The histories of every country in the world must be littered with the corpses of ‘coming men’, and it is surely true that if you are a politician and have been declared a ‘coming man’, you have almost certainly been handed the black spot. I remember the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were riddled with ‘coming men’ who were reckoned by those ‘in the know’ to be Maggie’s most likely successor. And, of course, of those thus named, not one made it. The guy who actually did, one John Major, was never, to my knowledge, counted as a ‘coming man’ before he won the leadership contest which was organised after her assassination.
Driving up to London this morning, for my weekly stint hunting down rogue commas on the Mail’s features pages and ensuring all traces of humour are removed before publication, I was listening to the latest edition of Radio 4’s Crossing Continents, one of the many radio podcasts I download onto my iPod and then never listen to. Actually, that isn’t true. I do listen to some, but there are many which never get a look-in and are deleted unheard after several months.
That edition was a profile of a ‘coming man’, a Nichi Vendola, the current governor of Apulia, and thus one of Italy’s ‘coming men’.
(Incidentally, I am bound in honour to exclude many BBC journalists from my many rants against hacks. Perhaps it is because of the nature and history of the BBC as a broadcaster, but its foreign correspondence are, almost to a man and woman, journalists whose work I admire. Especial mention should go to those correspondents who work in dangerous parts of the world: names which come to mind are Hugh Sykes, Lyse Doucet, Barbara Plett and Olga Guerin, but there are many, many more. Their advantage is that as BBC radop is under no commercial imperative to bump up the listener figures, they can get on with the job with the minimum of bullshit.)
But back to Nichi Vendola: all I know of the man is what I heard this morning, and as far as I am concerned it is far too early to tell whether of not he is a good egg. That, of course, has no bearing whatsoever on whether he will successful in his aim to become Italy’s prime minister.
He is usually described as a gay poet who was once a communist but is now a catholic. He has twice served as Apulia’s governor (and is now in his second term) and it seems many on the left in Italy hope he might revitalise them. He is very popular with the voters, and as a gay activist getting himself elected governor of what is described as one of the most conservative of Italy’s provinces is some achievement. He joined Italy’s Communist Youth Federation
when he was 14, but has now renounced its excesses, although he seems to be rather clever in appealing to all sides. Thus in the programme he is quoted as being in favour of ‘globalisation’ because the proletariat are all over the world and if they are to be helped to throw off their shackles, it must be done ‘globally’. He was quoted as saying that the exhortation was not ‘workers of Italy unite’ or ‘workers of Western Europe unite’, but ‘workers of the world unite’. Very superficially what he says makes a certain sense, but dig only a little deeper and analyse it just a little more rigorously, and it turns into a certain kind of nonsense, if only because the word ‘globalisation’ and the notion behind it refer to world trade, and when people use that word, they are most certainly not engaging in Marxist dialogue but something which would have infuriated Marx. I might, of course, be very wrong and that encouraging ever more globalisation is top of the list of every left-wing group’s agenda. On the other hand, our Nichi might well be talking complete bollocks.
Vendola was profiled in Bari, where, as I have said, he commands a great deal of support, and then the reporter (Rosie Goldsmith, who spent a week with him) followed him to Turin, where took part in a conference of politicians and businessmen, and the Milan, where he endorsed the candidate his party is putting forward to contest the election for the city’s mayor. In Turin, according to Goldsmith, he was treated like something of a rock star. But the verdict of many of the businessmen whom he addressed was that he is a fine speaker who eloquently defined the problems faced by Italy, but was rather short on possible solutions. In other words, he talks a great game.
Back in Bari, there was other criticism along similar lines: that he is not actually very good at the nitty-gritty of local administration, and that much of what he does is done with one and a half eyes firmly on the politics. So, for example, he is opposing the privatisation of Apulia’s aqueduct (said to be the largest in Europe and vital for the region), even though in doing so he has put himself on a collision course with Berlusconi’s government. Well, there’s no harm in doing that if you are a politician who wants to make a name for himself on the national stage. But the criticism was that the aqueduct is in dire need of repair and maintenance which would cost far more than is available from local funds, but which would be adequately paid for if it were operated privately.
Then there is Vendola’s now very public Catholicism. How he manages to square that with his communism is not at all obvious, but it does go down well with the folks on the ground. He is quoted as saying ‘the most important book for a communist like me is the Bible’. Sounds good – but what does it mean? Not a great deal, I suggest, and would seem to be part of the group of vacuous soundbites of which claiming that ‘globalisation’ is necessary to boost the lot of the proletariat is another.
Describing the man as a ‘poet’ is also reckoned to be rather effective, as it conjures up sensitivity, emotion and creativity. But when politicians are described as ‘poets’, it is all too often forgotten that there are bad poets as well as good poets. And when an Apulian publisher was asked for his candid opinion on Vendola’s poetry, he pleaded to be allowed not to comment. And that is rather an eloquent response in itself.
But I am not Italian, and for all I know Nichi Vendola is a great guy who will, in future, play a leading role in ensuring the country’s trains start to run on time again. And perhaps he, too, might fall victim to the curse of the ‘coming man’.