from the Italian throne in 1946 was similarly falsified. Berlusconi is more a paradigm than a phenomenon.