It was in 1899 that my great grand-parents left Amalfi, travelling by steamship from Naples to Southampton to seek their fortune.
One of my great grand-fathers made it to London, eventually running his own greengrocer's shop, while the other went to the Norfolk coast. Growing up with Italian grandparents was impossibly exotic; the stories of ancestors who fought alongside Garibaldi let the imagination run riot, as did hints of being related to Neapolitan dukes; but best of all were my grandmother's steaming braciola and home-made ice cream.
Only when I was older did I understand why the families had to leave such a beautiful place; there was no work. They were part of an exodus that was one of the biggest mass migrations in recent history; between Italian unification in 1861 and the 1960s more than 25 million Italians left their country.
There is a similar migration taking place in Italy today. The difference this time is that the young Italians flooding into Britain – and elsewhere in Europe – are talented, young professionals and intellectuals who are leaving because they too can't find work but also because of the nepotism and corruption that riddles the country. In one month this year more than a 1,000 Italians registered in London, taking the number living in the city to around 96,000.
You got a taste for just how deep their hopelessness runs from the recent Radio 4 programme in which young Italians interviewed described finding work in their home country; one, Silvia, a construction project manager, said: "If I was 45, or somebody's daughter or mistress, I'd get work. But I'm not." Some of the stories of how they have been treated by employers – often not being paid for months on end– are disgraceful. Showing just how desperate they are becoming, the Italian Chamber of Commerce hosted an event last Friday for Italian businessmen and women running on how to make it in the UK.
No wonder Italy is standing on the precipice; the historical vices of its privileged political class have bitten deep into the economy, where mismanagement is so chronic that even university posts are used to pay off political favours. Indeed, one of the state's biggest costs is itself: according to the historian John Dickie, the author of the new book Blood Brotherhoods, Italian politicians have 76,000 limousines at their disposal while ours have a more modest 195.
Here in the UK, we've seen Silvio Berlusconi as a joke, a womanising extrovert. But the problems run deeper and removing him is not going to solve the problem overnight; he's just the bandana on a corrupt body politic.
Italy is still Europe's third biggest economy and the eighth biggest in the world. It has had huge debts, now £1.6 trillion, for years but has been able to muddle through until this latest crisis when investors realised the economy had stopped growing and couldn't pay its debt. The country's industrialists still make some of the most glamorous, and best designed products in the world – from Ferrari to Armani – yet industrial production has been flat-lining over the past two decades. Partly this is because the economy is paralysed by restrictive labour laws, crony capitalism and bribery – the "black economy" is about 15 per cent of GDP. It's also because Italian luxury brands such as Prada now make most of their goods in China, while Chinese manufacturers steal the market with their own version of luxury – a zero-sum game.
That's why Italy needs to do three things fast. First, the incoming Prime Minister Mario Monti, must persuade his creditors that the country's finances can get into better shape; like its southern neighbours, Italy under Berlusconi allowed public debt to soar so that it has overtaken the private sector. A start was made on Friday when the government passed new austerity measures, raising the retirement age and privatising more businesses. Next, Monti must restore respect and trust in both government and industry – sorting out the governance of universities is a good starting point. Finally, the government must find ways of reversing the relative decline through growth.
That growth can only be achieved by liberalising the economy and freeing it from the ridiculous restrictions that limit competition in all sorts of industries – from taxi-drivers to airline pilots who only work 30 hours a week. Such measures will be deeply unpopular – so Monti's going to have to be gritty. He's got to fight the unions on one side, but also take on the privileged many, showing them that they must give up their sinecures.
The new technocrat premier will need support if he is to succeed. Someone he should turn to is Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, one of the country's most respected industrialists. The head of Ferrari, who stepped down from chairing Fiat earlier this year and ran Italy's Confindustria, has been one of the most bitter critics of Berlusconi's leadership. Earlier this year – while denying political ambitions – Montezemolo talked of the need for reform, for a country with clear rules and, most pertinently, one with "ethical responsibilities". Sounds like he gets the problem. If Italy is to prevent another diaspora, or even a break-up, it needs creative industrialists like him at the heart of any new government.Reuse content