The truth about la dolce vita

Britons love Italy – all that sympathetic warmth. But is 'simpatia' any way to run a country? Peter Popham says that our own common sense should prevail

At the emotional heart of Kazuo Ishiguro's harrowing novel Never Let Me Go, which describes the lives of three young clones reared to donate their vital organs then die, the narrator, Kathy H, still a young girl, dances to a sentimental song played on a cassette, clutching a pillow to her like a baby.

Years later, her would-be benefactress, the woman who has tried in vain to persuade the world that clones, too, have souls, describes the scene. "As you say, eyes closed, far away, a look of yearning. You were dancing so sympathetically..."

La simpatia: proof of soul. It is a quality that in Britain is more often honoured in the breach than the observance. And that is one reason, and not the least, why this week in our hundreds and thousands we are packing our bags to fly to Italy. There is sunshine. There is chilled white wine at lunchtime. There are the Tuscan hills, the honey-coloured ruins of Rome. But underlying them all and somehow yoking them all together there is that quality which the Scottish philosopher David Hume (curiously, for one who was born and raised so far from the Mediterranean) identified as the glue that holds society together and enables us to come to valid moral judgements: sympathy.

You feel it as soon as you get off the plane. In an Italian airport, as in a British one, there are two queues at passport control: one for EU passports, one for the rest. Coming from uptight England, we line up on the EU passport side; we know the rules and we intend to abide by them. Forget it: you are in Italy. If half the passengers don't line up on the non-EU side, the man in the box will be left twiddling his thumbs. He knows you want to get through as fast as you can. It makes no difference to him whether he is scrutinising an EU or a non-EU passport. He sympathises with your wishes, you with his. The rules are merely words on a sign. Welcome to Italy!

An Italian childhood might not produce adults who are more brilliant or adventurous or thrusting than elsewhere, but it produces people who are marvellously adept at setting up that sympathetic resonance, no matter what situation they find themselves in. Flying in from the cold, this ability arouses our suspicions if not our hackles, all those ready smiles and expansive gestures, all those hearts on sleeves: how can they mean it? How can they be sincere?

After a while, the penny drops and we see that sincerity is beside the point. What matters is to be on the same wavelength as the person in front of you, whether you care for them or not, whether or not you will ever see them again. In England we tend to stomp around with our problems and preoccupations writ large on our faces; the transactions of everyday life are brutally functional, without charm or pleasure for either side. Arriving in Italy with the desire to have a good time, we observe, chastened, that there is a different way to buy a newspaper, take a taxi, pass through a supermarket checkout, have a meal in a restaurant.

Sometimes it's close to an artistic performance, and if the language weren't such an obstacle it would be delightful to take part. Take the restaurant experience. In the UK, ordering a meal in a restaurant is a purely mechanical task, however plush or expensive the restaurant may be. The chef, the waiter, the customer, each is locked in his own little world. Linking them is the menu. The roles of all three could easily be taken by robots.

In any Italian trattoria worthy of the name that's not how it works. There will usually be a printed menu – for us poor chumps, the foreigners. But what counts is what is going on in the kitchen, with which the waiter is sympathetically up to speed: he knows what is fresh, what the cook is good at and proud of, which numbers in his repartee are singing this week. This information is relayed, orally, often at blinding speed, to the diner, but that's only the start. The diner, whether a regular or not, has his own particular fads and fancies, and in the discussion that follows, which may require a couple of trips back into the kitchen for consultation, the three parties to the performance eventually find themselves singing from the same page. What finally emerges from the kitchen may have little or no relation to what is written down. The unspoken foundation of the process is la simpatia, an instinctive ability and willingness to put yourself in the other guy's shoes. The quality of life is thereby much enhanced.

The best thing one Italian can say about another is that he or she is simpatico/simpatica. This translates very feebly into English as "agreeable" or "pleasant". But as Hume understood, we are dealing here with emotions of far greater moment than those weak words suggest.

As Hume saw it, our sentiments – the warm glow of simpatia – come first. Of the various vibrations that can be set up in our brains, the sentiments are the ones that are most persuasive, because they excite pleasure or pain. It is on the basis of these that we make moral evaluations. In other words we generalise from the specific instance – the charming and flexible waiter, the obliging cook, the well-satisfied appetite – to the universal.

"Sympathy," explains Rachel Cohon in Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy, " not a feeling but rather a psychological mechanism that enables one person to receive by communication the sentiments of another." This mechanism enables us to experience the "passions" – the emotions – of another as if they were our own. "When I come to share in the affections of strangers," Cohon goes on, "and feel pleasure because they are pleased, as I do when I experience an aesthetic enjoyment of a well-designed ship or a fertile field that is not my own, that pleasure of mine can only be caused by sympathy." This psychological mechanism is therefore, the argument goes, at the basis of all our moral judgements. There is therefore a direct line between that sympathetic resonance and the ability of a society to function in a way that is just and equable.

And it is here – especially if your holiday in Italy lasts for longer than, say, a week – that the doubts begin to creep in. If Hume were right, then the most sympathetic society would also be the most just, the most equable. And it would be hard to argue that such a description applies to Italy.

The problem is that sympathetic resonance works best between people who have plenty in common: with the best will in the world you cannot enjoy the same trattoria experience as an Italian without the language. As Cohon points out, "The sympathetic transmission of sentiments can vary in effectiveness depending upon the degree of resemblance and contiguity between the observer and the person with whom he sympathises."

Because they know how important a factor it is in getting one's way, Italians have mastered the art of being sympathetic to all and sundry. As a result – sad to say – that initial, instinctive British reaction of suspicion is sometimes right: when the broad smile is directed at the stranger from afar, it can on occasion be the wolfish prelude to fraud. Far from being, as the philosopher would have it, the wellspring of morality, it becomes a tool to disarm.

To put it bluntly, they see us coming. During my years of residence in Rome, it very slowly dawned on me that when, say, a plumber or a car mechanic or indeed a waiter greeted me with a particularly broad and oily sort of smile, it was generally the prelude to a ridiculous bill. Yet the smile was not fake, the mood of simpatia was not affected – he was genuinely delighted to take me to the cleaners. If I lacked the generosity of spirit to understand and appreciate my role in the improvement of his luck, that was my double misfortune.

You see this operating throughout Italian society. This is a country which, because of its enormous coastline – 4,500 miles of it – has been invaded over and over again, some 29 times in all. Until unification, it was under the boot of multiple foreign powers. Italians have been able to call their land their own only for a century and a half. And because the peninsula cannot be insulated – in the past decades, Albanians and Bosnians have poured across the Adriatic, and Lampedusa, entry point from North Africa, remains an open wound – the Italian response is to circle the wagons: to disarm the new arrivals with simpatia (if they are rich or powerful enough to merit it) but at the same time quietly to close ranks.

That is why the closed shop, a fading memory of the bad old days for people in Britain, is the way Italy still functions at every level. It's why there are no brown or black faces behind the counters in the post office or among the ranks of taxi drivers, why university heads have no embarrassment about giving tenured positions to their closest relatives, why in politics the same old party hacks are recycled year after year – and why so many young Italians of energy and talent flee abroad as soon as they can.

Many of them, of course, flee to Britain: land of the gruff and the grim, i quadrati ("the squares", in the sense of rigid as opposed to flexible), the people for whom food is just fuel and agreeability of character a sure sign of superficiality; the race who seem to carry a portable policeman around in their heads, the better to put people right and point out the rules; the people for whom queue-jumping is on a par with bestiality.

They will also discover, if they stick it out, that it is very difficult to get to know English people, even once you have penetrated their carapace of antipatia and squareness, and that even the most intelligent of us are, by continental standards, bizarrely anti-intellectual; as Orwell pointed out, "the English are not sufficiently interested in intellectual matters to be intolerant about them." Yet very often the Italian sticks around, and the reason he won't and can't go home is because British society works, after a fashion. Immigrants get jobs in the post office. Italians get picked as professors. Men and women in their thirties attain political power. Merit has a chance.

We are being sucked towards a melancholy conclusion: that la simpatia, for all its charm, is a disastrous principle by which to run a society, because far from being the wellspring of morality it is the trick by which morality is short-circuited, and that allows privilege and patronage to rule unchallenged. It's the cunning mask donned by a survival instinct nurtured through centuries of foreign domination, and it is one of the things which make it so hard for this nation to reverse its own corrosive and destructive and amoral tendencies.

The hacking scandal that has erupted in Britain over the past fortnight has exposed corrupt connections between press, police and politicians that are eerily reminiscent of the way things often work in Italy, and the sort of news that fills Italian papers every day. Yet, as Corriere della Sera pointed out in a recent editorial, the difference is that in the end, affairs were brought to a head. With the humbling of News Corp and the multiple resignations that followed, we experience a sort of catharsis. A fresh start seems possible.

That is what is lacking in Italy. The Italian government has for the past two years been racked by scandal after scandal, any one of which would have brought a British government to its knees, yet it remains in office. Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi himself – the most simpatico billionaire in the world – continues to treat the country as his private fiefdom. Maybe it's time the Italians turned a little nasty.