Letter from Rome: What Italy can learn from the Iron Lady

May 2013

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

I just can’t help it.  Taking shots at the Italian political class is a habitual exercise in cynicism that anyone but the most blindly naïve can practice, and there’s no virtue or talent required to do it.  I sometimes get a guilty conscience for engaging in it, especially because so many of my Italian friends and acquaintances (which include members of the political class) are good and decent people, because I feel like I’m personally insulting them with my criticisms.  It’s not as if the politicians of the United States of America or anywhere else are doing much better, but somehow the Italians seem to take the prize for political mayhem and incompetence.  So while the bond markets have welcomed the new government led by Enrico Letta by lowering the cost of Italian debt, it’s hard to be encouraged witnessing the two-month process whereby the sausage was made.

Politicians as a rule tend to practice self-assertion and self-aggrandizement while preaching shared sacrifice and the common good.  In fact, it’s distrust of public exhortations to virtue that partially informs the modern republicanism of the Federalist Papers, which sought to enlarge the scope of the commercial society while limiting the government’s power.  With the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, the United States Constitution attempts to solve the problem of faction by expanding the political union with more open competition and appeals to self-interest than had been considered appropriate in previous times and places.  At the same time, America used to rely on strong religious impulses among the people to motivate and inspire them to sacrifice and work together, resulting in a more achievable type of common good where an individual’s interest was made compatible with the public’s, what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.”  It’s not necessarily a lofty or noble concept, but it has proven to be more reliable and deserves more attention than it currently draws.      

The difference between word and deed in the public realm has been especially on my mind after last month’s trip to London.  Istituto Acton helped organize a morning seminar on the morality of work, commerce and finance at a Catholic parish in the City of London on April 16, and was fortunate to be in town for the funeral of Margaret Thatcher the following day. The contrasts between London and Rome as well as between the British and Italian ways of holding religious and public ceremonies were striking.  As a world capital of finance, London is certainly a much larger, more commercial, and more efficient place than Rome, which, by comparison, seems like a large village of ruins and wandering hordes of tourists.  London is also much more international and does a better job of integrating immigrants, which is not only due to its colonial past in Africa and Asia since I met many Italians and other Europeans working there as well.  People from all over the world go to London to work, and I can’t help but think a big part of the reason for London’s superiority (which, as David P. Goldman a.k.a. Spengler notes, is not the same as Britain’s) is Thatcher’s leadership.

Much has been written about the legacy of Thatcherism, with its free-market reforms, strong alliance with the United States, and anti-Europeanism, and there’s no question of her important role in bringing down communism, as our friend John O’Sullivan highlighted in his book The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister (also available in Italian).  O’Sullivan writes perceptively about the spiritual qualities of John Paul II, Reagan and Thatcher, something not often mentioned in political circles but that was also emphasized by the Anglican Bishop of London in his sermon at the Thatcher funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It was moving to hear him speak about her Methodist faith and determination to instill in others that same kind of “vigorous virtues” she’d been raised to practice, while still being a very kind, compassionate woman.  As O’Sullivan notes, it was remarkable that all three were elected when they were, given how out of step each was with the prevailing opinions of the day, and how they were able to change the moods of their peoples for the better.

At the time of her ascendancy, Britain was widely considered the “sick man of Europe,” suffering high inflation, high unemployment, crippling labor strikes, and general disorder and apathy.  If there’s any lesson in this for Italian politicians, it’s that strong leadership can go a long way in bringing a nation back, especially if it is willing to confront the entrenched interests who benefit from the status quo.  Alas, there are no permanent victories in politics, as the protests at Thatcher’s funeral and the generally sorry state of the Tory party remind us, and promoting the virtues of faith, hard work, and free enterprise do not guarantee electoral success.  But what made Thatcher successful was that she embodied and practiced these virtues, rather than just talk about them while expecting others to put them into effect.

My stay in London was instructive because I could see and feel how a nation can become great again, which goes a long way towards curing cynicism.  Thatcher’s greatness is something quite different than, say, Churchill’s or Caesar’s.  She was able to revive and tap into the almost-religious devotion the British have for their nation and channel it into work, commerce and finance so that London is now a magnet for international talent and ambition.  While I don’t expect or desire Rome to become another London, there’s something here about the connections between religion, freedom and hope for Sig. Letta and all Italians to learn.  They’re also fortunate to have a new bishop of Rome who is willing to practice what he preaches as well.

Kishore Jayabalan