Magazine article The Spectator

Madeleine Albright and the Italians Have Joined a Crusade-Against the Corrupt Inglesi

Magazine article The Spectator

Madeleine Albright and the Italians Have Joined a Crusade-Against the Corrupt Inglesi

Article excerpt

Speaking to world leaders in the Swiss skiresort of Davos on Sunday, Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, stated the obvious: corrupt politicians are one of the main threats to democracy. Yes, indeed. But then Mrs Albright did something remarkable. She singled out Britain - yes, Britain - along with Japan and Italy as countries whose commitment to stamping out such corruption 'has been anything but strong'.

We all know about Italian political corruption which, given its ancient pedigree and Italy's geographical position, will never go away; and we sort of know, even though deeply mysterious and very far away, that the Japs are up to their necks in it as well.

But British politicians? Corrupt? Come off it, Mrs Albright. How dare you lump us in with the Nips and the Wops. And what about the French and the Germans for God's sake, and all this recent stuff about the Mitterrand-Kohl slush fund for a Greater Europe? Not a word.

Remarkably, too, there was not a single word in the British media about this section of Mrs Albright's speech to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Where was the Foreign Secretary when his country needed him? Where was the British media? 'You're the first person to contact us on this,' a Foreign Office spokesman told me, adding: 'It's an attack from a close ally on something we don't feel vulnerable on. It's out of the blue. We're rather annoyed. He [Robin] might want to comment.'

Here in Italy it was a different story. Mrs Albright's remarks were front-page news. 'The Disease of Corruption Undermines Italy and England', crowed the headline in La Stampa. The Turin daily was crowing not about Italian corruption. Corrupt Italian politicians are old news. No, La Stampa was crowing about corrupt British politicians.

Understandably, if everyone else is at it especially the stuck-up British with all that guff about the British sense of fair play - it makes Italians feel less bad about their own corruption. All 'this corruption at the highest political level in Germany, France and England. . . ' lamented Ida Magli, Italy's Lynda Lee-Potter, in Il Resto del Carlino. Signora Magli did at least mention France and Germany.

But what is it exactly we British are supposed to be up to on the corruption front that we're not stamping down on? No one ever seems to say. A few thousand quid which Mohamed Fayed may or not have bunged Neil Hamilton in a brown envelope? A spot of property dealing by Greg Dyke after he took up the post of BBC director general? The creative business goings-on of Geoffrey Robinson? Hackney? This is nothing compared to Italy where in the early 1990s the entire political system was exposed in the courts as rotten to the core. Italian politics nowadays, say some Italians, especially Italian politicians, is cleaner. But most Italians do not believe this.

Stories such as Mrs Albright's one on British corruption, seized on so eagerly by the Italian press, make me realise that in life it is not the truth that matters but what people believe the truth to be. The British believe Britain is one thing; the world, certainly the Italians, Mrs Albright probably, believe it is another.

For a story about Britain to have the legs to make it this far south it must knock down the traditional image of Britain and the British. Many stories have such legs. Recent examples include 'Myth of the Bobbies Inglesi Dies - They are Cruel and Unpunished'. Using a Council of Europe report on police abuse of power and violence in Europe, Italian newspapers were able to say that the British bobby, far from being that smiling bloke with the funny hat as tradition would have it, is a violent bastard. …

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