David Leask: The lessons from Italy’s love affair with technocrats

·5-min read
Italian President Sergio Mattarella
Italian President Sergio Mattarella

The coffins, we now know, filled the church next to the main cemetery in Bergamo.

The people of this Lombard town, especially its old and the frail, were dying faster than they could be buried.

And so the pews in a graveyard chapel were pushed aside and the dead were laid out, side by side, in almost identical pine boxes, each topped with a simple cross.

It took a year or so for the first photos from inside the church at Bergamo to emerge. But those images burned in to the public’s imagination. From a distance, only subtle shades of varnish told the coffins apart.

The communities around Bergamo were among the first in Europe to be hit by Covid. News of the sheer volume of deaths sent a shockwave around Italy, and the rest of the continent.

In Rome, Giuseppe Conte, a premier holding together a curious coalition of populists, ordered a lockdown, first, on March 9, 2020, for Lombardy, then a day later, for his whole country.

It was an unprecedented peacetime restriction on people’s liberty. It has to be done to protect our loved ones, Mr Conte said in a televised address, after nervously adjusting a pair of microphones before him.

In Britain some, including public health experts, called on Boris Johnson to follow the example of his counterpart in Rome. Others openly scoffed at that idea.

“Still trying to get my head round the fact there are people on Twitter seriously arguing the British government should be taking lessons in crisis management from the Italian state,” said the Conservative commentator Dan Hodges in a later deleted and retracted tweet.

Experts now believe Mr Johnson’s slow lockdown response cost lives. But as the pandemic progressed British - and Scottish - authorities eschewed other Italian-style public health measures, including ubiquitous vaccine passports and surgical mask mandates.

Indeed, there was even a minor diplomatic spat as a result. Back in September 2020 Mr Johnson, asked in the House of Commons why countries like Italy and Germany had lower infection rates than the UK, declared that Britain was “a freedom-loving country,” and that it was “very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary”.

That did not impress Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s elder statesman president. “Italians also love freedom but we also care about seriousness,” he responded.

Scroll forward to now and Italy’s crisis management does look like it might offer some lessons to the UK. The country so far has lower deaths and higher vaccination rates than the UK. Its GDP shrank by 8.9% in 2020. Horrendous. Britain’s was down 9.9%. Worse still.

There are always going to be limits to the meaningfulness of such comparisons.

But I think it is worth pausing to reflect a little on Italy’s crisis management, on its crisis politics, and especially on the confidence the country places in technocrats rather than political partisans.

A year in to the pandemic, the second coalition government of Mr Conte collapsed amid cabinet squabbling. It fell to the non-partisan head of state, Mr Mattarella, to find a replacement. He looked outside parliament to do so, and summoned “Super” Mario Draghi, another independent, the then 72-year-old retired head of the European Central Bank, to form a government of national unity.

Mr Draghi somehow managed to corral parties in to a coalition. He also filed some ministerial posts with other technocrats.

Last month Mr Mattarella, 80, tried to stand down. The son of an anti-fascist, this Sicilian academic and jurist had entered politics after the mafia murdered his brother. Now he is widely seen as above the partisan fray, as a stabilising influence. Parliamentarians, who select the president, could not agree on a successor. Mr Mattarella, against his will, was re-elected.

So, in crisis, Italy has turned to non-partisans and technocrats. And not for the first time. After the last financial crisis, for example, the same thing happened. Recent studies suggest that in the last two parliamentary terms around a fifth of ministerial posts have been filled by unelected functionaries and technocrats.

It is tempting to contrast Italy’s habit of “calling in the experts” with the often very public rejection of specialist knowledge we see at Westminster.

But, sorry, I am not going to do that. Why? Because I suspect dislike and the love of experts come from the same place: populist anti-politics.

Let’s cite some, well, specialists. “The most obvious explanation for this tendency to turn to technocrats is that love for experts is simply the opposite of hatred for politicians,” argued Filippo Tronconi and Luca Verzichelli when “Super Mario” came to power last year.

Writing in the Conversation, the academics, of Bologna and Siena universities respectfully, warned that technocratic governments erode democracy.

How? Well, they create a false sense that there is only ever one solution to an issue. And they make it easier for voters to elect populists. After all, why not put your cross next to a glib but entertaining fool if you know a grown-up expert will be called in when the going gets tough?

And, of course, Italian populists then get to rage against the technocrats, against specialist knowledge, in an echo of a narrative more familiar to those of us who watch the populist pro-Brexit British right.

The pandemic has thrust specialists in to the political frontline. And yet, at least here in Scotland, there is very little discussion about their role in decision-making beyond “listen to experts” rhetoric. Some of the big issues of our age, such as global heating, are terrifying complex. So we cannot wait for the next church to fill with coffins before we work out how we feel about experts and power, about technocrats and democracy.

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