Title: Good Italy, Bad Italy
Author: Bill Emmott
Publisher: Yale University Press (£18.99)
It is not an exaggeration to describe The Economist magazine as the most effective opposition party against Silvio Berlusconi. The harsh criticism the free market magazine lobbed at the Italian media maverick turned politician was, for a decade, an embarrassment to a man who depicted himself as a freedom fighter against the remnants of communism.
The Economist opened hostilities in April 2001, during a heated electoral campaign, with a cover that called Berlusconi “unfit to lead Italy”. It was a surprise attack, magnified by Italian and international media. Then came the war, with dozens of articles up until June 2011, when another cover summarized his legacy as “the man who screwed up an entire country”. Berlusconi saw the fight against The Economist, or The E-communist as he called it, as personal. He sued the magazine and lost. He won two elections (in 2001 and 2008) but was forced out in November 2011.
The man who started the Economist campaign against Berlusconi was Bill Emmott, editor of the magazine between 1993 and 2006. An expert on Japan, Emmott, at the time, was not particularly interested in Italian matters and relied on the judgment of his colleagues. He had to bear the brunt of Berlusconi’s wrath though, and had to take it personally too. After he left The Economist, Emmott felt unjustly labelled as an “anti-Italian” in certain quarters. He therefore took an increasing interest in Italy, by travelling the country and meeting people from all walks of life: politicians, entrepreneurs and ordinary people. His experience went well beyond that of the average foreign correspondent. He published two books: one in Italian (“Forza, Italia: come ripartire dopo Berlusconi”) and one, recently revisited and updated, in English: “Good Italy, Bad Italy: why Italy must conquer its demons to face the future” which will be followed by a TV documentary made with the Italian journalist Annalisa Piras.
While the Italian version of the book does not add much fresh information for an Italian reader, it does provide a new reading, from an interesting perspective, and propose some solutions. The new English edition, which largely draws from the Italian version, must appeal to the foreign reader, as it looks at Italy after Berlusconi from an original angle. It reminds us of some commonfailings of the bad Italy that were exploited and leveraged by Berlusconi such as nepotism, corruption, ugly politics, lack of meritocracy, protectionism, corporatism, and parasitism. It adds less-known problems, such as poor universities and general education, low birth rate, bad services, falling behind in technology, limited creativity, and a failure to really involve women in public life. Nevertheless the most interesting aspect is when the author looks on the bright side of the good Italy. It is a useful exercise, as Italians tend to indulge in self-deprecation. He discovers the merits of solidarity, entrepreneurship, family values, friendship, and craftsmanship, through a series of stories that prove that there is also some good in the South and that not all that is holy is in the North of the country.
Emmmot is aware of the big task awaiting the Italians in these difficult times, but seems to take comfort from the positive aspects he discovers. Amongst the good Italians he counts the present Prime Minister, Mario Monti. But a question mark remains: what happens after April next year when the Italians will vote for a new Government? Will Monti really step down as he has made clear and is there a risk of a Berlusconi comeback? Whatever the outcome, Emmott’s book provides many helpful tools to read into the country’s future.