A statue of the victor of Bannockburn outside Stirling Castle. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert
Show Hide image

The spirit of Bannockburn

Next year, a referendum on independence will determine Scotland’s future, but the country’s artists have already launched their own fight for freedom.

No one knows where exactly the Battle of Bannockburn was fought. Historians and archaeologists disagree. Some say the killing was done on the low flatland, or “carse”, where the Bannockburn flows into the River Forth; others say the higher ground, now covered in housing schemes, is more likely. We do know where Robert the Bruce planted his standard and set up his command post. It’s a few raised acres from where he would have been able to see everyone’s comings and goings. It was much more wooded 700 years ago, and Bruce and his men had spent months in the woods, training and preparing for the day the English appeared.

The site is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). It’s a national monument with a visitor centre and a clutter of memorials. I went there for the first time last September, at the invitation of the NTS. Finding the place was tricky; I had to cycle through housing schemes with speed bumps and corner shops. The site of the critical moment in Scotland’s history, when it secured its independence and confirmed its national identity, is hidden in plain view, sharing a driveway with a budget hotel. It’s not so much a place as an idea, of course. An attitude. I can’t recall how small I was when I first heard the name “Bannockburn”.

Seven or eight poets had been invited to this meeting, which was almost the last to be held at the visitor centre. It is now being demolished to make way for a new one. The new centre – we were shown the plans – will feature vernacular Scottish architecture, with snecked rubble walls, and will be constructed from local materials.

Inside, loud and interactive displays with moving figures will give visitors some small sense of the realities of medieval warfare. There will be plenty of “interpretation” and visitors will be reminded of Bannockburn’s crucial place in Scottish history. Public information will amplify the site’s resonances: freedom, resistance, triumph against the odds. Then, ears ringing and passions raised, visitors will go outside into the quiet, fresh air and make their way up the incline to the place where Robert the Bruce set his standard, and where stands a statue of him in battledress, mounted on a magnificent war - horse, staring defiantly south.

The area is laid out as parkland, with aven - ues of trees, and it is used as such by local people. Casual paths lead to the nearby housing estates; dogs are walked around the monuments. Aside from the statue, which stands a few yards off, there is another construction, which we learned to call “the rotunda”. It was this rotunda that concerned us poets.

It is a circle defined by a wall ten feet high, which encloses the very ground where the Bruce raised his flag. There are two wide gaps in the wall, orientated to frame vistas north and south. To frame vistas and concentrate the mind. North, the gap frames Stirling Castle on its rock, four miles away. This was Edward II’s objective. Had Stirling Castle been taken, Scotland would have fallen. That said, the road north was also Robert’s escape route. Apparently he didn’t know until the last moment whether he would engage or not and he had his getaway planned. The other gap looks south, over lower land, whence Edward’s army came with a wagon train 20 miles long.

Bannockburn was an unlikely triumph for the Scots. The English forces were vastly superior in number, but the Scots knew their own land. The Bruce had chosen well and trained hard; he made use of the forests, bogs and waterways around him. Driven into soft ground, the English horses floundered and so did the men. The Bannock - burn itself looks a small thing, but it’s a tributary of the Forth, and tidal. Across two days in June 1314, it filled with English dead. The historian Fiona Watson gave us a talk. “It was a disaster for the English,” she said. “Everyone in England would have known someone killed at Bannockburn.”

It was raining lightly as we made our way up to the rotunda. The land is not high – nothing compared to the splendid Ochil Hills a few miles north-east, but high enough to give a sense of landscape, of weather. From this point you can survey the same land as the Bruce did, if you can imagine away the traffic hum and houses. Surmounting the rotunda is an oak beam, which continues over the gaps to form an unbroken circle.

It was this beam that concerned us poets. The rotunda was built 50 years ago and the intention then was to carve an inscription on its inner face, but no inscription was ever made. However, with the anniversary and refurbishment of the monuments, the NTS was taking the opportunity.

Each poet was invited to submit an inscription; these would be made available on the NTS website so the public could voice an opinion. Then a panel of literary and NTS people would meet to choose one to be engraved on the monument.

We huddled in the rain, seeking shelter from the wind under the wall of the rotunda, and began to think about Bannockburn. It’s a potent site. The weight of history, the sobriety of the monuments, the weather and the light, the slaughter, resistance, the subsequent union, devolution, turns of fate, a refusal to submit, “freedom”, whatever that means – the whole Bannockburn thing was ours in a small way to redirect. What sort of gesture to make, what to say? In what language? In what tone? It needn’t mention the battle; it’s long over, and besides, the visitor centre will take care of all that. In my opinion, it needed something forgiven and forgiving, modern, aspirational, welcoming, mature, gracious – and Scottish, and all in a few short lines. The restored rotunda will be unveiled in 2014, which may or may not be another defining year in Scotland’s history.

It’s no surprise that 2014 is the year the SNP has chosen for the independence referendum. Perhaps they imagine that the anniversary of Bannockburn will arouse a claymore sentiment; that events of the 14th century will affect people’s brains. In some fantasy, they perhaps imagine the “independence” debate is akin to that gory feudal battle, which happened somewhere between a bog and a housing scheme, under the A91.

Neither is it a surprise that the NTS, in liaison with the Scottish Poetry Library, would recruit contemporary poets to the Bannockburn task; the association between poetry, song, national identity and historical and political moments is still acknowledged in Scotland. In fact, the writers and artists insist on it. It is a cherished half-truth that the success of the 1997 devolution bill was achieved partly by the work of writers and visual artists. In the years between the 1979 devolution referendum, which failed, and the one in 1997, Scotland invigorated itself, not in flag-waving but in self-interrogation and self examination. It was a vibrant time, culturally speaking. In 20 years a whole generation of Scottish novelists “wrote themselves out of despair”. It is often stated that this refreshed cultural autonomy played a part in securing political autonomy. The Scottish Parliament, suspended in 1707, reconvened in 1999. And now we are gearing up for an independence referendum to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

It is a truth sometimes missed south of the border that many Scots distrust the Scottish National Party, including plenty who voted for it last time, and many of Scotland’s writers and artists. We know this because they say so openly. A few of the poets gathered at Bannockburn for that meeting are also represented in a new book called Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence.

The book was edited by Scott Hames of Stirling University. Hames conceived of his book because of the poverty he detected in the present “debate” about independence. He noted the politicians’ apparent lack of interest in the culture that brought them to Holyrood in the first place. In the introduction he writes: “Before the party machines and newspapers settle the parameters of a bogus debate, there must be room for more radical, more honest and more nuanced thinking about what ‘independence’ means in and for Scottish culture.”

To do that thinking, he turned to 27 poets, novelists and playwrights. All have stated their case, vented their spleen, imagined what kind of Scotland they want and don’t want, decried the Scotland we already have. Most are old enough to have been around during the devolution campaigns of the 1990s. Some are incomers to the country, from England or Australia or elsewhere. The editor himself is Canadian.

So it was an interesting time for some of us, to compose a bit of “culture” for this great national monument, and also to contribute to a book which claims that “the political significance of these writers’ work is also at stake in the deepening of the conflation that equates Scottish identity with nationalism”.

The thing is, many Scots, myself included, have no problem distinguishing independence from nationalism, and will probably vote Yes in a referendum, not because of a Bannockburn sentiment, but in the knowledge that any Holyrood government need not necessarily be “nationalist”. Or anything else. We can boot them out. In an independent Scotland we could boot out any government that failed us. Imagine! It is not a contradiction to write an inscription for a monument that valorises Scottish resistance and identity, then vote Yes for independence but still hold the SNP in suspicion, not least because it is seeking to appropriate that Bannockburn spirit of resistance.

Several of the writers in Unstated make the same point. They will vote for an independent Scotland because they cannot see any other way to preserve the vestiges of our collectivism, and our cherished public services. We want to vote for common decency and our own maturity. An awful lot of English and Welsh people feel that way, too. We used to be able to make common cause with them through the labour and even communist movements. But not now. So, more in sorrow than in anger, many Scots will vote Yes.

In certain ways, in certain quarters, the country is behaving as if it were already in - dependent. Some people are testing out the shape of the new state, and the people’s relationship with it, even before it exists.

Take this example. In 2010, a mere two years ago, a new arts funding body came into being. Creative Scotland took the place of the old Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. It was a Holyrood invention, initiated by Labour and then embraced by the SNP when it won its majority in 2011. You’d think, with those impeccable credentials, that Scottish artists and writers, those truculent upholders of cultural autonomy, would like it – albeit grudgingly. Conversely, you’d think that the Scottish arts funding body would know that the country’s artists are a gallus crew, who had thought deeply about culture, nationhood and autonomy. But no.

While some of us were getting rained on at Bannockburn and beginning to think again about just those issues, our fellow poet Don Paterson published an essay in the Herald newspaper last September. It was his con - tribution to Unstated. He had chosen not to address “independence”, at least not directly. His essay concerned Creative Scotland, and it became the opening salvo, or rather, the first swing of the broadsword, against that corporate body.

The chief executive of Creative Scotland was Andrew Dixon, who came from the NewcastleGates head Initiative and, before that, the Arts Council of England. Its director of creative development was Venu Dhupa, late of the British Council. They answered to Fiona Hyslop, the minister for culture. Paterson called their organisation a “dysfunctional ant-heap”, among other things. Among artists, dismay and alarm had been shared anecdotally for about a year, but soon things started moving. Within three weeks of Paterson’s essay, an open letter had been drafted and sent to Sir Sandy Crombie, the chair of Creative Scotland. The letter was signed by 100 artists (which figure soon rose to 400 once it went online). The signatories included Booker and Turner prizewinners, theatre directors, the Master of the Queen’s Music, poets, novelists, sculptors. Creative Scotland got a fright, as did Hyslop.

The letter deplored the body’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture”. It took exception to its impenetrable marketingspeak and noted that funding decisions were seemingly being taken by people with no knowledge of the art form in question. What it did not say, overtly, was that Scottish artists resent being treated as a business proposition. We are not a “cultural industries sector” that requires “investment” in accordance with a quango’s corporate strategy.

Behind Creative Scotland lies the Scottish government, led by the people Scott Hames calls “the electoral beneficiaries of a cultural mobilisation”. That cultural mobilisation was conducted by many of the same artists and writers now weighing in against the new Creative Scotland. Mass meetings of artists were held and committees were convened to discuss writers and artists’ objections. The most recent part of the campaign was the publication of a beautiful postcard. Printed on it was a “constitution”. A constitution on a postcard! Though unsigned, it was written by Don Paterson and the first lines are these:

We, the Scottish people, undertake
To find within our culture the true measure
Of the mind’s vitality and spirit’s health;
To see that what is best in us is treasured . . .

Both Dixon and Dhupa resigned after the artists’ backlash.

This is where it gets curious. You don’t bring down a quango with a constitution. But one looks through the quango to the political attitudes behind it. In this case, the artists were reaching beyond their inchoate funding body to the Scottish government itself and saying to Holyrood: listen, we writers and artists did not maintain cultural autonomy for 30 or 300 years, and achieve a devolved government, only to have that government treat us as a “sector” in its tour - ism promotions and business ventures.

Hitherto, Creative Scotland has demanded endless “celebration” from artists. Its Panglos - sian “Year of Creative Scotland” is over now, but has only been replaced by another government initiative: the Year of Natural Scotland, which requires artists again to “promote and celebrate”. The SNP’s website declares it is “committed to putting culture at the heart of our plans to develop Scotland’s overall prosperity”. Scottish Labour notes the nation’s creative talent and wants to “capitalise on this potential to become world leaders in the creative industries”. Alas for them, the country’s artists are not so keen to be national cheerleaders, or to be treated as means to economic ends.

The idea with the postcard was that you signed the back, maybe appended a message, and sent it to Fiona Hyslop. Hyslop is an SNP minister. Whatever the outcome of the independence referendum, there still will be a Bannockburn spirit in Scotland – a truculent bloody-mindedness. Her party may regret invoking it, when it starts arriving by the sackload on its doormat.

When I was writing my poem-inscription, I went back to Bannockburn alone, just to get a feel for the place and its relationship to the surrounding landscape. It’s not a spectacular site, just a flattened knoll, but the land seems to wheel around it and Bruce and his men would have been able to see what was coming. I went early in the morning while no one else was there other than a woman talking on her mobile as her dogs gambolled under the statue.

At the foot of the slope, cranes and workmen had arrived to begin the demolition of the old visitor centre and the building of the new. It will be ready, and the monuments polished up, in time for a grand reopening in 2014. There will be a re-enactment, God help us, which I presume the Scots will win, but no one will be killed.

As for the Union, that may or may not survive the referendum later next year. I won’t be laying any bets, but even if the vote is No my hunch is that the issue will return. The Battle of Bannockburn was a colossal, defining event. The move towards independence, on the other hand, is a process long and slow.

Kathleen Jamie’s most recent poetry collection is “The Overhaul” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

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