Italy’s Partito Democrato – the rough equivalent of New Labour – has discovered its very own version of Tony Blair. At 38, Matteo Renzi is young and charismatic. He wants to change Italy, and, in common with Mr Blair, he seems to have a knack for doing the right thing to endear himself to the public. Conscious of the resentment felt against the vastly inflated number of official cars used by Italian politicians and bureaucrats, he very publicly took a cab after a meeting with the Prime Minister. He has promoted women. People say Italy is “changing generations”. All very 1997 to British ears.
For the sake of Italy, and the wider European interest, we can only hope that Mr Renzi does indeed live up to the best of Mr Blair’s policies and legacies. We can be sure he won’t be blundering into any foreign adventures. If only we could be so sure he will complete the long-overdue reforms to Italy’s economy that everyone agrees upon but which never seem to materialise. To borrow a phrase, Silvio Berlusconi was the future once – the supposed antidote to years of stagnation – and he left behind a great number of unfinished reforms.
Italy could do worse than to look to its past for a clue to its future. Ironically, given that the nation was at the time governed by a succession of usually corrupt and unimaginative Christian Democrat leaders, there was a post-war economic boom. Workers flowed in from the countryside to the bustling cities, with exports flowing into the other fast-growing Western European economies. Young Italians Vespa-ed their way to unprecedented prosperity and self-confidence. In fashion, film, design, and food, Italy led. When the supply of cheap labour ran out, so did the growth. The country slumped back to the bottom of the league table, and once-banished self-doubts reasserted their grip.
There is some urgency here. As Italy’s populace ages, it needs to find young, fresh workers from somewhere to pay for the baby-boomer pensioners, and to loosen its sclerotic labour market. It needs to reform public sector pensions, the challenge that besets most of Western Europe. Without a radical shift in its demographics Italy will suffer a sort of slow fiscal death – though it has weathered the eurozone crisis comparatively well.
Such tasks famously left scars on Mr Blair’s back. Mr Renzi will need all the skills of his English hero – and more – to persuade Italians to vote for the changes required.