We’ve come a long way

Southern Italy and Northern Scotland were the poorest regions, and the largest recipients of aid, of the old European Union before it expanded to take in new East European members. I have recently been in both Italy and Scotland and have had the opportunity to talk with people who remember how life was in both places in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Until more recently than people might think it was not unusual in Southern Italy for large families of farmers and their animals to share crumbling one and two roomed houses. British soldiers who fought their way up the peninsula starting from the landing-sites of Sicily were struck by the fact that shoes were an unimaginable luxury for a large percentage of the population and that the inhabitants of large parts of the South were living lives not much removed from destitution. A novelist from Naples told me that in the 1950’s his father refused to drive on the motorways after dark for fear of being taken hostage by bandits. Presumably possession of a car was evidence to the bandits that a ransom of seemingly enormous size could be demanded and received.

The Highlands of Scotland weren’t that bad in terms of poverty or lawlessness but my father (in his sixties) who was born on the island of Papa Westray remembers that water came from a well and had to be carried home and that horses provided power and peat warmth. My grandmother lived most of her life without being connected to mains electricity or a paved road.

Of course the South of Italy and the North of Scotland are different today. Huge changes have been made to the standard of living of the two places. Some of the improvements have come from the hard work of the inhabitants and some have come courtesy of European Union aided infrastructure projects.

It’s sobering to remember that only a generation ago people in what are now two of the richest countries in the world lived in ways which had not changed much since the development of agriculture thousands of years ago and which are remarkably similar to the lives led by the majority of the worlds population in what is still called the third world. (by the way, now that the second world doesn’t really exist will the third world be upgraded ?)

What does all this mean ? Well you can draw your own conclusions from our common progress but here are some of mine;

1. Political stability allied to technical and scientific progress is capable of transforming subsistance farmers into relatively-wealthy citizens in the space of one or two generations. If it can happen in Europe it can happen elsewhere. Progress is possible and that should give us all hope for the future.

2. While the free market has proved to be the most efficient long-term wealth creation mechanism devised it is not always enough on it’s own.

3. The measurement of “poverty” in Britain by calculating it as a percentage of average earnings is fundamentally wrong. An old soldier who cannot afford to heat his house throughout the winter can be said to live in poverty, someone who takes home two-thirds of the average wage in benefits can not. Unless the Left grasps this simple fact it will be unlikely to receive votes from the generations which can remember actual poverty and which now generally vote Conservative.