Prepare for the Italian century: tears, style, and bribery

The Guardian has proclaimed ours the American century. "Like it or not, we are all Yankees now," it trumpeted the other day, going on to explain how US technology, popular culture and military might have colonised the globe.

But if Hollywood, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and now Bill Gates have helped America make Britain in its own image over the past century, the next century will belong to the Italians.

Already, the Italianisation of Britain is proceeding apace. Displays of emotion, once taboo among a people renowned for their stiff upper lip, have become as commonplace as in the back streets of Naples. Public figures - Gazza, Diana, Tony and Cherie - led the way in wearing their hearts on their sleeves, weeping in public with all the abandon of a Juventus football fan disappointed by his team.

Members of the public followed suit: Diana's funeral and Jill Dando's murder unleashed a nation-wide grief that had nothing in common with the buttoned-up, sombre corteges with which the Empire had mourned Victoria but bore all the trademark histrionics of a Fellini crowd scene. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's speeches have turned into emotional exhibits that display an operatic range of sentiments - from bathos to indignation - worthy of Puccini; each one reveals to his audience how our caring, sharing leader feels about everything from the Dome to his children, from welfare scroungers to Bosnian refugee camps.

If an emotional Brit is now as familiar a sight as a cappuccino, another Italian characteristic has infiltrated this nation's consciousness: an appetite for conspicuous consumption. Gone are the days when you could spot a British woman by her worn M&S frock, her husband by his scuffed Hush Puppies and their car because it was a banged up Mini. To show off anything "smart" was frowned on as bad taste; and, in what must have been a hangover from Puritan days, appearances were suspect. Nowadays, that shoulder-shrugging indifference to style is rare, and everyone indulges in acquisitions - mobile phones, Versace ties, Prada handbags - that scream: "Look at me, I've made it!"

The Italian Job doesn't end there. Politics, too, have been deeply affected. New Labour may pride itself on its ground-breaking alliance of business and the left. But, in truth, Blair and his ministers are copying Italy, where socialists and entrepreneurs have long been happy bedfellows, as any number of co-operatives from Tuscany to Trapani will testify. (Indeed, the best-loved leader of Italy's Communist Party, the late Enrico Berlinguer, was a wealthy landowner from Sardinia.)

But it is the arrival of another Italian political export that should alarm Britain and, above all, its government: ordinary people's indifference to the political system. In Italy, citizens from north to south know that their livelihood is ensured, and their welfare catered for, in spite of, not because of, politicians.

Practitioners of the great art of arrangiarsi ("make do"), Italians know that politicians may make a great deal of noise about the qualities that set them, and their parties, apart from the throng - but that no matter what their posturing or allegiance, all representatives of the people, once in power, become representatives of their own interests. Like the condottieri of old, these hired guns will fight your cause only if you line their pockets. Kickbacks, bribes, croneyism: these are the features of the Italian political landscape. Their familiarity has bred contempt among a people for whom democracy is still relatively new. (Walk the seedy alleyways of provincial towns or unfashionable suburbs, and you can still spot the faded graffiti of the fascist era, proclaiming that "Il Duce is always right".) Latin electoral cynicism elevates the individual over the collective, the family over the party. Nationhood is diluted, civic duties ignored.

Flashy, self-centred and politically jaundiced: Britain, Italian-style, will add up to far more than a ciabatta sandwich at lunch and Antonio Carluccio on the telly.