Blair’s friend and ally lies in direct line of descent from Mussolini and poses a toxic threat to democracy

We should not be surprised that New Labour has become embroiled in a scandal that involves Silvio Berlusconi. There is something entirely predictable about it. Tony Blair was perfectly happy to embrace Berlusconi, together with the former Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar as an ally at the time of the breach between Europe and the US in the months prior to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. He has seen Berlusconi as a valuable ally in pursuit of his pro-Bush foreign policy. In fact, he has consistently been closer to Berlusconi than to centre-left leaders such as the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. This sense of affinity has even acquired a personal and family dimension, with the Blairs accepting Berlusconi’s hospitality and taking their vacations with the Italian leader at his holiday home.

Blair clearly feels a political and personal rapport with Berlusconi. And this has set the tone for New Labour: Berlusconi is regarded as a man to do business with. This is deeply disturbing. How can New Labour regard Berlusconi in such a light? How can it fail to see and reflect upon the malign influence that he has had on Italian democracy? And what does the silence on such matters and warm embrace of the Italian leader tell us about New Labour itself?

Berlusconi is the most dangerous political phenomenon in Europe. He represents the most serious threat to democracy in western Europe since 1945. It might be argued that the far right as represented by such openly racist and xenophobic figures as Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jörg Haider poses a more serious danger, but such figures remain relative outsiders in the European political scene. Berlusconi does not. During his two spells as prime minister there has been a very serious erosion of the quality of Italian democracy and the tone of public life.

Democracy depends upon the separation of political, economic, cultural and judicial power. Berlusconi’s ownership of the major television channels – and his control of the state-owned network, Rai, during his premiership – together with his willingness to use this media power for his own naked political ambitions, has undermined democracy. Further, he has changed the laws of the land at will – using his majority in parliament – to protect his personal interests and save himself from the courts.

The connection between Berlusconi and Italian fascism is not difficult to decipher. There has always been a predictable tendency to expect fascism to recur in its old forms; but that has never been the main danger. What we should fear is the reappearance of fascism in a new guise, reflecting the new global, economic and cultural conditions of the time, while at the same time drawing on national traditions. Berlusconi is precisely such a figure. He treats democracy with contempt: at each turn he seeks to undermine, distort and abuse it. He has no respect for the independent pillars of authority – prepared to accuse the judges of being stooges of the opposition and describe them as “communists”.

By his indiscriminate assaults on anyone who stands in the way of his personal rule and enrichment, he has poisoned Italian public life. He lies in direct line of descent from Mussolini. The failure of New Labour to recognise this – worse, to befriend him, to regard him as some kind of ally, to accept his largesse and hospitality – cannot be dismissed as an oversight. It calls into question New Labour’s – and the prime minister’s – world-view and political judgment.

Tessa Jowell is not a political innocent. She is a leading member of the cabinet. She has been assiduously working her way up the New Labour ladder for many years. She has long been a Blairite, enjoying a relationship of trust with the prime minister. She has faithfully reflected his views in regarding Berlusconi as a politically sympathetic figure with whom New Labour, and its leading families, could do business. She may or may not have known the intimate details of her husband’s financial affairs but she surely knew that he had acted for Berlusconi, helped him to avoid taxes, and assisted him in his efforts to resist the judiciary. And, no doubt, Jowell saw nothing wrong in this. After all, Berlusconi had the blessing of her prime minister – he was, broadly speaking, “on our side”.

But Berlusconi is a dangerous man to become entrapped with. He deals in the dark sides of Italian political life. His party, Forza Italia, worked tirelessly to ensure that it inherited the mafia vote from the corpse of the Christian Democrats. His financial tentacles have abused and disfigured Italian political life. He regards the law to be malleable, negotiable and corruptible. He who sups with the devil should expect to reap the consequences. The problem is that Blair and New Labour have never recognised that Berlusconi is the devil. Instead they have seen him as a friend and ally. They have never recognised, or at least sufficiently cared about, the toxic threat he poses to Italian or European democracy.

There are two main reasons for this. First, he is seen as a global soulmate of Bush and Blair. Second, some of the values he represents – money, celebrity and power – are ones that Blair himself aspires to and admires. New Labour shares certain characteristics with Berlusconi, notably an indiscriminate worship of business and moneymaking, a belief in the power of the media, and a contempt for the left. We are witnessing a slow degradation of European democracy, of which Berlusconi is the most extreme and pernicious expression but of which New Labour, in a much milder form, is part-cause and part-consequence.

As the Italian legal process winds its way slowly through the evidence, no doubt more revelations will come to light. Whatever David Mills has done or not done cannot be regarded as the responsibility of Jowell, Blair or New Labour. But the fact that New Labour has been prepared to embrace such an insidious political influence undoubtedly helped to persuade Mills that Berlusconi was an acceptable client and Jowell that there was nothing untoward in her husband dealing with such a man and playing such an intimate role in his affairs. For that the prime minister must take the main responsibility. Just as with Iraq, Blair stands guilty of a monumental political error. What is at stake is no less than the democratic wellbeing of one of western Europe’s largest countries and, as a consequence, the health of the European polity.