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Monday, 14 November 2011

A reply to a couple of comments on my New Statesman piece from earlier.

A couple of comments from my latest post on The Staggers over at The New Statesman have questioned the accuracy of my assertion that what it is going on in Italy isn't very democratic.

Here's Carlo Turco:

I think that your opinion is somewhat ill founded and rather misleading. No doubt the financial crisis etc. are at the root of Mr. Berlusconi having been fired. But this has been accomplished within the Italian Constitution rules framework. It's the Italian Parliament that would have not granted Mr. Berlusconi the required votes majority and Mr. B. has liked better to resign than facing a negative vote. Mr. Monti has been appointed by the Republic's President and will have to submit to the Parliament's vote - should not he receive a majority vote he will have to resign and new elections will be called. Democratic rules are being fully adhered to, in Italy, where a Parliament - not a Government head - is being elected by the people and where deputies are granted the right to change opinions and majorities. Where would democratic rules have been violated or imperiled?

Jacob Lester has made a similar point.

So, let me be clear.

I am not saying that the moves afoot in Italy are either unconstitutional or indeed illegal. I have no doubt proper due process is being observed and indeed the parliamentarians of both the Upper and Lower house have to approve the formation of the new government (although of course there are numerous unelected Senators for Life in the Italian parliament who will be approving the government - as undemocratic a position as our own House of Lords. Don't get me started...).

What I am saying is that I do not believe the formation of this government to be particularly democratic. This is not just the case that a new Prime Minister is being chosen. This is an unelected official who effectively has been elevated into parliament to execute a manifesto that has not been held to scrutiny by the Italian electorate.

This is quite different from say, the situation where John Major and Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Both had been sent to Parliament after an election, both were members of the party that had an absolute majority in the main legislative assembly, and both pursued a manifesto led agenda approved by the British people.

None of these things is true in Italy. Hence I find the process profoundly undemocratic - even if it is constitutionally sound.

Jacob Lester makes an additional point:

There are no unified "markets" who decide anything. There's only politicians who make bad decisions and are exposed to the pressure that their irresponsibility has led to.

Of course, in the sense that there's not a big meeting where every banker in the world gets together, has a group hug and then sticks pins in models of leaders they want shot of, Jacob's quite right.

But none the less, the markets do act in unison according to how subjectively 'confident' they feel - and expect politicians and non politicians alike to act accordingly. To quote the BBC over the weekend:

Mr. Monti, a well respected economist, is exactly the sort of man that the markets would like to see take charge at this time of crisis, says the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome, and he has support in many quarters. But there is significant opposition to him within the country, and a feeling that Italy's troubles are just too deep for a mere change of government to make any rapid, significant difference.

Maybe the BBC is right. Maybe they are wrong. Only one way to find out - ask the people. Except this seems very out of step with how the real power brokers at play, the Group de Frankfurt, want things to operate. To quote The Guardian:

Here's how things work. The real decisions in Europe are now taken by the Frankfurt Group, an unelected cabal made of up eight people: Lagarde; Merkel; Sarkozy; Mario Draghi, the new president of the ECB; José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission; Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup; Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council; and Olli Rehn, Europe's economic and monetary affairs commissioner.

This group, which is accountable to no one, calls the shots in Europe. The cabal decides whether Greece should be allowed to hold a referendum and if and when Athens should get the next tranche of its bailout cash. What matters to this group is what the financial markets think not what voters might want. To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed and placed in the hands of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons

Or if that's not your cup of tea - the Telegraph:

In Italy, the European Central Bank has engineered the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi by playing the bond markets, switching purchases on and off to enforce compliance with its written dictates ("La Lettera"), and ultimately allowing 10-year yields to spike to 7.45pc to drive him out.

Europe’s president Herman Van Rompuy swooped in to Rome to clinch the Putsch. "Italy needs reforms not elections," he said.

That last line says it all really. Don't you think?


  1. A tip of my hat to you, Richard, for responding to the commenters.

    As to the necessity of elections with a PM change, especially in circumstances such as this, I do believe Van Rompuy is right. The crisis is happening right now and it requires action right now. Elections will take months to prepare and carry out, and will cause confusion and loss of confidence, which will only exacerbate the crisis. There's a time to be pragmatic, and there's a time to be idealistic. Presently I believe the former to be sensible, due to the grave and immediate nature of the crisis. Elections will certainly come afterwards, when the worst is over, and the electorate will have a change to judge the measures carried out.

    As to the practicalities of elections when a PM changes, how would that happen? What institution is to say when the circumstances are so that an election is required if a change of government is to happen? What will the criteria be? Who will head this institution that will make the decision of an election being necessary?

    And what would this mean for political life? Will parliamentarians constantly have to be anxious that whatever new policy is carried out will warrant an election? It would create a lot of uncertainty in the system.

    As to if this means there's a democratic deficit, then I'd agree. Elections will be held sooner or later, politicians will be accountable and the electorate will get a say. The fact that they don't get a say all the time is not undemocratic, it is merely a feature of representative democracy, which has to find a compromise between direct democracy and pragmatism in the form of representation, in order to provide a functional political system.

  2. Argh, that was supposed to read: "As to if this means there's a democratic deficit, then I'd disagree."

    Pretty important distinction. :)

  3. Thanks Jacob, and no worries on coming back - I like a healthy debate.

    I suppose the main difference between us is your question as to when and who decides an election is necessary. It seems clear to me that unelected officials in Europe have decided on this occasion an election is unnecessary. It is interesting that the ECB spent twice as much on Italian Bonds two weeks ago than last week, when Italian bonds was under far more serious assault from the markets. If their intention was to save Berlusconi, the opposite would be true. it seems that someone decided that he should go, and the markets should be allowed to do their worst.

    I am finding it amusing that similar articles to my own are being written over and over again in both the Guardian and The Telegraph - not normally happy bedfellows. What a strange turn of events!