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26 October 2022

Britain’s political chaos has turned it into an international cautionary tale

Italy shows how hard it is for a country that becomes a parable to overcome negative stereotypes

By Jeremy Cliffe

The cover of the Economist’s 22 October issue coined the neologism “Britaly”. It showed Liz Truss as Britannia with a shield made of pizza and twirls of spaghetti impaled on her trident. Much as I cherish my former parish, I found the comparison unfair on Italy. The country may, like Britain today, be marked by political instability, subordination to the bond markets and economic stagnation, but to treat it as a mere cautionary tale is to underestimate it.

One of the motivations for the market meltdown under Truss was doubt about whether Britain could finance its huge trade deficit (it imports much more than it exports). Italy, by contrast, has a trade surplus and uses the euro, a more formidable reserve currency than sterling. Northern Italy leaves behind most of the UK economically: provincial Britain should be so lucky to have cities as productive as Milan, Turin or Bologna. And as Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist and fellow Italophile, put it to me recently: “The trope about Italian ‘political instability’ needs correcting too. Most of the 69 postwar governments were what in our system would be called ‘reshuffles’.”

In a way, though, that the “Britaly” cover was unfair on Italy only makes the comparison more apt. Italy’s case is a nuanced one: a story of both serious weaknesses and persistent strengths. But internationally the country has become a simplistic example of failure. Outside observers know of Silvio Berlusconi and his record of chaos, the long stagnation of Italian real incomes and the succession of government crises. They fuse these with a few stereotypes – sleepy hill villages, diabolical mafiosi, unemployed youngsters on scooters – and so a stylised, cautionary tale emerges. The positives fall away. A complex country is reduced to a parable. And that is precisely what is now happening to the UK’s international reputation too.

Witness the coverage of Britain’s recent political chaos. The average informed observer outside the UK, to the extent that they follow its politics at all, does so out of the corner of one eye. Only certain things get noticed: typically the narrow vote for Brexit in 2016, defying economic sense and resting on dodgy claims; the six years of political chaos that followed it under successively worse prime ministers; and then a market meltdown under Truss’s borderline-parody premiership.

So it is that the Sydney Morning Herald calls Britain today “a textbook example of what happens when political ideologues are let off the leash, allowed to shut out anyone with opposing views and given the keys to the kingdom”. That a columnist in the Irish Times laments how “the horror show in the UK is both instructive and a cautionary tale”. And how Germany’s most Anglophile broadsheet, Die Welt, observes that “British politics has developed a self-destructive centrifugal force that should serve as a warning to all those still touting simple solutions to our current challenges”. Internationally, to compare one’s opponents to Britain’s leadership these days is to call them shambolic, reckless and blimpish.

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[See also: Rishi Sunak’s cabinet exposes how weak he is]

In Italy itself, the collapse of the Truss-Kwarteng budget attracted close attention. The country’s new post-fascist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is less trusted by the EU and the markets than her predecessor, Mario Draghi. Truss’s failure, ran one commentary in the Italian financial press, “can and must also sound a warning for the nascent Meloni government”. “Britaly”, indeed, but with London’s failures haunting Rome, not vice versa.

As a Brit living in Berlin, I am long accustomed to the notes of regret issued by German politicos confronted with a native of the chaotic kingdom. “How did the UK come to this?” “Will it continue?” “What has Boris Johnson done now?” Often I find myself transforming from despairing Remoaner into dogged defender of Britain’s enduring merits. Yes, the country has made some terrible decisions in recent years, but we are the most successful multi-ethnic democracy of any of the big European states (witness our new prime minister), we have some of the best universities in the world and technological strengths to match, London remains Europe’s only truly global city, and we got Russia’s war in Ukraine right.

My own German friends are laudably open to these arguments and to the complexities of the matter. But more widely, these have been swept away. To most in the federal republic and beyond, Britain is a once-reliable country that took a wrong turn and continues to demonstrate the folly of doing so with every new lurid act of self-sabotage. The parable has taken over. Britain is a lesson, a meme, a shorthand. And it will take a lot to change that. Just ask Italy.

Ask Italy, too, about the other effects of such a status if it lasts long enough. Investors turn away. Markets demand higher yields and interest rates regardless of the fundamentals. Allies lose faith and reorder their diplomacy accordingly. Influence, power and prosperity decline. The parable becomes self-fulfilling.

The question now is: has Britain reached that point? In Rishi Sunak, the country has its most serious-seeming prime minister since at least Theresa May (an admittedly low bar). In Keir Starmer and Labour, it has a grown-up opposition credibly promising stable and progressive government. There may be a chance to pull back the country’s reputation before the self-perpetuating spiral takes hold. But time is running out. A Britalian future, whether perceived, real or both, is not far off.

[See also: The failure of Trussonomics shows Britain is European, not American, at heart]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder