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Look carefully at the photos from Thursday’s by-election victory of the UK Independence party in Rochester, or those of last month’s Ukip victory in Clacton. Can you see that disembodied smile? No, this is not Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat; it is a Milanese mog.
That feline grin represents a dangerous trend in British politics, one that goes beyond our arguments about immigration, the EU or globalisation, important though those are. It is the smile of Silvio Berlusconi. For although he is a much diminished force in Italian politics, the political techniques of Italy’s three-times-prime-minister are finding a new life in Britain.
Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, is our greatest emulator, though he is not the only one. A longstanding admirer of Mr Berlusconi, one Boris Johnson, now mayor of London but next May likely to return to parliament, is another. In 2003 he wrote in The Spectator, at the end of a gushing interview set at Mr Berlusconi’s Sardinian villa, that the Italian leader was like Jay Gatsby, “better than the whole damn lot of them”.
The use by Mr Farage, Mr Johnson and others of Mr Berlusconi’s techniques threatens to destroy at least the Tory party, but also Britain’s place in the world as a member of the EU and as a country respected for its belief in truth, fair play and openness.
Am I suggesting that Messrs Farage and Johnson are attending bunga-bunga parties or handing out bribes? Certainly not. Those have merely been the most notable traits of Mr Berlusconi. Leaving aside the advantages of being a billionaire owner of most of Italian commercial television, his key techniques were just two: the smile and the lie.
The broad grin is what you notice first if you meet him. It may be followed by a joke, often politically incorrect. He has always sought to be positive, to radiate optimism, even when campaigning negatively – which usually meant accusing his opponents of being communists, or “the system” of plotting against him and his fellow ordinary Italians.
Optimism is always powerful: remember “yes we can”, or “things can only get better”. It is difficult to use in a protest movement, however, when fear and anger are your natural friends. But Mr Farage has done this brilliantly – attacking and condemning but always wearing a beaming smile, cracking a joke and, yes, sipping a pint.
If they are to beat him, mainstream parties need to emulate this, to find positive messages with which to inspire voters. Talking about cuts and new financial crashes is not going to put a spring into voters’ steps. Mr Johnson has always sought to be a joke-cracking optimist, which is one reason he appeals to many Tories as a potential leader.
Again and again he has resorted to humorous bluster to get him out of difficult situations – most recently in his run-in with the US Internal Revenue Service over an unpaid tax demand. Whether the notoriously hard-nosed IRS officials will be so susceptible to the Johnson magic is open to question.
Yet the other part of the formula – the lie – is where the big danger lurks. Mr Berlusconi showed that if you tell one often enough, it can become the truth. He did so regularly, telling fibs about the state of the economy, about his opponents’ policies, even about his own opinion poll ratings. Moreover, he was able to say contradictory things on successive days and get away with it. How? Mainly through the joke.
It disarms the audience. It makes them like you. It is also a wonderful diversionary tactic, as it gives the media a cheerier story than “Boris trips up” or “Farage flip-flops”. This was shown in August when the London mayor made a big speech about Britain and Europe. In it, he demanded an impressive list of reforms from the EU. Peter Wilding, head of British Influence, a pro-European campaign group, stood up and pointed out seven of the eight reforms he was calling for have already been agreed to by EU leaders (including his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron). Cue bluster, dodging and ducking.
Yet Boris got away with that, and with an even more egregious claim. He had listed a raft of outrageous and damaging regulations foisted on poor British lorry-drivers by the meddlers from Brussels. When the Road Haulage Association was asked about this, the claim turned out to be nonsense. The truckers’ lobby supports the rules and has been pressing for stronger enforcement.
Ukip’s brazen efforts to turn EU myths into apparent truths have been especially successful. Take the claim, often on Mr Farage’s lips, that 75 per cent of UK laws are made in Brussels. Research by the House of Commons library has shown the true figure is 20-30 per cent. Or that the EU’s annual accounts are never approved by auditors. In fact, they always are. Or that the EU stops us expanding trade with China or the Commonwealth. It does not.
Politicians and flip-flops go together like bread and butter. So the fact that Mr Farage proposed two years ago that the National Health Service be replaced by an insurance-based system, then said this month that he opposes private companies taking over the NHS, might be dismissed as politics as normal.
Or listen to Mr Johnson on immigration. In October 2013 he said: “I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say he’s pro-immigration. . . I believe that when talented people have something to offer a society . . . they should be given the benefit of the doubt.” And now? He wants quotas to end the free movement of EU citizens across our borders. He says he would prefer people from the Commonwealth. In fact, most immigrants in the past 15 years have come from outside the EU, not inside.
We used to think that, in our digital age, it would become harder to get away with lies and contradictions. Not so, given our information overload and desire for a chuckle. Yet these techniques risk seducing Britain into taking long-term, life-changing decisions on the basis of falsehoods and flip-flops.
So we move from the Cheshire Cat to Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word,” he said, “it means just what I choose it to mean.”
The writer is a former editor of The Economist
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