Cultural solutions for Italy’s economy


Parliament Street’s Helen Chandler-Wilde on cultural solutions for Italy’s economy 

A month ago I moved to Milan from London for my year abroad at university. Not only are the economic differences immediately staggering (streets dead on a Sunday and my rent half of what it is in London for a much nicer room), there are also great cultural and political differences between the two countries.

In London I live in Camden. I tend to be chauvinist about places I live, but Camden truly is wonderful. It’s such a diverse area that on my cobbled mews there is a traditional mechanic which has been there since the 1950s, yet around the corner is a large Sainsbury’s, several Jamaican food shops, a mosque and a Catholic school. London seems to do multicultural living much better than any other city I’ve ever visited. By and large, different communities live side by side, using the same shops and public facilities. When you decide what to have for dinner, you are offered food (at a fair market rate) from every country in the world.

Perhaps this is a remnant from our long history of worldwide empire and our current links within the Commonwealth, that trade has always existed and so we have become familiar with a wide range of goods. We are actively proud that our national dish is curry. I will say this and be damned: food in Italy is actually very bland. There is only very rarely spice, they are afraid of foreign food, and every meal seems to consist of the same four ingredients: flour, meat, cheese and tomatoes. Although going to Pizza Express once in a while is nice, eating there every day has made me a spice fiend when back in England.

Italy does seem in ways other than this afraid of diversity and difference. Their attitudes to many things are painfully old-fashioned.

Women are asked to cover up when entering a church here; if you are wearing a vest top then you are either asked to leave or given a kind of plastic poncho so that no man may get wrongfully aroused in God’s house (if you have a stiffy whilst praying, then I honestly think your problems are more deep-rooted than a glimpse of my left shoulder) and to hide the shame that is the female form (yes, original sin is still a thing here). All advertisements, whether they are promoting lingerie or vending machines show a woman in skimpy underwear and heavy black make-up. I am a rower, and tried to continue my hobby over here, only to be put off by the university’s club’s website being solely about their men’s squad, with a sentence or two at the end mentioning that ‘in recent years we have seen that the fairer sex (sic!) can also row and so would welcome any female members’. This is all a bit of a shock for someone growing up in Henley-on-Thames whose idols are Helen Glover and Katherine Grainger.

The LGBT community is equally badly treated.  Interior Minsiter Angelino Alfano this week announced that he would block orders from above to register gay marriages conducted abroad, making them worthless in Italy. The first gay couple allowed to adopt a child was only this summer in Italy and one partner was the child’s biological mother. What is interesting is that surveys have shown that prejudice is much worse for gay or bisexual men than it is for gay or bisexual women, surely pointing towards the effect of machismo sexism on attitudes towards the LGBT community.

Racism here is particularly noticeable. Anecdotally, I have never seen a mixed-race group of friends or couple walking down the street. MEP Cécile Kyenge, a black woman, had bananas thrown at her in the chamber during her time in the Italian Parliament. Gianluca Buonanno, another member of parliament from the infamous Lega Nord party, blacked up during a speech he delivered on immigration.

I don’t think that civil liberties are a topic which has been picked up enough on by the Right, and certainly not in Italy. It is a great shame that the Right in Italy and the UK are so often conflated with racism and misogynist attitudes towards sluts not cleaning behind the ‘fridge.

My brand of politics has some disparate influences, notably Disraeli (our first Jewish Prime Minister would certainly not be Miliband), and more recently Michael Gove and Helena Morrissey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30% Club.

One of the most spine-tinglingly inspiring pieces of political philosophy for me has always been that of meritocracy, believing as all Conservatives should that society will get the best outcome if we award jobs based on intellect and hard work. What matters is not what we look like, who we love or who we know, but what we can contribute economically. Beyond any sense of ‘justice’ or ‘equality’, prejudices in Italy also massively distort the labour market.

A brief example is that of the lady I live with in Milan. She is only able to work part-time, despite wanting to work full-time, as her ex-husband thinks women should always be there to pick their children up from school and by the look of it contributes almost no help whatsoever with childcare.

Paul Donovan from UBS, amongst many others, has done research into the effect of prejudice on economic growth, and predictably, it’s a massive hindrance. Not surprising when it leads to a massive waste of our most valuable resource, labour.

The modern world has in many ways opened up civil liberties for many more than before; the explosion of the internet has really has let the market decide. Not only do individuals buy more things from abroad, consumers have become less aware of who is selling to them. In the past some people may have put personal prejudices in their purchasing decisions, choosing for example a white greengrocer over an Asian one. Purchasing on the internet is much less personal now, so price can really be the sole deciding factor on choosing a supplier. This is obviously a good thing for markets as it is massively more efficient.

I wouldn’t like to dictate to Italy, a country rich with heritage and culture, as someone who has lived here for only a few weeks. Nor am I saying that Britain is a eutopia of social mobility; most of my impression of the difference between the two countries may well just be because in Britain I have lived in one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world.

I do, however, believe that Italy would do much better for itself and its image abroad were it able to modernise along with the rest of the world on its attitudes to women and minority groups. When telling people back home that I was going to be spending a year in Italy studying economics, most people laughed, then subsequently told me I wouldn’t have difficulty finding a job there as a twenty year-old female with blonde hair and an above-average cup size. The problem is deep-set and pervasive in Italian culture; their government was run for nine years on and off by a man whose morals are questionable, at best. He stills runs most of their television channels and newspapers.

It is clear, however, that every Italian, even the white straight males, would get a much better deal if they could let the market, rather than their prejudices, decide.

Follow Helen on twitter @hels1994

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