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Corrupt, moribund and indebted – Britain is becoming Italy without the Renaissance

The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. Disregard for one’s own instruction is apparently all just part of the normality of today’s politics, as is the ability to brass neck your way through when found out. After a few weeks of lying low, the offender comes bouncing back.

While Number 10 was holding the UK equivalent of Berlusconi’s infamous “bunga, bunga” parties, the Queen was dutifully providing a socially distanced example by forlornly sitting alone at her own husband’s funeral. The head of state at least conforms to the standards expected of her.

Springing to the Prime Minister’s defence again, Rees-Mogg attempted to justify the knees up by suggesting that the rules had ceased to be appropriate by the time the gathering took place. 

As an after the fact observation, that’s possibly true, but come on. Such a ridiculous line of defence would struggle to hold water even in Italy’s notoriously pliable and politicised legal system.

Incompetent, disingenuous government only truly thrives against the backdrop of a weakened judiciary and useless parliament, so it should come as no surprise that the executive routinely attempts to belittle these institutions, and bypass them wherever possible. Yet firm government also requires a decent majority, which Johnson theoretically enjoys. 

Except that today’s Tory party is such a bizarre coalition of interest, united not even by Brexit, that it bears more resemblance to the shifting sands of an Italian coalition than the big UK majority governments of old.

Whatever the reasons, like Italy the UK has one of the worst performing stock markets of the major advanced economies. While others have roared ahead, the FTSE 100 remains marooned at not much more than it was at the turn of the century.

Characterised by companies in old and declining industries, it’s a museum that looks backwards rather than forwards and struggles to attract the thrusting young enterprises of the future. The same might be said of the economy, which struggles with endemically poor levels of productivity and lax standards of service. 

And like Italy, there are few signs of getting to grips with ruinously high public debt. About the only redeeming feature is that at least the UK still has its own currency, and can therefore print money with impunity to cover its deficits. But come to think of it…

In any case, the UK looks peculiarly ill prepared for the now pressing challenges to come of Brexit, net zero, and the post Covid economy. Without urgent action Britain faces the same hiatus in living standards as that which engulfs Italy. 

This in turn helps explain why pretenders to Johnson’s throne hold back. It’s not just that there is no one with the authority to take his place; almost anyone could scarcely do worse. Rather, it is because the chalice has been so well and truly poisoned that nobody wants to drink from it.

In making the argument, I of course exaggerate, almost comically so. Despite it all, Britain is not yet Italy. The institutional foundations on which it is built – rule of law, fiduciary duty and basic standards of integrity and accountability – are stronger. 

But those administering them are chipping away at the very substance of what makes international capital and business want to come to Britain and make it their home.

Sometimes it’s good to have your back against the wall, with the whole world apparently against you. Johnson seems positively to revel in such opprobrium, particularly if it comes from Europe.

But when the critics have got a point, it’s time to start worrying.

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