Magazine article History Today

Italy's First Northern League?

Magazine article History Today

Italy's First Northern League?

Article excerpt

In the campaign for the Italian elections in April of this year much was made of supposed `threats to the stability of the state' from various quarters. The Centre-Left `Olive Tree' coalition (the eventual victors) evoked the spectre of Fascism in the ranks of their opponents (Silvio Berlusconi and his allies), whilst the Centre-Right highlighted the influence of the refounded Communist Party on the formation of the new government. However, events since the election have proved that the real threat to the stability, indeed, to the unity of the Italian state, came not from ex-Fascists or ex-Communists but from the secessionist Northern League.

The Northern League - originally the Lombard League before it was expanded to include like-minded organisations from all regions of northern Italy - began as a protest movement against the corrupt party political system, the centralisation of state bureaucracy in Rome, and above all, taxation. In the opinion of the League's supporters, the hard-working, law-abiding population of the North conscientiously paid their taxes only to see them squandered on the unproductive and crime-ridden South.

From modest beginnings the League has risen to become a major political force in Italy in the 1990s. It entered government as a coalition partner of Berlusconi in 1994 and then withdrew its support causing that government to collapse at the end of the year. Under the populist leadership of Umberto Bossi it has since taken up, a more radical stance. Whilst previously calling for autonomy for the North within a federal Italian state, in this year's elections it presented itself on a platform of outright independence.

Contrary to expectations this proved a popular move. The League emerged with an increased percentage of the vote, fifty-nine seats in parliament and twenty seven in the senate. It is now the third largest party at a national level, and the largest party in its stronghold region, the Veneto, in the north-east.

As the movement has gathered momentum it has sought and found a historical past for itself that has reinforced its sense of identity and mission. For Italy in the Middle Ages also knew a Lombard League that was formed to protect the interests of north Italians. The medieval Lombard League was essentially an alliance of rich and powerful city communes that pooled military and financial resources against the overbearing dominion of the German Empire, which at that time included northern Italy.

The modern Lombard League has taken its name and much of its imagery from this medieval precursor. For example, it is also known as the `Caroccio', a reference to the war chariot the medieval communes carried into battle. The party's badge is a knight holding aloft a sword, a design based on a statute (by Enrico Butti) erected in 1900 on the battlefield of Legnano, scene of a famous victory of the communes against the German emperor, Frederick I, in 1176. Political rallies are held at Pontida, in the foothills of the Alps near Bergamo, where the leaders of the communes supposedly swore solemn oaths of mutual assistance in 1167. Supporters of the League bring medieval-style banners and flags to these gatherings; some even wear armour.

Apart from superficial borrowing, the historical precedent of the communes has significant resonance in the political message of the modern League. The communes, struggle is glorified, naturally, and their success is seen to prove that a monolithic state can be successfully challenged, in the twelfth century or the twentieth century. The united communes are thus viewed as a kind of North Italian nation, the `Padania' as the modern leadership of the League likes to call it, which gives a sense to the current policy of secession. Furthermore it clothes in a heroic hue a programme that might otherwise be criticised as negative, selfish and xenophobic. From the point of view of image the relationship of the modern League with its medieval predecessor is therefore important. …

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