Italy can liberate its pulsing heart

Forza, Italia: come ripartire dopo Berlusconi (Courage, Italy: how to start again after Berlusconi), By Bill Emmott, Rizzoli, RRP€19.50

Silvio Berlusconi is in the title of Bill Emmott’s book, but not much in the pages. Emmott is concerned with the dopo, the “after Berlusconi”, and does not care much to explore the obvious: that the Italian prime minister has made the worst features of his politics worse, pirouetting manically to sustain an extraordinary politico-media extravaganza – but now, in his 74th year, the facelifts sag, the will grows weary, the girls tell too many stories and former ally Gianfranco Fini calls for his resignation. The latest scandal, over his relationship with a teenage Moroccan belly-dancer, confirms we are watching the beginning of the end: the greatest political show on democratic earth has nowhere to go but down.

Emmott, when editor of The Economist (part-owned by Pearson, owner of the Financial Times) published a cover, in April 2001, with a bold headline: “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy”. Accepted by much of its readership as obvious, it caused a sensation in Italy, joy on the left and an unsuccessful law suit from the prime minister. Now, nearly a decade later, Emmott similarly examines the fitness of Italy to start again after Berlusconi’s political decline. There is much, he writes, to say about the “bad” Italy – and it is constantly said. But much less is said about the good Italy – including in Italy itself, a place where masochistic lamentation is pervasive. Writing in English, but published first in an Italian translation – a British edition is likely to be published next spring – it is Emmott’s business here to address that balance.

He does so, in the way of journalists, by vignette, interview, character sketch and rapid judgment. The characters are mainly the good and adventurous explorers who have taken up arms against the sea of the bad. They include judges and magistrates in Turin, who have cut the enormous waiting lists for trials to far below the vast national average; the founders of the Slow Food movement, who pitted themselves against the familiar view of Italy as a place of fast pizzas and pasta by emphasising the pleasures of the slowly prepared table; the brave creators of anti-Mafia organisations, especially in Sicily, who have begun to hack away at the tentacles of organised crime.

He gives much space – as a devout believer in Adam Smith’s recipes for market economies – to the good capitalists. Hope springs, for example, from the brothers Langer, who created Tecnam, a world leader in ultra-light aircraft, improbably based near Naples in the midst of Camorra country (the Camorra, apparently, tried to extend their “protection” but were repulsed with surprising ease – it would be good to know how). Or Brunello Cucinelli, a worker’s son who created a large cashmere business and who gives a large slice of the profits to charitable causes. Or Andrea Guerra, chief executive of Luxottica, a world leader in luxury sunglasses, who has done everything Italian companies are supposed to be bad at: insisted on efficiency and transparency, taken over foreign companies and integrated them well, and mastered new markets.

Even banks, long thought weak and fragmented, are seen as potential powerhouses. Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo could become the largest in Europe, he writes. And his enthusiasm extends into politics: he sees Nichi Vendola, president of the Puglia region and leader of the Left Ecology Freedom party, a far-left splinter group, as a future national leader. As a communist and a militantly gay man, Vendola was at first dismissed as an eccentric – most enthusiastically by the main party of the left, the Democratic party. But his Obama-like oratorical powers and his consistent anti-Berlusconianism (and anti-Mafia stance) have won him support. He is now the favourite to lead the left opposition in the next elections.

Most of all, Emmott sees hope in that eternal reservoir of change: youth. The leaders of the anti-Mafia struggle, the new entrepreneurs, the coming politicians, the radical journalists (right and left), even the most lively academics in the generally mediocre universities are disproportionately young. When, in 2009, Pier Luigi Celli, head of the LUISS Guido Carli private university in Rome, wrote an open letter to his son advising him to emigrate to achieve success, he was voicing the pessimism of many. Emmott, an outsider, sees a country that needs only to clear away the accumulated detritus of politics, justice and habit to liberate a pulsing, ardent heart. The weary will emphasise the only with cynicism. But, as with his 2001 cover, Emmott’s enthusiasm does the Italian state real service, and let us hope some know it.

The writer is an FT columnist

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