Damian Killeen – Scotland: The View from Italy

What would it take for Scots to make the transition from a ‘subject’ mentality to a ‘citizen’ mindset that could conceive something as radical and transformative as a written Constitution for an Independent Scottish Republic?

Damian Killeen is former director of the Poverty Alliance in Scotland

Cross-posted from Bella Caledonia

Credit: Jonathan Riddell

I was born in Yorkshire, England, but am an ‘adopted’ Scot, having lived in Edinburgh and worked in the capital and in Glasgow for over forty years. I now live for much of my time, as an active pensioner, in Taranto in the South of Italy from where I have watched with some despair the political developments of the past few months, especially last week’s election. I left England at the time of the Thatcher government when, famously, the Prime Minister declared that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and the family, to find community and a shared sense of social responsibility in Scotland. I have lived in Scotland long enough to have seen the cracks in the mirror but I continue to feel a sense of belonging to a country that has resisted the idea of breaking away from our European institutions and that has sufficient confidence in itself to have a grown up conversation about whether or not it should seek independence from the UK.

During the devolution process, as Chair of a UK anti-poverty network, I witnessed an unravelling of the cloak of power of English colleagues who had become accustomed to the idea that they could speak to government on behalf of the whole UK. Disrobed of this presumption and faced with representatives from distinctive networks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they, like the Emperor, realised that they were ‘in the all together’ and, naked in the market place, needed to find a new robe. Through this microcosm I saw the beginnings of an effort to identify a credible ‘English’ identity in the context of a dynamically changed UK. It has been and continues to be a struggle to achieve this. It is this dynamic of devolution, I believe, that has, in great part, led to the current ‘England First’ attitude towards the rest of Europe and that Boris Johnson has effectively amplified with his populist rhetoric and his Northern spending spree to buy the regions into his ‘One Nation’ Toryism.

Italy was also threatened recently with its own version of Boris Johnson. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega, a spin off from the Berlusconi stable and in government in coalition with the Five Star Movement, pushed the country to the brink with his actions to ‘defend’ Italy’s borders from immigrants and his links with ultra-right parties elsewhere in Europe. An effective communicator, he gained extensive support as a spokesperson – speeches on the beaches with his muscles on display – for the ‘true Italians’ and their daily concerns. Immigration fears also prompted anti-Europe arguments as the rest of the Union failed to take their share of the numbers of people fleeing North Africa. When Salvini blocked the ports and proposed a general election from which he planned to emerge as the Prime Minister of a majority government, the centre left parties undertook a ‘manovra’ that led to the formation of a new governing coalition that excluded Lega and Salvini from power. This was in depressing contrast with the inability of UK opposition parties to coalesce around a common objective and to Keep Boris Out.

Popular politics in Italy has now taken an unusual turn with the emergence of the ‘sardine’, literally thousands of people coordinated through online social networks who fill , like sardines in a can, every piazza where Salvini is scheduled to appear, carrying cardboard sardines and calling for cohesion not division, peace not war with slogans I remember from the anti-government protests of the eighties. This action has completely foxed the major parties, who would like to attach the movement to their own political agenda except that none of them is clear what the policy of the movement is or whether it even has one. What the demonstrators make clear, as they sing the songs of the partisans who resisted Mussolini during the Second World War, is that they do not want a return to Facism and that, for them Salvini is a fascist threat. If this movement does not fizzle out over Christmas, I suspect that we will see in Italy a growing debate abut what kind of nationalism Italians want; one that is open and inclusive or a nationalism that pulls up the drawbridge and repels all boarders.

There are resonances here for the UK as a whole and also for Scotland as it looks over Hadrian’s Wall at the birth of a new kind of England; and the debate is significant for Scotland as we look again at what we want our future to be.One major difference between Italy and the UK is that Italy is a Republic with a written Constitution that specifically defends citizens’ rights against those of the state. Britons may never never never be slaves, but we are subjects. We may think of ourselves as citizens but Italian citizens, for all the religious fervour of many, do not believe that they are ruled in any sense by someone identified for the job by God.

The Italian President is elected by popular vote and can, eventually, be got rid of if the people think they are not doing their job well. That job is to represent the national interest against the interests of individual parties. The Italian President, for example, will call coalition leaders to his office, if he thinks it is necessarry, to tell them to resolve differences or to stand down to be replaced by other parties or by technicians of no party. This may appear chaotic compared with what we used to believe is our own more stable government system but it is an active, engaged politics which takes care not to place too much power in the hands of any one person or to allow any individual vision of the country to prevail.

One question that Italians have asked me as we have watched the Brexit process is ‘What is your Queen doing about it?’ Republicans they might be, but many Italians are obsessed with the Queen and the Royal Family as portrayed in the media. Many regard the Netflix series, ‘The Crown’ as a documentary and cannot believe that the manipulative, scheming, conniving people it portrays do not play an active role in the political life of the country they rule. They like Carlos because he is seen to be an active force in the UK and in Italy but they are shocked by the limited role played by our head of state as I explain that only a very careful dissection of the Queen’s Christmas Message allows the public any kind of insight into what our monarch actually thinks. ‘What will she say in her Queen’s Speech?’, they ask. ‘Only what she is told to say’, I have to reply.

Two factors make politics very different in Italy from that in the UK. The first is the presence of a written Constitution, forged out of the aftermath of the Fascist era, the terms of which underpin all political, legal and civil actions and relationships in the country and is a real presence in the minds of many and the common bond that ties together the many different versions of what Italy is or might be. Changes to the Constitution are a serious matter, requiring a national referendum and a 66% majority vote before they can be introduced. Politicians , such as Matteo Renzi, have lost their positions by misjudging the public mood in a referendum. The second difference is in the media. Journalists are protected by the Constitution in undertaking their investigative role and have found ways of continuing this function regardless of changes in media ownership. There is plenty of trivia to be found in the Italian media, as elsewhere. But there is also a wealth of polemic and investigative writing in the printed media and, every evening on television there are challenging, investigative programmes, such as L’Iene (The Hyenas) which takes authorities and others to task over possible infringements of citizens’ rights, large or small. There are talk shows with presenters who do not have to pretend to impartiality, that bring together voices from many sides of any argument in often raucous debate that challenges my basic Italian skills; and there are searching interviews with everyone from the Prime Minister down. The idea that a potential or actual Prime Minister might refuse to engage fully with the media, as Boris Johnson does, is viewed with incredulity in Italy and as fundamentally unconstitutional. Newsnight and Question Time look like poor gruel compared with the feast of political debate available to Italians. As in other ways, I think we could benefit from more of the Italian diet.

Italians know that Scotland is different from England; they know that we voted to remain in the European Union and they know that we are considering Independence. In the South where I am based there are mixed views about the value of the union with the North and some are calling for Independence from Rome and all it stands for. Where Scotland used to have its oil, the South of Italy still produces much of Europe’s olive oil and wine and has a strong technological base, including new technologies. There is an argument that the South of Italy produces much of the wealth and talent on which the rest of Italy depends and that it should be retained in the South where poverty and unemployment statistics far exceed those of Italy as a whole. Italians wonder if Scotland has the same economic foundation to support a move to Independence.

Taranto, where I live, a Spartan colony older than Rome with a history, archeology, tourist potential and cozze (mussels) to beat those from the rest of Italy has also been home to one of Europe’s major polluters, the ex-Ilva steel works. Now in French ownership, this plant and its mortal impact on the lives of its workers and their children has become a focus of national concern with the Prime Minister and others on site with proposals and money to address this pollution and protect the citizens from further decline. Previous owners of the plant have been taken to court by the Italian Government and this might happen again. Where Boris Johnson visits his North to reward voters for what they have done for his party and ignores Scottish democracy, the Italian State is moving to correct past injustices and to retain the bonds of Italian citizenship. What citizens in either country will make of this is yet to be seen.

As I ponder the future as an extra-communitarian and try to work out how to continue living as a European in the new hostile environment, I can see that Scotland and Italy, at the opposite poles of the European continent and connected since Celtic times by the sea, have much in common with their desire for open-hearted, inclusive democracy and that an independent Scotland could learn much from the Italy. But we also need to remember that the Italian Constitution was forged on the anvils of war and fascism and was achieved at great expense to the Italian people, a cost that they still remember. Scotland may have been ‘oppressed’ by history but it has not been through the fire in the same way as Italy. What would it take for Scots to make the transition from a ‘subject’ mentality to a ‘citizen’ mindset that could conceive something as radical and transformative as a written Constitution for an Independent Scottish Republic that the people would be ready and willing to defend?

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