We British may soon be forced to brush up our knowledge of modern Italy, says CHRISTOPHER WORTLEY
Modern Italy: A Political History by Denis Mack Smith, Yale University Press £35 hardback, £14.95 paperback.
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h d perhaps this will justify any irregularities in the means which we have had to use." With these words Cavour greeted the unification of Italy in 1860. Pope Pius IX. did not accept Cavour's excuses and did not recognise the authority of the new state. Modern Italy was born in a crisis of political legitimacy. Her citizens could always choose whether to obey or ignore the law When the Church relented in 1929 she did so to Mussolini, and one moral dilemma was replaced by another.
It was in Southern Italy that the lack of moral authority of the state was most strongly felt. In the 19th century, the Cammorra and the Mafia could and did claim that their actions were justified by the attack on the Church. In the 20th century they could claim that they were fighting Fascism or Communism. As we move into an ever closer European Union it is worth asking what are the consequences of being in the same polity as Palermo. Italian leaders have not yet found a satisfactory solution to this, and a great deal of Italian enthusiasm for a federal Europe lies in the prospect of someone else taking over responsibility for the Italian national dilemma. As the British form a part of that someone else, we may be forced to learn more about Italy than is required for pleasant tourism, and for this there is no better guide than Denis Mack Smith.
For the many Italian readers of this book (and a signif
icant reason for Mack Smith's influence is that we can be certain that the Italian edition will be a recommended text in Italian schools and universities), some awkward facts are presented in these pages. Not least among them is that the South has been transferring its capital to the North. That this occurred from 1860 to 1945 is surprising, and a good explanation of both Southern political disaffection and continuing backwardness. That it continued after 1945 is remarkable, and removes much of the substance which is believed to underpin the posturing of Umberto Bossi and his Lega Nord.
Mussolini marches down the pages of the second half of this book in all his grim absurdity, from the petty farce of his campaign against "bourgeois mentality", which included attempts to ban evening dress and coffee (Vidussoni tried to extend this ban to golf, but was thwarted by Ciano) to the nihilism of his resentment that too few Italians were dying in the war for which he had done so little to prepare them. When it comes to recent Italian politics, the cynicism of Lampedusa's Tancredi "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change" remains as good a guide as any. Mack Smith is not among those taken in by heady talk of a Second Italian Republic rising from the destruction of the Christian Democrats, nor by Silvio Berlusconi, the chief and selfserving purveyor of this myth. Events since the publication of this book have justified his
caution. The Italian parliament has refused to allow Cesare Previti to stand trial on charges of bribing judges in Rome with some £20 million. The local election results in Western Sicily showed that someone is still capable of shifting tens of thousands of votes to favoured candidates, in this Case to former Christian Democrat politicians who were meant to have departed the scene. Berlusconi himself has cast aside the cloak of reform to call for a return to the old system of full proportional representation.
Mack Smith is as accurate as ever in the key events bringing about the collapse of the Christian Democrats the assassination of Salvo Lima and the arrest of Vito Ciancimino as much as the scandals in Milan. He is perhaps a little optimistic as to the effects of a first-pastthe-post electoral system. After all, Italy used this method of election for most of the period from 1860 to 1922. Italian politics is fragmented by its electoral geography: the defining factors are regional rather than national, and study of the 1996 constituency returns indicates that adoption of the british system would give the Sicilians even more influence than they have had under PR.
For a country with few natural resources, the Italian economic achievement since 1945 has been miraculous. More people have been brought out of poverty in Italy in that time than in any other part of Europe. This is primarily the legacy of the reviled Christian Democrats; of men such as Giulio Andreotti, now awaiting trial on multiple charges of corruption and associating with the Mafia. One wonders whether he has reflected on Cavour's words concerning aims and means, perhaps as he attends morning Mass as he has done every day of his long political life. Seven times Prime Minister, this former Vatican Archivist is the epitome of political life in modem Italy. Would his defence be that he had chosen the lesser of two evils, using the wickedness of the Mafia (who at least in principle claim to submit to the moral judgement of the Church) to avert the evil of the Communists and Fascists?
Giolitti described Church and State as parallel lines that should never meet. In Italy the two are intertwined. Professor Mack Smith in the course of five hundred lucid pages provides the parameters within which a myriad of moral dilemmas emerged from their dialogue. As a true historian he has laid out the facts as best he can find them, and speculated upon the motives where there was evidence from which to do so, but never imposed his own agenda. That is a rare thing, and this book is worth the time taken to read it.