This week's big questions: Are the Italian election results disastrous or hopeful?

This week's questions answered by former editor of The Economist Bill Emmott

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Is the result of the Italian election a disastrous or a hopeful outcome for the country?

It is very bad in the short term, and reflects the failure of the main political parties – including Mario Monti – to offer the change Italians need, want, even crave. Why didn’t they get it? They wanted to deny reality, and leave Italy as a “girlfriend in a coma”. It is maddening, but basically the established parties just thought they could carry on with business as usual, cruising their way into power and avoiding big reforms, while Monti simply never got his message across. The next few months could be pretty messy, with lots of periods of doom, gloom and depression. But the 25 per cent vote for Beppe Grillo could be the wake-up call Italy and the parties need. So there is hope. Grillo might well force some helpful reforms to politics in the near term – fewer MPs, lower salaries, a new electoral law – and then within a year there will likely be another lot of elections.

Are Italians in denial about the necessity of austerity or are they right to reject it?

Italians know austerity is needed, but they want to know and feel that it is leading somewhere, to real change, to a better future. Austerity without hope, opportunity, a vision for better times just feels like sado-masochism. That’s what many have rejected. The tragedy of Mario Monti is that he succeeded in offering only austerity, in the eyes of most Italians, and failed to get across any more positive message about Italian revival. He also made a serious tactical error by running alongside discredited, old political parties rather than being bold enough to stand alone, forming his own, and being able to offer himself as a focus for change and renewal. He threw away his chances, and largely his reputation, too.

Is the euro now an obstacle to the economic revival of Europe?

The German-led insistence on universal fiscal sado-masochism is an obstacle to Europe’s revival. But such insistence is not necessary for the euro, and I hope it will start to change after the German elections in September to something more enlightened. Even so, the biggest obstacles to Europe’s revival lie domestically in each country, in their over-sclerotic economies, in the way interest groups block change, in the way dynamic evolution has been slowed, in the way too many countries have suppressed merit and creativity. This is a sure route to stagnation and decline, and our passive, often undemanding democracies have stood by and allowed it to happen. Such a “coma” is worst in Italy, hence the title of our film, but it is shared across Europe and could deepen.

What are the most important tasks facing the next pope and how likely is it that someone up to them will be elected?

Not a good question to ask an atheist. But, of course, I think the pope should bring the Catholic Church much much closer to the views of its real members on issues of contraception, homosexuality, in-vitro fertilisation and all the rest. The longer it stays stuck in the past, the more the Church will suffer. And, in Italian terms, the Catholic Church needs to follow the example of Queen Elizabeth during the 1990s: it needs to start paying taxes, like other organisations and people. But I doubt it will do either. I’d nominate the Italian film director Nanni Moretti as the new Pope.

Is coalition unsuited to the political culture of the United Kingdom?

I can’t see why. We just aren’t used to it. Cultures change as circumstances change. Maybe the next election will return us to single-party government, but I’d bet it won’t be long before the next coalition. The trends are clear.

With regard to the Rennard allegations and Silvio Berlusconi’s behaviour, do you detect change towards “inappropriate behaviour” in public life and elsewhere?

Well, in Italy there’s very little sign of any change. During the election, Berlusconi made a lewd remark to a woman on television and the audience laughed and applauded. Then the TV commentators spent days discussing it and replaying the footage, making it even worse. In Britain, yes, there’s been a fairly big change, especially since the days of Savile et al, but don’t let’s kid ourselves that it is complete or widely shared.

How important are Michael Gove’s changes to the English school history curriculum?

Not having children, I find it hard to judge, and my two dogs don’t seem very interested in history. That said, I instinctively prefer the idea of history being taught at least in an international context rather than too exclusively parochial.

Does the horse-meat scandal indicate a systemic problem in the way we organise the production and distribution of food?

The scandal indicates a systematic problem in our attitude to the consumption of food, an attitude that is especially British though not solely, and which encourages the sort of fraud and scavenging for cheap ingredients that the scandal has exposed. In the end, too many of us don’t seem to care about what we put in our stomachs. As Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, says, we put a much higher value on the Armani underpants we wear outside our bodies than on the food we ingest inside them. At least that is one thing Italians get right: they sell us the designer underpants, but are super-keen on good quality food for themselves.

Bill Emmott is a former editor of ‘The Economist’ and now co-writer, with Annalisa Piras, of a new documentary about Italy, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’. www.billemmott.com

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