INTERVIEWS

Bill Emmott

by Brenda Dionisi   (issue no. 132/2010 / November 18, 2010)



Today he is an independent writer and consultant on international affairs, based in London and Somerset, and writes regular columns for The Times in Britain and La Stampa in Italy.  He is best known for having served as editor-in-chief of The Economist, the world's leading weekly magazine on current affairs and business, from 1993 to 2006. In 2001, Bill Emmott (www.billemmott.com) became famous in Italy for a cover story he ran in The Economist, bearing the title ‘Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy.' The story gained Emmott many friends and foes here. While Italian journalists (and leftists) praised him and his work, making him the first non-Italian to win the prestigious È giornalismo (‘This is journalism') award in 2003, Berlusconi slapped him with a few defamation suits for the exposés. The author of 12 books, Emmott's latest takes another bold look at Italy. Published by Rizzoli, Forza, Italia: Come ripartire dopo Berlusconi is the result of Emmott's journey through Italy to find ‘La Buona Italia,' distinct from ‘La Mala Italia,' and analyze what can be done to unleash more of the good in the post-Berlusconi era. From Sandro Pertini and his Slow Food movement to the anti-mafia struggle in Southern Italy, from Puglia's gay, Catholic and self-declared communist president, Nichi Vendola, to a group of young, up-and-coming politicians and professionals with lots of enthusiasm and a few good ideas: these are some of many reasons Emmott says Italy should look to the future with hope. TF had the pleasure of talking  politics with Emmott the day after he spoke at Mayor Renzi's political gathering, Prossima Fermata Italia, which ran from November 5 to 7 at the Stazione Leopolda.

 

 

Tell me about your book. What led you to write a book on Italy?

 

Well, nine years ago I put a cover on The Economist saying that Berlusoni was unfit to lead Italy. Before that, I didn't know much about Italy, really. In reality, that was the first of ever intensifying contact with Italy because then we carried the campaign on two years later in another big cover-page investigation. When I left The Economist in 2006-I was there for 13 years and I thought it was time to move on-I said that I was leaving to write books. In that period I had just finished a book on Asia, and I began writing occasional editorials in Corriere della Sera and continued my contact with Italy. This is when I started to seriously think about the book. At the time, the most common books on Italy (and nowadays also the most boring) were books on Silvio Berlusconi. However, it's all been said already; he's made his life a completely open book, an open show, so there's not really much left to say. I thought it would be more interesting to look at Italy, and in particular its positive aspects to see what strengths could be released and exploited in the future, in a spirit of recovery.

 

 

Indeed, yours is a totally new view on Italy.

 

Most foreigners and journalists who write about Italy are negative, and all economists, whether Italian or foreign, who write about Italy tend to be negative and talk about decline and how to deal with it. Instead, I wanted to look at the positive. Really, my book is both positive and negative, yet is focuses on  the positive as a way to form an argument for a liberal agenda. The message is that it's not all hopeless, though it would be if Italy didn't do anything. Another premise of the book was taken in view of the 150th anniversary of Italy: what would a modern day Cavour think, what would he do to start a spirit of change, of modern revival? The book was also shaped by having met a group people from an informal network of young professionals who launch initiatives on best practices, called Rete per l'Eccellenza Nazionale (www.progetto-rena.it). They were a great help.

 

 

So, is it is a book about ‘good' versus ‘bad'?

 

My initial intention was to look just at the positive, but I learnt that the good and bad Italy are, at times, the same people, the same organizations and the same barriers, and thus inseparable. I thought it would be useful to analyse Italy from this point of view, taking into account the good and bad. The real idea is not to produce a revolution overnight or reform the country from top to bottom, but rather shift the mind back towards the good, and find ways to tilt the balance. It is more a question of starting again.

 

 

How can Italy shift the balance?

 

I think that it has a lot to do with liberation, liberalising. I think the lack thereof is often the result of old privileges and old protections, and restricted practises that make everything ossified. I think that in a non-pejorative way, one can describe Italy as being in some ways a rather feudal society; by feudal I mean in the sense of exchanged obligations-up, down and sideways obligations that bind people toghether. What the country needs is more ‘flexible feudalism' to ensure that the system keeps renewing itself. Italy is unusual; indeed, it is quite similar to Japan in terms of income being very clearly related to age: this suggests that you don't have meritocracy. I think that, very often, this needs to be challenged, especially by the young, in order to increase the amount of competition and validity in a society.

 

 

The older generations don't seem be loosening their grasp on power in most aspects of Italian life.

 

That has almost always been the case, except in periods of economic boom and growth. Also, the demography of Italy is different, with a much younger population now, and the old, who are not letting go, being dominant in numerical terms. This all makes it very hard to get that flexibilty. 

 

 

However, some youth are shaking things up. This is what brought you to Florence.

 

Yes, there are some. [laughs] Particularly, the mayor of Florence, who is 35. I came to speak at the Prossima Fermata Italia convention, to join the so-called rottamatori. I thought it was a very impressive event. Firstly, for the number of people who engaged with it, who were connected to it through Facebook; secondly because of how well organized it was. I thought it was impressively done. There was great pace and lots of variety, with the mayor reading out messages from the Internet, and lots of people from different backgrounds speaking. It was very well disciplined, and even well intentioned; there was nothing offensive about it, nor was it distructive and negative.

 

 

What did you speak about at the Stazione Leopolda?

 

The instruction was to come up with keywords, so I focused on three keywords: optimism and a positive outlook; openness, because a key agent of change has to be openness to new things and breaking down barriers; and creation, that which is needed for any constructive event or action. It very easy to use events like this to criticize Silvio Berlusconi as he's definitely worked hard to make it easy to criticize him. Instead, what you need is to create your own creative agenda. I also spoke about the left, dominated by the same actors for years, which also suffers from rigidity and conservativism.

 

 

Do you think the rottamatori, and particularly the Florence mayor, will be successful in reviving Italian politics?

 

Well, it is foolish to speculate too seriously, but I do think that [Renzi] has a lot of chances to make it on the national stage if he chooses to. It would, however, be a shame for Florence. I think he has got the potential; he's clearly open minded, a good listener, very dynamic, and inspiring in his youth. What he needs is a clearer agenda, and I think he knows this. He also knows that he needs to show that he's got substance; he needs credibility to become an alternative to power. To gain that credibility, he needs allies outside of politics, such as business people and intellectuals.

 

 

See a clip of Emmott's speech at the Leopolda at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yugCnMXbaRs.

 

 

Prossima Fermata Italia

 

From November 5 to 7, Florence and its mayor Matteo Renzi hosted a rather unusual political event. Nicknamed the convention of the rottamatori (the young 'car scrapers') who want to renew the left, the three-day event attracted nearly 7,000 participants and featured a diverse line-up of over 100 speakers ranging from politicians to students, professionals to seniors. Talks focused on trust, transparency, hope, justice and freedom. The centre-left Renzi and Lombardy regional councillor Pippo Civatti, both politicians with the Partito Democratico, led the national event, enthusiastically reading out messages received from Facebook while answering questions from the floor in between speeches. The goal of the event and the movement is to position Italy as an important player on the international politcal and economic scene. To do this, organizers argue, Italy must renew both itself and its leaders and find modern solutions to the many problems the country faces. The initiative, seemingly the first of many, ended in the founding of the Florence Manifesto.

 

For more see, www.andiamooltre.it (in Italian).

 

 

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