When oil mixes with water: hydraulic drilling for fossil fuels is both opening up and changing the landscape around the world. Photograph: Enrique Marcarian/Reuters
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Fracking: the new gold rush

Can shale gas and fracking solve our energy crisis?

It’s a cold but sunny January day in Brighton, and Anna Dart looks like death. Equipped with a black shroud, white skull face and tinfoil scythe, she is leading the Sussex Extreme Energy Resistance protest outside HSBC in North Street. HSBC provides banking services to the “greedy corporate” entity (Dart’s words) Cuadrilla; in pursuit of Mammon, this energy firm is going to poison the water and our food, Dart says. To reinforce the point, her fellow protesters are dressed in toxic hazard suits and are handing out leaflets that warn of the “devastating” impact Cuadrilla’s fracking will have on England. Fracking is the process by which hydraulic fracturing of shale rock produces gas and oil.

Fracking is the new GM. As with genetic modification of crops, the issues are so complex that people are generally going with their gut. And their gut tells them that it’s a bad idea to break up the ground beneath our feet just so that we can get at more gas for generating electricity.

In case you needed more proof that Cuad - rilla is an evil empire, consider this. Less than a week after the Brighton protest, at a fracking site in Lancashire, Francis Egan tried to steal my pencil. Egan, Cuadrilla’s chief executive, wanted to draw me a graph of how the amount of gas that comes out of a well varies over time. I lent him the pencil, and a piece of paper. When we finished talking, he tucked the pencil – my best pencil, I might add – into his organiser. Not content with a plan to set Lancashire on fire with its own gas, not content to bring earthquake-related misery to Britain, the company has appointed a stationery thief as its CEO.

“I’m going to use that,” I tell him. “I’m going to tell the world you stole my pencil.”

Simon, the PR man, looks slightly worried. I can’t trust Simon either. I had coffee with three local activists earlier. Not only did they give a pantomime hiss when I said I was going to meet Egan, they said that PPS Group, the firm in charge of Cuadrilla’s PR (strap - line: “working in the tougher areas of communication”), has a history of dubious behaviour. When it comes to fracking, rumour, half-truth and paranoia are rife.

The devil wears Camper. To match the casual shoes, Egan is in blue jeans, a dark crewneck top and a black leather jacket. Inside the blue “meeting room” Portakabin at the Anna’s Road drilling site just outside Lytham, it is casual Friday. As he talks, he tugs frustratedly at his curly white hair. “All your questions have been about problems,” he says, putting down his Morrisons egg and cress sandwich and rocking back in his chair. “Not one has been about how we can make the most out of this.”

“This” is the shale gas bonanza. In September 2011, Cuadrilla announced that there is 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped in the UK’s Bowland Shale, kilometres beneath the surface of Lancashire, just waiting to be brought to the surface and burned. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) asked its rock scientists – the British Geological Survey (BGS) – to rush out an independent estimate. The BGS said there was perhaps five or six trillion cubic feet.

The BGS has since revised its “back of a fag packet” calculations (in the words of Professor Michael Stephenson, head of energy services at the BGS) and DECC is about to release a fresh estimate. Stephenson won’t tell me what it is, and Egan doesn’t know. “I suspect it’s going to be higher than 200 trillion cubic feet,” Egan says. “I’m fairly confident our number was conservative.”

As it turns out, Egan might be right. In early February the Times reported that it had seen leaked figures from the BGS: the new estimate is reportedly between 1,300 and 1,700 trillion cubic feet. That’s a lot of gas, even assuming (as the BGS does) that we’ll get only 10 per cent of it out of the ground. By way of comparison, the world’s largest oilfield, the South Pars/North Dome field beneath Iran and Qatar, contains 1,235 trillion cubic feet of gas. Currently, North Sea production is at roughly 1.3 trillion cubic feet per year, so the Bowland Shale could possibly see us through the next century.

So, what are we going to do with it? One argument is that we should leave it in the ground for the climate’s sake. We are supposed to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. But let’s face it, no one is building nuclear reactors, nor has there been sufficient investment in green technologies to allow them to take the strain. It’s inevitable that we are going to keep burning gas for the foreseeable future. At least gas is cleaner than coal. And given that we import 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas a year, often from autocratic states, if we’ve got our own, why not burn it?

We have only to look across the Atlantic to see the benefits. Gas from geological deposits of shale has revolutionised the US energy market. An abundance of shale gas has turned the US from a gas-importing nation into one that could soon be exporting the stuff. That’s partly because there is so much of it that the price has dropped through the floor; it’s becoming hard to make a profit as a fracking company just in the US.

The hub for this 21st-century gold rush is Texas, where a deposit known as the Barnett Shale could yield landowners as much as 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. “The Barnett Shale is pretty much the same as what we have in the north of England,” Stephenson says. “It’s the same age, and the same kind of rock.”

So, the theory goes, it probably has a lot of gas in it. Not that it’s straightforward to get at. The gas is trapped within the structure of the rocks at depths of up to five kilometres. You can drill down to the shale to open up a pipeline, but it’s not like opening a bottle of fizzy drink; the methane doesn’t suddenly flood upwards. That’s why you have to frack.

Fracking involves pumping a drill hole full of “fracturing fluid”, a mix of water, sand and chemicals that breaks up the rock to release gas. The gas flows into the pipe bore and rises to the surface, where it is collected into onsite tanks. Inevitably, it’s not that simple. You might have some gas, but you’ve also got millions of gallons of contaminated water coming up with it. When the Environment Agency analysed the “flowback” from one of Cuadrilla’s wells, it compared the contamination with permissible contamination levels of water from the mains. Arsenic was up to 20 times over the limit. There was 90 times the acceptable level of radioactive materials, 1,438 times the permissible lead levels and 2,297 times as much bromide as is allowed.

“It’s non-hazardous,” Egan says, straightfaced. “It’s not going to be a danger to anyone’s health.” He is pulling at those curls again. To be fair, that’s the Environment Agency’s assessment, too, because they classify flowback not as mains water, but as industrial waste. And compared to some industrial waste it is non-hazardous.

“The flowback is toxic; there’s no doubting that,” says Joseph Dutton, an energy policy researcher at the University of Leicester. “But then so is raw sewage. So is wastewater from food processing plants. The fact is, the technology exists to handle and clean it.”

It’s contradictions such as “non-hazardous” toxic waste that have created such a furore around fracking. Most of us live as if the gas we burn for electricity, heating and hot water comes from the fossil-fuel fairy. We don’t want to be confronted with the unsavoury facts about how it is produced. But we live in a new era: this extraction, if allowed, is going to take place in this country.

The Anna’s Road site lies a kilometre from one of Lytham’s largest housing estates. Ignoring the complexities and contradictions of our fossil-fuel addiction is a luxury that the residents of Lancashire no longer have. Their first concern is the ground beneath their feet. On 1 April 2011, Cuadrilla’s fracking operation caused an earthquake in the Blackpool area. Cuadrilla prefers the term “seismic event”, but let’s not argue over words just now. There was a second, smaller quake on 27 May. The BGS performed a study and said the epicentres were 500 metres from Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well at Weeton, just outside Blackpool. Cuadrilla eventually conceded that the events were probably caused by its fracking and downed tools while the government commissioned a report into the risks.

The quakes were tiny: magnitude 2.3 and 1.5. “There have been several quakes bigger than that since – and no one reported them,” says Richard Davies of Durham University’s Energy Institute. Unless you live in Leicestershire, for instance, you probably don’t know that the Loughborough area has already suffered three similar quakes this year, with crockery-rattling magnitudes 2.4, 1.5 and 2.9. These were naturally occurring seismic events, probably caused by ground shifting around the county’s warren of mines.

“If we wanted to stop fracking on the basis of seismicity, we’d have to stop a lot of other things, too,” Davies says. “Mining and drawing geothermal energy, for instance. Compared with everything else, seismicity is fairly unimportant in fracking.”

Egan is realistic. He has finished his sandwich and has moved on to a tub of ready-cut melon. He peels back the film, stabs a piece – rather malevolently – and thrusts it into his mouth. “The seismic thing is a useful stick to beat the industry with,” he says. “It’s important that it doesn’t happen again.”

This makes a pleasing, if ironic, contrast with the local activists’ viewpoint. Pam is almost praying for another earthquake. “If it happens again it’ll be all over for Cuadrilla,” she says. There’s a lot of spark to Residents Action on Fylde Fracking (RAFF). Though all the RAFF committee members are retired, there is no lack of fight. “We’re so up for this,” says Ian, sipping a latte. Pam tells me about their exploits in lobbying the county council and organising packed information evenings at local village halls. Ian interrupts the flow of fighting talk to comment on the coffee shop’s background music. “Ooh, Chet Baker,” he says. “I love this.” So does Pam; she has the album, she says. I’m having coffee with the activist wing of Saga.

They’ve been dismissed as “nimby bumpties”, the “aboriginals of Lancashire” and “crazy tree-huggers”, but they are not cowed by the name-calling. They see themselves as well-informed citizens exercising their democratic right to question the actions of their local representatives. And they get results. Through their efforts (and, they would politely insist, the effort of many others), Lancashire County Council has told the government it wants “industry-specific regulation” of fracking, with frequent on-site inspections, rigorously enforced regulations and “considerable sanctions” for any breach of the rules. “We consider that a triumph,” Ian says.

So they should: the UK Energy Research Centre says there is “fierce public opposition” to fracking. Egan denies this; most people, he says, haven’t made up their mind. That may be because, for most people, it doesn’t matter what they think. For the people of Lancashire, though, it most certainly does.

Lancashire is sitting on what Egan calls “one of the largest gas discoveries ever made anywhere”. It is at this point that he starts telling me off for focusing on the negatives of getting gas out of the ground. So I ask him what’s in it for the people of Lancashire. His reply is a simple “Jobs, I hope”, and hardly rings with confidence. Especially given the wording of some of Cuadrilla’s planning applications: “Locally, the benefits of such a hydrocarbon exploration project are small.” Should the exploration be successful, “the employment of a small number of local people, depending upon the size of production operation, may result”.

“I don’t agree with that,” he says. The CEO is six months in post and clearly thinks he knows better than the people who drew up the firm’s planning applications. Egan notes my surprise and embarks on a motivational lecture. “I think Lancashire needs to be much more proactive,” he says. In his view, it’s not Cuadrilla’s job to make this work for Lanca - shire. “This isn’t Cuadrilla’s gas. This is the country’s gas. UK plc and Lancashire plc should be looking at this and saying, ‘How do we make the most out of this resource?’ Not: ‘Is Cuadrilla going to create jobs for us?’

“This is an opportunity for Lancashire. We can facilitate it. It needs some kind of co-ordination or drive, but if you look at Aberdeen or Houston, it isn’t, ‘What is this they’re doing to us?’”

Calming down a little, Egan explains that, if they want them, the people of Lancashire can have jobs as plumbers, electricians, engineers, accountants, architects and truck drivers. “Drilling is just high-class labouring,” he says, waving at the world outside the Portakabin. “These are basically construction sites.” Indeed. And, as with construction sites, things sometimes go wrong. My tour ends with us standing on a squash-court-sized bed of concrete in front of a neat, round, waterfilled hole. “This is where we’re going to drill next,” says Bob, the site manager. I casually point to the capped-off hole next to it.

“Is that the hole where you lost some stuff?” I ask. Bob nods. There is the briefest of pained winces as he remembers the equipment that dropped off the drilling rig. They could have carried on, he reckons, but the orders from on high were to fill and close the hole.

So far, Cuadrilla has drilled four holes in Lancashire and abandoned two. The other abandoned hole is at Preese Hall, where the “seismic event” deformed the well’s concrete casing. Though it didn’t break, and Cuadrilla re-cemented the deformed section, this is the nightmare scenario – a well that breaks, leaving fracking fluid or methane to find its way into aquifers and, eventually, the food chain. In the United States, there are claims that fracking has caused methane to leak into the water supply: the internet is awash with footage of people igniting their tap water with a cigarette lighter. The Fylde coast depends on tourism and agriculture, and the local people are justifiably concerned that their land and water sources remain uncontaminated. They want the government to protect them. So far, however, the government is not on their side.

In all the furore over fracking, the UK government might just be the least rational, most entrenched activist of all. It has chained itself to the idea that fracking is a route to lower gas prices. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Tory energy minister John Hayes have all talked of shale gas reducing household energy bills. Matt Ridley, the techno-optimist scientist and author, and Lord Browne, the former chairman of BP and the Cabinet Office lead non-executive (who coincidentally is also the chair of directors of Cuadrilla), have made similar claims. The only dissenting voice in the government comes from Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, who has made more effort than most to keep the enthusiasm under control.

This notion seems to have arisen from a naive application of US shale gas economics to the UK. UK shale gas will be sold into a gas market that is connected to the European market and the one for liquefied natural gas coming out of Africa. “It’s going to be a drop in a bucket,” says Jim Watson, director of research at the UK Energy Research Centre. “You’d have to discover huge amounts to have an effect on the global price.” That’s because, in order to get the best price for it, the gas goes into the central pool rather than being piped straight into a power station.

Cuadrilla reckons that its shale gas could “eventually” meet a quarter of UK demand – because it doesn’t know when production will start, or how it will scale up, it’s impossible to be more specific – but admits that’s not going to make a big difference.

“I don’t think we ever said it would be enough to change the gas price,” Egan says. In many ways, it doesn’t matter. The message is out there: cheaper gas through fracking is already a familiar energy trope that will help win public support.

The other issue is regulation. Having commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to compile a report on the risks of fracking, the government chose to ignore the main call from these bodies: for strong regulation before fracking proceeds.

The UK’s oil and gas regulations are not sufficient to cover fracking operations and there is little to no inspection regime in place. Residents Action on Fylde Fracking made a Freedom of Information request to the Health and Safety Executive in June last year and discovered that it had made just two visits to inspect Cuadrilla’s sites. Mark Miller, who directs the company’s operations in Lanca - shire, told the group that the HSE was inspecting for worker safety only – that hard hats and high-vis vests were worn; well integrity was not on the agenda.

“No one has ever checked the cement bonds of any of the four wells,” Pam says.

This comes as no surprise to Dutton. The Royal Society report highlighted well integ - rity as the most likely point of failure and recommended that the inspection regime for checking the wells be made the “highest priority”. But, Dutton says, DECC and HSE simply don’t have the resources to develop and implement a regulatory framework. “For me, that’s exactly what the environmental groups should be going on about,” he says.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of UK fracking is that so many educated people think the safety issues will take care of themselves. “We’ve got such good regulation in this country; it’s pretty unlikely we’d have a problem,” Stephenson says. The Commons select committee on climate change, which the Tory MP Tim Yeo chairs, shares his confidence. “We believe it is possible to construct a regulatory framework which will make fracking environmentally safe,” Yeo told me. “We’re quite good at that in this country.”

This national pride in Great British Regulation would be a lot easier to swallow if it wasn’t being raised at a time when we’ve discovered that up to 1,200 people may have been killed at the Stafford Hospital, and that thousands of supermarket beef dishes are composed largely of horse meat.

The age of austerity has cut the funding of supervisory bodies to the bone – bad news for those concerned about fracking regulation. The HSE’s inspectors for gas and oil installations are set up for the offshore industry and are based in Scotland, and have no funding or expertise to carry out onshore inspections. “They told me they don’t have the petrol money for making random visits to Lancashire,” says Mike Hill, a chartered engineer and Lytham resident who has spent years working in the oil and gas industry. “If you know no one is checking – and with fracking we do know no one is checking – the temptation to cut costs is too big to resist.”

Hill has delivered talks at academic conferences on shale gas, and he also advises Pam, Ian and Anna. He refuses to join RAFF – he’s not anti-fracking, he says, just pro-regulation. Of course the industry cuts corners where it can, he tells me. It’s not evil, exactly; it’s just that the safest way of doing things sometimes costs more money than companies with profit-hungry shareholders are willing to spend – especially when there’s no risk of being found out.

Francis Egan assures me that Cuadrilla has nothing to hide and no interest in cutting corners. “The HSE can come any time they like,” he says. “All that stuff you read about? We’re not doing any of it.” Cuadrilla will get one of its fracking sites up and running and people will finally see the truth, he reckons. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like,’ and over time it will just become accepted.” He is convinced that fracking is seen as a danger because it’s new; that’s why coal is more accepted, even though it’s dirtier. It’s better the devil you know.

Michael Brooks is the author of “The Secret Anarchy of Science” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Update: 26 March. An earlier version of this piece stated that Mike Hill was retained as a technical advisor by Lancashire County Council. In fact, he acted as a "technical advisor" (unpaid) to the Fylde Council Task and Finish Group, who were looking into Cuadrilla's activities. He is no longer in that role.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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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