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The return of big history: the long past is the antidote to short-termism

Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have created a powerful, ambitious rebuttal to "the spectre of the short term".

Photo Op (2006) by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps

“There never has been a time when . . . except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day,” Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in a speech to the US Congress in July 2003. Nowadays Blair is not exactly deemed a voice of authority, but the opinions he expressed are still widely shared. In an era when technology has revolutionised our daily existence – even the nature of life itself – understanding the past may seem irrelevant when planning the future. But history does matter. And many academics are anxious to explain why.

A striking contribution comes from the historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. At a mere 165 pages, their book The History Manifesto is modest in scale but not in ambition: its first sentence mimics the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term.” Guldi, who teaches at Brown, and Armitage, a British-born professor at Harvard, point to politicians trapped in the electoral cycle, business leaders fixated on profit returns and bureaucrats obsessed by performance targets. Academics, one might add, have also been sucked into the vortex, with the rigid six-year cycle of the Research Excellence Framework deterring big historical projects that take time to mature.

Yet Guldi and Armitage insist that historical writing can provide the answer to short-termism, if properly conceived and delivered. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they argue, most historians produced scholarly monographs or doctoral dissertations about narrow periods and specific topics, or they indulged in microhistories of “exceptionally normal” episodes from everyday life, such as Robert Darnton’s investigation of a bizarre cat massacre in 18th-century Paris. There seemed little appetite to explore the longue durée, a term popularised in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel and other scholars associated with the French journal Annales.

This obsession with the miniature reflected the increasing professionalisation of historical writing. In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history, women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject. Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less.

In consequence, Guldi and Armitage lament, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of historical perspective. They spotlight a trio of vital contemporary questions – climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality – that have been addressed mostly by economists and other social scientists, often using data and assumptions that are rooted in the short term. Yet these subjects cry out for a longue durée approach. And Guldi and Armitage show how historians have started to respond over the past decade, exploiting the mass of information that can now be marshalled thanks to the digitisation of archives and other databases, combined with the ubiquity of keyword searching. In the age of IT, social problems on a scale previously beyond the grasp of a large research group are feasible for a lone, but digitally smart, scholar. And so, The History Manifesto proclaims, big history is once again possible, thanks to big data.

Guldi and Armitage write with brio and passion and their ambition should be applauded. Yet their supposedly universal panacea is in many ways very American. The Manifesto offers a reworking for historians of a tradition of “big” thinking that has characterised American intellectual life since the Second World War. “Big science” led the way (in projects such as the Bomb, mainframe computers and the transistor), followed by big social science (through foundations such as the Ford and Rockefeller and the RAND Corporation) – all closely harnessed to the needs of the federal government. Big history, now much in fashion in leading US history departments such as Harvard’s, is another facet of that academic-governmental nexus: the cover of the Manifesto proclaims a desire to “speak truth to power”.

And yet, like many programmatic writings, The History Manifesto seems strangely indifferent to practicalities. It does not make clear how these big historical projects would grab the attention of people in power. Simply addressing topical issues such as climate change is not enough: as Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, politicians are creatures of the short term who prefer to ignore big problems that cannot be solved, or at least visibly ameliorated, within an electoral cycle. They are also busy people who do not have time for lengthy reading and reflection. All this shows that big historical truths must be served up in politically digestible, bite-sized chunks.

A more user-centred approach is exemplified by the work of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May – Harvard academics, now sadly deceased – who for many years taught a course on the uses of history to American politicians, officials and senior military. The book that grew out of it, Thinking in Time, was published way back in 1986, and The History Manifesto makes no reference to it. Yet Neustadt and May offer an instructive alternative response to the curse of short-termism in high places.

Their main injunction derives from Avram Goldberg, the chief executive of a New England grocery chain. Whenever a manager came to him in a flap, he wouldn’t ask, “What’s the problem?” but say, “Tell me the story.” That way, Goldberg said, “I find out what the problem really is.” His maxim became the premise of the book by Neustadt and May. Rather than focus on the crisis at hand (while already straining for a quick-fix solution), one should stand back and ask, “How did we get into this mess?” That is the first step to seeing a way out.

Telling the story requires identifying critical events and turning points, asking what happened when. This basic chronology then has to be fleshed out by addressing “who” and “why” questions about personalities and motivations: what Neustadt and May call “journalists’ questions”. Digging out this kind of human detail is as much a historical activity as constructing a chronology. It requires probing into the past of a person or a country, just the sort of thing that Blair, Bush and their aides did not do properly before the invasion of Iraq.

Asking “What’s the story?” may seem a strange way to define the practice of history. Our normal definition is content-based – the names-and-dates regime that destroyed any feel for the subject among millions of schoolchildren and that still features in the UK citizenship test. Nor does “What’s the story?” chime with the idea that history provides a stock of useful analogies, such as the “lessons of appeasement” that have seduced many political leaders, from Anthony Eden in 1956 to Blair and Bush in 2003. Instead of history as a body of facts or a toolkit of lessons, Neustadt and May presented it as a way of thinking: thinking in the stream of time.

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government.

Neustadt and May’s prescriptions still seem to me apt and perceptive. They are rooted in the recognition that human beings fundamentally are historical animals and they provide simple, practical advice about how people in power can be their own historians. But the Achilles heel of Thinking in Time in 1986 was how would-be practitioners could speedily obtain the essential historical information to put flesh on the bare bones of their narrative timelines. Neustadt and May suggested a range of useful books, articles and bibliographies, but it seemed implausible that most busy policymakers, or even their aides, would have time to do the necessary research.

Nearly 30 years on, however, the IT-age tools that Guldi and Armitage identify can also help the policymaker who wants to become historically literate. There is now a profusion of information out there, available at a few clicks of a mouse. The new problem is quality control: identifying the information that is reliable and that rises above mere WikiHistory.

One answer comes from History & Policy, a web-based think tank run jointly from Cambridge and King’s College London. This posts short papers of 2,500 to 3,000 words, each offering a historically informed view on issues of current concern. To date, nearly 200 papers have appeared, covering a wide range of issues; recent topics include power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the London airport debate, treatment of the mentally ill and the Ukraine crisis. The organisation also runs specialist seminars targeted at specific interests, with the aim of providing the busy politician, civil servant or business person with a broader perspective but in succinct, manageable form. Although each paper suggests further reading, it is assumed that most users won’t have the time for a long academic tutorial. The aim here is not big history but applied history, useful at the point of decision-making.

For some traditionalist scholars, this search for relevance threatens a core value of professional history – the recognition of the past as a foreign country. But, as John Tosh has insisted in his book Why History Matters (2008), what we need is “a critical applied history”, one that is attentive to both continuity and difference. Neustadt and May developed the same point: “the future has nowhere to come from but the past”, yet “what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past” – hence the predictive capacity and also the potential pitfalls of historical analysis. Those departures may be slight and subtle but recognising them is essential when trying to anticipate the future.

Public awareness of the interconnection of past, present and future has been particularly keen at moments of dramatic rupture or transition. The end of the Second World War, with the total collapse of Hitler’s European empire and the horrific exposure of his “Final Solution”, constituted one such moment; another was the end of the cold war in 1989-91, when the “Iron Curtain” disintegrated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Such evidently “historic” moments have kindled an interest in “contemporary history”, or Zeitgeschichte, as the Germans call it. In this area, too, historical awareness has relevance for political debate, by helping us to locate our contemporary problems in the longer sweep of events.

Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.

To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.

One significant trend is the vogue for “transnational” history, transcending the conventional western focus on the evolution of nation states: what the Harvard scholar Charles Maier calls the principle of “territoriality”. One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

Big history, thinking in time, applied history, alternative narratives: these are just a few ways that those who study the past are engaging with the present. That pioneer of “contemporary history”, Thucydides, writing 24 centuries ago, presented his account of the Peloponnesian wars as a warning for future decision-makers – for those who, as he put it, “want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future”.

He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse – triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal “human nature”, but his proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge. His latest book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Matteo Renzi, the scrapper in the swamp

 Italy’s prime minister – “Europe’s last Blairite” – vowed to take on vested interests and smash open the economy. Can he still succeed?


In the summer of 2009, Daniele Caponi graduated from Sapienza University in Rome. His CV looked impressive. He had a degree in languages, and was fluent in four: Spanish, German, English and Italian. But the timing of his entry into the job market was terrible.

The global financial crash the previous year had badly affected Italy’s already weak economy. Prospects for graduates were so bleak that the best work Caponi could find was as a taxi driver. Six years later, the situation remains so precarious – youth unemployment is running above 40 per cent – that Caponi says he is “proud and honoured” to have a job at all.

Intelligent, confident and articulate, Caponi would appear to be precisely the type of person that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has in mind as a beneficiary when he says he wants to jumpstart Italy’s economy by breaking it open to competition – with a war on entrenched interests and an influx of foreign capital leading the way to more jobs. Yet Caponi also embodies forces conspiring to defeat him. As a taxi driver, he belongs to one of Italy’s “closed-shop trades” (which also include chemists and lawyers) that hold back the economy, clinging to privileges and blocking outsiders from entry. For members of these trades, the benefits of the status quo are clear: Caponi makes enough money to wear smart clothes, eat at good restaurants and go trekking in south-east Asia or Latin America every year.

He is not willing Renzi, who has been called “Italy’s Tony Blair”, to fail, but thinks it is inevitable that he will. For the man at the helm of the centre-left Democratic Party, who a year and a half ago – at the age of just 39 – became his country’s youngest-ever prime minister has the task of changing not only Italy’s legislation, but its way of life. It is a struggle of allegiances versus globalisation; gerontocracy versus meritocracy; made-in-Italy quality versus stark economic efficiency – and the rule of law versus the tendency to bend it.

On the day I meet Caponi, he is illegally cramming extra passengers into his car because a transport strike has affected his takings. “You see, Italian politics mirrors Italian people,” he says. “Even me, you find me criticising politics. But look at what happened today. I pulled two rides into one – I did something I was not supposed to do.”


When Renzi took over as Italy’s leader in February 2014, many in the country felt it as a gale of fresh air after two decades of political tragicomedy and economic stagnation dominated by Silvio Berlusconi, whose main interest in power, his many disparagers say, was to protect his media empire and keep himself out of prison. That protracted era of zero growth, from 1994 to this year, left Renzi with enormous problems: more than one in every ten people out of work, chronic dips into recession, and a national debt that is 135 per cent of GDP, against 95 per cent for France, 90 per cent for Britain and 75 per cent for Germany. Add to that one of the rich world’s lowest fertility rates, at 1.39 births per woman – a demographic crisis that prompted the health minister to call this a “dying country”– and it may seem surprising that anybody would want the job of extracting Italy from the bureaucratic and parliamentary mess that Italians call il pantano, “the swamp”.

Renzi, however, seems to relish challenges that are the proper measure of his ambition, which was apparent from an early age. The son of a centre-right municipal councillor, he grew up in Rignano sull’Arno, a quiet Tuscan town outside Florence, where he became a keen Boy Scout. (His official website uses a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell,
the founder of the Scout movement, as its epigraph: “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”) The modest scope of this idealism provides clues to Renzi’s combination of pragmatism and engagement.

His passion for politics began in high school, and as a law student at the University of Florence he co-founded a committee to help Romano Prodi, a Democratic Party stalwart, become prime minister. Around that time, the 19-year-old Renzi appeared on the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune, raking in £20,000. It was a precocious sign of his penchant for games of risk.

His first break in politics came at the age of 24 when he became provincial secretary of the centrist People’s Party. From there, his rise was fast: president of the province of Florence at 29; mayor of Florence, a much bigger job, five years later. As mayor, Renzi shook up the city by cutting back sharply on the number of councillors, increasing the efficiency of public services and boosting welfare spending. As Italy began to take notice, the young mayor already had his eyes on a bigger stage: national politics.

In early 2013, he sensed the moment had arrived. In parliamentary elections, one in four Italians had voted for a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose populist Five Star Movement proudly stood for little other than revulsion with the ruling elite. It was a turning point in Italian politics. After the Berlusconi era – and a brief technocratic government led by Mario Monti, who imposed austerity to pull the country back from a financial abyss – Italians were fed up with the political class and hungry for change.

Renzi, then still mayor of Florence, blitzed TV and social media with a vision of himself as the saviour of Italy, while his Democratic Party colleague Enrico Letta plodded along at the head of an unwieldy coalition government. Renzi promised to rottamare – “wreck” – the system (from this he acquired the nickname “The Scrapper”). He was bold and passionate and, like Berlusconi, he projected sunny optimism. Best of all, as mayor of Florence from 2009, he was an outsider, untainted by the machinations and scandals of national politics. Many Italians dared to hope again, as Renzi promised a bold reform programme that would generate jobs and revive the economy.

Late in 2013 he won the Democratic Party leadership, and quickly showed his ruthlessness by orchestrating what the Italian press called a “palace coup”, toppling Letta the following February. (A popular cartoon from the time shows Renzi in a relay race, handing his predecessor a stick of dynamite.) Days later, without ever having been even a member of parliament, Renzi was appointed prime minister.


While many Italians began to place their hopes in Renzi, there was also an undercurrent of suspicion about him that still prevails. One reason for this is his opportunism. On a stroll through Rome’s best food market, in the rough-and-tumble Testaccio district, I heard a story about him that went like this.

“A municipal councillor of Florence from the time that Renzi was mayor was once asked by a journalist: ‘Renzi – according to you, is he a capable man?’

“The councillor responded: ‘Yes, he is capable of anything.’”

Indeed, while Renzi purports to be a man of the left he often doesn’t sound like one. Besides smashing open protected sectors and taming the trade unions, he wants to overhaul the bloated and coddled public sector and attract overseas capital, which would inevitably entail foreign corporate takeovers. In the context of the rise of far-left parties in Europe, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and given Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership in Britain, Renzi is increasingly looking like Europe’s last Blairite. (He got to know Blair when he was serving as mayor and Blair holidayed in Tuscany, and they became friends. Last year, Blair told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that Renzi was “the only way forward for Italy’s left”.) Indeed, on 21 September, Renzi appeared to be channelling Blair when he said that Corbyn’s victory was evidence that Labour “delights in losing”.

Yet there are signs that Renzi may not be winning his own battle. Another reason for Italians’ growing scepticism about him is that six months into his premiership the country slipped back into recession. This year, according to the European Commission, Italy is projected to eke out 0.6 per cent growth. By contrast, Spain and Portugal, which also have suffered severe debt and austerity crises, are forecast to grow at 3.1 and 1.6 per cent, respectively.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains stubbornly high despite the passage in the spring of Renzi’s signature “Jobs Act” – a package of laws that aims to generate employment by scaling back job protections and offering tax incentives to companies that hire long-term workers (as opposed to the surging number of people on precarious short-term contracts). And reform means nothing unless people believe it will work. Foreign investment has increased but Italian businesses are clinging to their capital. After rising early this year on the back of the imminent labour reforms, business confidence slumped again over the summer.

Critics say that whatever growth Italy does achieve this year may be due less to him than to another Italian: the European Central Bank chief, Mario Draghi, who has sought to invigorate the eurozone economies with a flood of easy credit. Some economists say that without a cheaper euro to boost its exports, Italy would still be in recession.

Meanwhile, in times of uncertainty, Italy’s business cliques hunker down to their old ways – hostile to hiring young people and preventing newcomers from encroaching on their turf. Renzi is fighting hard to tame these entrenched interests. The problem is that he may be running out of time. His approval ratings have nearly halved, down from more than 60 per cent after he became premier to around 32 per cent today.

“If nothing happens, especially in terms of kick-starting the economy, then people will start saying you’re just hot air,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, an expert on Italy based at the Open Europe think tank.

One might imagine that students here would be among Renzi’s biggest fans, given that he is promoting policies that would help them find work. But on the Sapienza campus, Caponi the taxi driver’s alma mater, I cannot find a single student who believes that Renzi could improve their prospects by the time they enter the workforce. The overwhelming message: once I graduate, I’m out of here.

Beatrice Parsi di Landrone, studying chemistry, shakes her head at the thought of change being possible in Italy. The economy, she says, is built on patronage and favours that keep talent out of the best jobs. She wants to move to England and apply her skills in cosmetics, working for Max Factor.

“You can’t work here unless you have an inside track,” she explains. “For 20 years now, the government has been ruining Italy, even if we’re the best in the world in so many things. Overseas, it’s our brains that make a difference.”

The message on the sweatshirt worn by Mirko Mandarino, a medical student, speaks for his generation: “F**KIN’ PROBLEMS”. He is from Calabria, in the deep south, where people are poorer on average than in other parts of Italy. That makes it even harder for him to succeed in this country, where
many northerners hold southerners in contempt. Under Renzi, the gap between north and south has widened: national GDP fell 0.4 per cent last year but the south suffered a 1.3 per cent decline. “Renzi?” Mandarino says with a chuckle. “He’s an opportunist. A social climber. That’s how he’s gotten to where he is. My future? Outside of Italy. There are no other alternatives.”

Like Parsi di Landrone, Mandarino laments a culture of vested interests that blocks young people from achieving their dreams. “Nobody wants to give up anything,” he says. “They’re clans. The mentality is mafioso.”

Still, he feels sympathy for older Italians who cling to jobs and power. “In Italy, an old person can’t give way to the young, because at his age he wouldn’t find anything else. I have an uncle in Canada. He got fired at age 48. The next month he found a new job. That kind of thing doesn’t exist in Italy.”

Christian Abete, a classics student, sums things up: “We export wine and graduates.”


Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of John Cabot University in Rome, meets me on the terrace of Vanni, a café in the genteel Prati district. Of the dozens of Romans I speak to, Pavoncello is the only one who believes that Renzi will succeed. “I am bullish about Italy,” he says.

The professor presents a heroic narrative of the prime minister, calling him a “revolutionary figure” – and only time will tell whether he is right. But he does make a basic point that it is hard to argue with: “He’s the only game in town. The right is dead. Completely melted. The left continues to be the usual communist left. It’s a disaster.”

It is the disarray among Renzi’s opponents not only on the right, where Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is fighting to regain relevance, but also in the crumbling old guard of the Democratic Party, that may allow him to press forward. “Nobody can stop this avalanche,” Pavoncello says.

That is an exaggeration, as the reform process is moving slowly. The big question is whether the Italian people will have the patience to endure a drawn-out and complicated overhaul – which promises pain to millions who benefit under the status quo – as the economy continues to stagnate. A stumble for Renzi’s party in regional elections in late May signalled threats hovering over his future. Voters are growing hostile to his pro-business ethos, alien to Italian tradition, and his own camp is beginning to bridle under a leadership style often described as dictatorial. Adding to his problems, the xenophobic, anti-euro Northern League’s vote share jumped across the nation, extraordinary for a party that long advocated a divorce between the affluent Italian north and the poorer south.

Pavoncello insists that Renzi has the political smarts and determination to be a transformative figure. But won’t he hit the brick wall of Italians’ cherished way of life?

“What way of life?” he fumes. “People staying at home? Fifty per cent youth unemployment? Taxi drivers who think they’re middle-class? In New York taxi drivers are not middle-class. Here taxi drivers make three, four, five thousand dollars a month. They feel they are shopkeepers. Taxi drivers are not middle-class. They are the bottom of the class! Can you remain middle-class when you have Uber? You can fight. You can try. But the world is going against you.”

Roberto Fabiani, the spokesman for Rome’s main cabbies’ association, who is a taxi driver, too, does indeed come across as middle-class. He wears Ray-Ban aviators, designer stubble and a crisp white shirt as he meets me at the Romana Tassisti headquarters on the outskirts of the city. Like Caponi, he is university-educated and asks why he shouldn’t have a pleasant family life after working a hard shift behind the wheel. He sees Renzi’s argument about reviving the economy by making it easier for firms to fire as being fundamentally at odds with Italy’s communitarian sensibilities.

“This is a philosophy that is molto liberal,” Fabiani says of the Jobs Act programme. “In Italy we have a vision that is very much to the left. Article 1 of our constitution says that Italy is a country founded on work. Translated, that means that every citizen should have the right to a dignified job, not extravagantly paid, but one that allows him to live in a dignified manner. ‘Dignified’ for me means not only to have an income that allows me to live, but also the security to know that I can live my life. If I’m hired, and in three months somebody says ‘you’re no longer needed’, that’s a problem.”

Italy’s commitment to social welfare, with its roots in age-old ideas about community and family, has provided cushions that allow people to live with dignity even in the midst of a sharp downturn. Yet millions of young Italians are living with precisely the indignity of uncertainty that Fabiani finds unacceptable. He is prepared to fight to protect his own. “If this happened,” he says of Renzi’s plan to break open closed sectors, “it would be the end. We’d take a hard position. Until the bitter end.”


There is no country in the world where cliques do not fight hard to keep their privileges. In Italy, however, the instinct is particularly strong; and this may present the greatest challenge of all to Matteo Renzi’s desire for reform. Italy’s historical experience as a jumble of city states and patches of empire has left a structure of allegiances and patronage that poses daunting obstacles to change.

Campanilismo, loyalty to the village bell tower, is central to Italian life. This signifies loyalty not only to your village, but to your trade association, your social circle, uncles and cousins, and, at the highest echelons, your political faction or business cabal.

“I’m not Italian, I’m a Roman,” says Caponi the taxi driver. “This is another thing that we are missing. We aren’t like the French or the Germans or the English, who are French and German and English.”

It’s a spirit captured in a song by the singer Luca Carboni called “Inno Nazionale” – “National Anthem”. You might expect a patriotic paean, but it goes like this:

“I’m too much of a Bologna man,

And you’re much too Neapolitan.

Him? Too much from Turin,

And you guys too stuck in Bari.

And if we’re all too proud,

They’re all too Venetian.”

The song continues in this vein, a hard rap with a techno beat. In its simplicity, this national anthem conveys how the Italian identity is precisely the lack of one. The paradox hits home in the song’s conclusion:

“We were once too fascist, and then

Too don’t-give-a-fuckists . . .

And then became too communist,

As well as too Christian-Democratic.

And even as time passes,

We’re still too ITALIAN!”

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide