Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Matteo Renzi: as Thatcher, rather than Blair
L´Espresso - February 27, 2014

For someone who claims to want to emulate Britain’s Tony Blair, Matteo Renzi has made a strange start in national politics.  When I interviewed him on camera for “Girlfriend in a Coma” he cited Blair as wisely saying he loved Labour Party traditions, except their tradition of always losing elections—but now Renzi has split his own PD by his sudden putsch against Enrico Letta. 


And as I wrote in L’Espresso in December last year, one of Blair’s key tactics was patience: he took three years to get full control of his party before winning the general election of 1997. President Renzi is not a patient man. 


So what should we think of Italy’s young, ambitious and impatient leader? Most of all, we should judge him by what his government actually achieves, so we will have to wait for that. Dreams and inspiring words about radicalism and revival are good and needed, but they will count for nothing without decisive actions.


The comparison with Tony Blair has been overdone. Yes, it made some sense to look for inspiration to another European country in which a bright young leader took over as head of a big left-wing party and shook it up. But the circumstances of Britain in 1997 and Italy today are too different to make the comparison useful. 


For a start, Britain was not in an economic crisis when Blair won his first election in 1997: it was in its fourth year of quite strong economic growth. And Blair took power after a general election in which he had won a big parliamentary majority, and after nearly 18 years of rule by the right-wing Conservative Party. That situation made a lot of bureaucrats and even business leaders support the idea of a moderate centre-left prime minister. For now, Renzi can only dream of such political strength. 


No, if my own country of Britain is to be used to provide comparisons for the emergence of Renzi, a much better one can be found in 1979, when Britain did have an economic crisis. It is the arrival in 10 Downing Street in that year of Margaret Thatcher. I am not saying that Renzi resembles Thatcher in ideological terms. But the resemblance lies in the political situation and how he needs to deal with it.


When Thatcher took power, admittedly with a clear, but not strong parliamentary majority, she presented herself as much more of a radical outsider than Blair did. It is hard to remember it now, but she too claimed to have dreams to fulfill, quoting St Francis of Assisi on the day of her victory. But the big point is this: like Renzi, Britain’s revolutionary first female prime minister was opposed by much of her own party, was opposed by most leading bureaucrats, and was widely expected to fail.


During Thatcher’s early period as prime minister, she struggled, in two main ways. She struggled to define her own strategy, to work out what it was she really wanted to do. And she struggled to keep control of her own government, as so many of its members preferred their agendas and ideas to hers.


So what are the lessons of Margaret Thatcher for Matteo Renzi? One is to find and enact a few key reforms to define your purpose, rather than rushing around trying to do a lot of smaller measures. Second, to do as she eventually did, making it totally clear that she was not going to change course or give way under pressure from her opponents.


All Britons who were adults in the early 1980s remember a speech of hers at her party’s conference when she declared that “the lady’s not for turning”, meaning that she was not going to reverse her course. Whether they liked her policies or not, Britons suddenly knew they had a prime minister who really meant what she said.


That is what President Renzi is going to need to do: choose some clear, memorable priorities, ones which the public can understand, and which show that he means what he says and is not going to back down or compromise.


There is, in addition, one lesson from Tony Blair that must be repeated from my December article: Renzi should make a reform that clearly helps poorer workers, as Blair did when he introduced Britain’s first ever minimum wage. If he wants to win support for his Jobs Act, he will need to show that he cares.  


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