Saturday, 25 July 2009

All such a laugh

Some politicians have a certain knack. They deftly craft out a character for themselves, or for their group, and use this to appear affable, or worse, bumbling. This veneer is often the one reported, and thus detracts from the real story.

This phenomenon may be present equally in all countries, but your author's exposure to the UK means that many British examples come to mind. One does not much care that Jeffrey Archer had sex with a prostitute. Concern does arise when this man stands for the office of Mayor of London having lied under oath, profited from suppressing this truth and is remembered for this rather than his highly questionable 'charitable' activities.

Similarly the Conservative party of the late nineties earned a reputation for not being able to keep their trousers up. Everyone enjoys a good snigger! David Mellor had an affair, Hartley Booth found his researcher irresistible! Piers Merchant suffered the same compulsion. Despite the embarassement for a party pushing moral probity, the sex helped mask what was really occurring: ministers were accepting money to influence their behaviour in the house; they were fundamentally corrupt, and again the abhorrent Jonathan Aitken tried to profit from a legal trial.

One international character comes to mind for employing similar tactics. We promised this in the first post and today is Silvio Berlusconi's turn. More accurately it is his first turn - the man has so little to commend him that there is plenty to write about.

Mr Berlusconi has recently been in the news a fair bit because of his Tory-esque inability to control his trousers. This is a further diversion from the real problem: the evidence certainly points to him being corrupt, employing his prime-ministerial powers to protect him from prosecution. The tragedy is that he is proficient at the use of his buffoonish, frank character to paint himself as the unreformed jester, rather than a man who routinely abuses his position. The Economist, describing why it was writing an open letter to Mr Burlusconi, detailed another all-too-familiar example of him using his outrageous turns-of-phrase to mask him from real criticism. A German MEP (Mr Martin Schulz) quite correctly pointed out that the thrice Italian Prime Minister had used his parliamentary powers to thwart justice. So Mr Burlusconi labelled him as acting like a concentration camp guard. Cue much overplayed shock and outrage, and the obfuscation of why the German was speaking up in the first place.

It is this manipulation of the judiciary that will be addressed in this post. The trouble with Mr Burlusconi's many trials is that they are complicated, and thus don't make for such snappy stories as, say, crass comments about earthquake victims. Fortunately several publications have gone to the effort, albeit most of these are outside Italy as Mr Burlusconi owns much of the media there. In 2003 the Economist produced a table that provides an excellent summary of the way our subject has behaved. Regrettably this content is only available for subscribers, but I hope this short extract of a very long article can be reproduced below:

It is not difficult to spot Mr Burlusconi's ability to convert guilty verdicts into aquittals, to run out the clock or to pass legislation granting him immunity. Let us take just one of these cases - the 'All Iberian' case. A company under Mr Burlusconi's control made 23 billion lire of donations to Bettino Craxi, the then head of the Italian Socialist Party. As the table shows, Mr Burlusconi was found guilty. This ruling was not overturned by either of the two appeals courts - all that was applied was the statute of limitation, so that the time to try the offence had elapsed. Three courts accepted that our man was responsible for sizeable, illegal donations, and that company records must have been falsified to hide this.

Surely this is not someone one wants to be running a country. One need not even mention the trials where Burlusconi has ensured the passage of new legislation to adjust the statutes of limitation to realise that this is a man with nothing but contempt for justice.

It is easy to be angry at Italians for electing this man to three non-consecutive prime-ministerships. However he owns much of the media in Italy, and what he does not own he attempt to smear or restrict the business of. Nonetheless, Italians do not (yet) live in a third-world country, so must shoulder some of the blame for electing a man who extends Italy's image of long entwinement with corruption. Further, the European Union is too interrelated to ignore the fact that this man runs the fourth most populous country in the Union. Time for other leaders to speak out, and for the centralised anti-corruption laws to be given another polish.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

We're back. And the Swiss are for it this time.

Er, sorry about that.

It is, by my calculation, six months to the day that we last posted to WATM. At least it was last Tuesday when I should have posted this message. Slothfulness is, I suppose, tricky to shake. So while we slogged our self-important – and in the case of one of us, substantial – guts out to build an audience of 7, we have probably lost them in the intervening time. But as we wrote in post 1, we will plough on nonetheless. Not for us the grandeur of having anyone actually read our musings.

Part of the reason for our long respite was that working on the second of two posts on moral relativism has been taking its toll. Rest assured that that post is on its way (we have been receiving complaints) along with a post on Berlusconi: The Early Years, courtesy of m’colleague.

But today we turn our attention to the Swiss, or to give them their correct name, the Bloody Swiss.

In terms of international relations the Swiss deserve a reputation, not as doughty, independently-minded, peace-loving eccentrics, but rather as self-interested, isolationist, ostrich-like refusniks.

Neutrality, when it comes to important matters of international diplomacy, or more importantly, the defence of human rights around the world, is not a virtue, but is paraded as such by the Swiss. Their refusal even to join the United Nations until 2002 shows how seriously they take international co-operation. Even the North Koreans, not known for their internationalist views, joined in 1991. Switzerland's isolationism makes it all the more surprising that a very large number of international bodies are based in the country. Even the UN has its European HQ in Geneva. Before 2002 literally almost anywhere else on earth would have been somewhere which was at least a member of the UN.

The Swiss constitution outlines some very laudable aims. But there appears to be no real willingness to engage with its European neighbours, or countries around the world, to achieve them. So much so that the map of the EU looks as though it will have a Swiss-shaped hole in its mid-riff for some time to come.

This is selfish and silly. The Swiss have a lot to gain from EU membership, as does the EU. And in terms of international relations it is our view that all Western, liberal, rich nations like Switzerland should contribute to important issues around the globe. Someone should tell the Swiss that there's a situation brewing in Afghanistan if they feel like getting off their ample, chocolate-laden arses.

Not that the Swiss nation need concern themselves with their own national security too much given that they are almost entirely surrounded by NATO allies and benefit from their protection without having to contribute a single solider to the collective security alliance.

Let us get this straight. Switzerland is not a bad country. That is to say there are far worse to which we should, in all honesty, be turning our attention. However, too few people, in our experience treat Switzerland with the small amount of disdain we believe it deserves. Maybe those 7 readers of ours now will. Take that, Switzerland!