How far had the Liberal Governments of Italy gone to solve Italy’s problems by 1914

The formation of “Italy” in 1870 saw the birth of a nation and the start of its struggle against the odds; a succession of Liberal Governments had the task of steering them through the stormy weather. When the state of “Italy” was formed it faced many problems these can be put into 5 separate problems, however they were all interlocking. In this piece I will explore the many problems faced by Italy and look at the great stride forwards made by the Liberal Governments of Italy to reduce their effects.

First we have to define the notion of the Italian Liberal Governments, by definition they should pursue the 19th century ideology associated with strong support for a broad interpretation of civil liberties for freedom of expression and religious toleration, for widespread popular participation in the political process, and for the repeal of protectionist legal restrictions inhibiting the operation of a capitalist, free market economy. Or to put it simply take the middle road on most issues, encourage people to vote and breed an atmosphere of tolerance.

The Liberal Italian governments knew that the vast majority of Italians were not loyal to any all Italy state there was a culture of “localism” in which people were far more ready to fight for their town than any national government headed by people based 150 miles away. There was the problem of dialects and communication problems, only 2% of the population actually spoke Italian the others spoke languages from their region. This is one of the major problems with Italy, as a country, it could not modernise or make “Italians” of its people without adequate communication. There was a lack of empathy between the sister states of Italy.

There had been little shared History since the Roman empires fall almost 1500 years earlier. Some intellectuals tried to forge an education of shared history however with high illiteracy rates (up to 88% in the south) in most of Italy it was all but a lost cause. The unification itself was hardly a thing of pride for most people in Italy; the problem of not feeling part of Italy was one that the Liberal Governments had to strive to solve. On the whole it was the kingdom of Piedmont, foreign armies, students, intellectuals and craftsmen who brought about the unification of Italy.

People are always more ready to support a cause they have fought for, and their friends died for. However, in Italy, many ordinary people felt the new system had been imposed on them rather than feeling part of it. The new unified government now had to unite the country into one economic state also, this meant upsetting years of constant tax rates. An example of the unrest caused by such action is the kingdom of Naples, where new taxes and the new currency were implemented. It lead to great civil unrest and many people broke new laws and refused to pay new taxes.

And the only way people could really implement change is through the vote, however, by 1880 only 5% of the adult male population could vote (in Britain it was 60%) this meant the majority of people were alienated from the democratic process and so were in no way loyal to their government. It was also seen that Italy had a weak and corrupt Parliamentary System. The new parliamentary system did not inspire confidence, as it appeared weak and ineffectual. There were no organised parties like the ones in Britain and so MPs followed certain leading politicians to form factions. A number of these factions would work together to create a government.

However, such alliances led to unstable government, as the leading politicians would often withdraw the support of their factions if they did not get their own way. On these occasions the government would fall and more deals would have to be struck before a new government could be formed. It was ineffectual as Government policy also suffered because of the faction system. Instead of being based on principles, policies tended to be compromises aimed at holding together the various factions that made up the government. To those outside politics, therefore, the system appeared ineffectual, not benefiting the population as well as it might.

Even worse were the continued allegations of corruption that undermined the system’s credibility. The easiest way to keep a government coalition together was to hand out favours and jobs to key supporters. Moreover, elections were often ‘fixed’ as voters were offered jobs or contracts in return for their support. Local officials could also instruct the police to ban opposition meetings. There was one thing that did connect virtually all Italians and that was their religion – Catholicism. However, the Pope disliked unification as he had lost control of the Papal States to the new country and saw Liberalism as anti-religious.

The new Liberal government had tried to place the Church under the State by, for example, making civil marriages compulsory. It was hoped that the unified Italian State would become the new dominant force on the peninsula so wrestling authority and allegiance from the Catholic Church. These tactics, however, actually damaged the process of establishing the authority of the new system. In retaliation the Pope ordered that Catholics should not vote or stand as candidates in national elections many Catholics obeyed this instruction and the government continued to alienate more people from the democratic process.

Italy had terrible economic and communication problems; Italy’s mountainous geography and under-developed transport network meant that communication and movement of people was difficult. To create a nation prejudices must be overcome and the only way to achieve this is for different peoples to mix together. However, many areas continued to feel isolated after unification so hindering the nation building process. Neither was Italy united in terms of wealth. The Italian economy was still predominantly based on agriculture and was behind northern Europe in terms of its level of industrialisation and efficiency.

In Britain in 1871 they were producing 3 times the amount of Steel (essential for industry) than Italy was producing. The south of Italy was particularly impoverished compared with the north. Unification did not improve matters in the south as common grazing land was sold off to wealthy landowners and taxes were increased (eg. in Naples). These divisions of wealth would do nothing to help the nation building process, as the poor felt neglected by the system, unification having made their lives even worse.

A programme of government investment in the south might have eased the problems but this went against the Liberal laissez-faire attitude and Italy was already in debt due to the struggle for unification. Consequently, deprivation in the south became a disregarded issue. Those were the problems of Italy, but how far had the Liberal governments gone to solve them? In a bid to unite the Italian people under a common purpose Italy made bids for a colony in Africa, they fought the Ethiopians in 1896 and lost in a humiliating defeat, which saw them somewhat as a laughing stock.

However in 1911 they fought Turkey and won the country of Libya, this was seen by some as a defining moment and the start of Italian greatness others saw it as a pointless war in which Italians died. Also, the fact that Austria-Hungary still held the Italia Irrendenta was a matter of national humiliation on the part of Italians and especially amongst the newly formed Nationalists. The political landscape of Italy had changed over the period since Unification and it had split to two extremes, you had the Left-Wing Socialists and the Right-Wing Nationalists.

This meant a polarisation in government, in the press and amongst the people. The Liberals still had the majority of support in elections but the socialists gained support from disgruntled workers and the Nationalists enjoyed the votes of the influential wealthy middle and upper classes. These splits in political persuasion saw more and more alienation between the government and the people and the people themselves were polarising and isolating themselves into different groups. However, the fact that a Nationalist movement had grown up meant that

The government continued to try and please everyone and in doing so pleased no one. The relationship between unions, workers and peasants is a prime example. In industrial disputes the government, under Giolitti took a neutral stance; this was an improvement on the former policy of siding with the factory workers and sending in the army, however it did little to improve the workers view of the government. The government did instigate one rest day per week for all workers and brought in legislation to lower taxes on food and provide anti-malaria drugs, free of charge to areas affected by the disease.

The parliamentary system was improved in 1912 when practically the whole adult male population was given the vote. This gave the majority of Italians more say, however it may be to the detriment of the Liberals who are increasingly getting stretched trying to embrace the ideas of and satisfy both right and left-wing politicians. The war against Turkey for control of Libya outraged many moderate socialists who had been working with the government this was new problem and did not look like it was going to be solved anytime soon.

The Catholic Church had come to tolerate the Liberal government by 1914 with the emergence of Socialism (gained 11% share of parliament in 1913) as it was seen as the greater evil. The Pope urged Catholics to take part in the parliamentary system, however, not as saboteurs but as a serious coalition of Catholics as a Party. The Pope also encouraged people to vote in the 1904 elections if it helped crush Socialism, this is a marked reversal from the policy of abstention formerly encouraged by the Pope.

However, on the issue of the Papal State, Prime Minister Giolitti refused to make any concessions, so the relationship between the Catholic Church and liberals was still a little frosty. The economic situation in Italy, and in particular in the south was alleviated by the policy of the Liberal govt. to invest in Education and Industry, these two firm principles were the bedrock of economic reform for the new state of Italy. The problems of the south were inextricably rooted in the lack of education, a reliance on agriculture and a serious absence of investment in the regions south of Rome.

This had to be counteracted by a drive to educate the people of the south and to bring more industry to the south. The production of steel by 1913 had reached 0. 93 million tonnes, this is almost 10 times the figure in 1871 however; it is only a fraction of the 7. 2 million tonnes being produced by Britain in the same year. The number of people working in industry had increased by 10% from 1871 to 1913 however the number of people working in agriculture was at 57% whereas in Britain was 15%.

The problems of the lack of industrial growth had been curbed but over a period of 40 years shown in the statistics you would expect a larger drive towards industrialisation as witnessed in Britain, Germany and the USA. The Economy as a political tool, for the average Italian was not directly important, they were interested whether they had more money in their pockets, and that, as an average, was fulfilled. The National Income in real terms rose from 61 billion lire in 1895 to 92 billion lire in 1915, this meant the income per head was at 2500 lire by 1915 a real terms rise of 600 lire since 1895.

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