We're becoming more like Italy (I wish!!). It doesn't mean that our young people have abandoned the notion of getting 'rat-arsed' on a Friday night, preferring instead to hold hands with their partners in the moonlight. It doesn't mean that the stodgy, fat-laden mess which passes for British cuisine has been forsaken for the staple delights of pasta or linguine. It doesn't even mean that our capital city has reduced its travelling prices to equate those of Rome (where an all-day pass allowing unlimited travel on buses, trains and the subway within the city and its suburbs costs just €4). What I mean is that this country is becoming more Italian economically. Let me explain.
Most of you will know I have spent many periods of my adult life travelling in Italy. Sardinia and Molisse are the only two regions I have never set foot in. One of the things you notice when you go to Italy is the massive economic chasm between north and south. Lombardy, the region whose capital is fashion-conscious Milan, is as prosperous as any region of this country. Travel 500 miles south to Calabria (the 'toe' of Italy), which is the country's poorest region, and many of the towns have an average income little above what would be found across the Mediterranean in Tunisia. It is only government funding which keeps any semblance of stability in the region as it is necessary to prevent complete collapse (the Mafia has its own definition of the local economy. One which does not involve paying much to the State). With the exception of a reunited Germany, Italy is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most economically divided country in the European Union.
Level accusations of inequality at the Italian government and they will entirely agree with you. Government policy there since the war has been to deliberately impoverish the south (or Mezzogiorno) so that a plentiful supply of internal migrant labour is available to feed the industrial hot-houses of Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria. By contrast, level accusations of a 'north-south' divide at Tony Blair, and he will say it's all baloney. 'Differences within regions are much greater than differences between them.'
A free market in a country is only truly free if it's money-making capacity is left unfettered by the government. However, a government's task is to orchestrate policies in different regions according to how they have been shaped by the vicissitudes of economic history, in order to provide the necessary incentives for free market strategies to take root there (calls for a 12.5% corporation tax in Northern Ireland is a good example). Unfortunately, very few governments since the war have been prepared to address the north-south divide in Britain, with the result that the gap gets ever wider.
Consider this report. A Labour government, which historically has drawn much of its support from areas outside London and the South East, has now so mismanaged the economy with its bloated public sector and benefit dependency culture, the consequences can be seen in the rest of the country becoming London-dependent for survival. Nick Bosanquet of Imperial College London says 'the north' (in essence every region of the UK northwest of the Severn-Wash line) faces an outward migration of young people, reliant on income transfers generated by the prosperity of London and its hinterland. This is exactly what has happened in Italy over the last forty years. The difference between a conversation with Tommaso Padoa Schioppa and Gordon Brown is that the former would be leagues ahead in the economic honesty stakes.