A Specific Interpretation of History: The Case of the Italian Referendums

On the 22nd of October 90% of Venetian and Lombard voters voted in favour of more autonomy. The question is, why?

By Hangjing Peng
On the 22nd of October 90% of Venetian and Lombard voters voted in favour of more autonomy. The question is, why?

The result is symptomatic of Italy’s eventful birth as a state. Only unified since 1871, regional sentiments have remained strong all over the country. The country has been plagued by a North-South divide, inherited from its long history and recent birth, and which has become an essential aspect of political discourse on the peninsula. Veneto and Lombardy account for for ‘about 30% of Italy’s national wealth.’

The right-wing party Lega Nord who is in control of these two Northern Regions has amplified these historic and economic arguments for autonomy to fulfill their nationalist project.

Pontida, manifestazione della Lega Nord – Pontida, the manifestation of Lega Nord,

Opinion from Mr.Favarin (citizen from Veneto):

‘Northern  citizens think they will be able to better manage their infrastructures if they gain more autonomy. Large amounts of reasonable public works in Veneto have been delayed because of rules made by the central government and corruption. Furthermore, the tax we pay to the government is much more than the money that comes back to our Veneto, while politicians earn exaggeratedly high salaries, which is unfair. In some northern citizens’ minds, some parts of southern Italy tend to get money from the government and do not use it properly. In addition, because of different customs and different dialects, some people in the North always feel that the southern Italians are foreigners. I am happy to be Italian but I think it is sad but true that Italy has never been a unified state. It was formed by little kingdoms, republics and lordships, which have been united by coercion and force. Since this happened, there has never been a real fusion.’

Views from Mr. Guglielmo Diamante (citizen from Lombardy):

‘In my perspective, the north wants more autonomy mainly because of economic reasons. Regions like Lombardy have a higher GDP than the average of Italy. Nationally speaking, people from the north and south consider themselves quite different from each other, which, unfortunately, can degenerate into prejudices about Southern citizens, and vice versa. I believe  that federalism and giving local authorities more power is a good political solution, as I would like my region to gain more power. Furthermore, taxes paid by Lombardy to the government have been considered as too high. It is true that the government also invests a lot in Lombardy, but it is not enough as Lombardy is the most populated region in Italy. If we gain autonomy, it is uncertain whether the regional government can develop the region better, but the majority of northern citizens think fewer taxes will make them better off. Every region of Italy has its own characteristics and peculiarities, its customs, languages (dialects) and way of living, which to foreigners do not mean much, but they do to Italians.’

The Doge on the Bucintoro near the Riva di Sant’Elena (c.1766-70) by Francesco Guardi

Thoughts from Miss.Giulia (citizen from Veneto):

‘The situation in Italy is complicated, most of the people are not happy with what they have. There have been existing differences between the north and the south. The north tends to be more developed while the issues related to corruption and mafia are more serious in the south. With the economic crisis in Italy, citizens have realised that living conditions are getting worse, so people are trying their best to get better, which is one of the reasons driving the increase of nationalist groups. The explanation for why northern citizens are unhappy is that they think that they pay more taxes. I joined the related conference, in which the huge difference between north and south before the unification of Italy had been emphasized by politicians. We northerners, are closer to Austria and sometimes some of us do not feel Italian.’

The argument for more autonomy is always presented pragmatically. Northern citizens claim that their taxes are squandered by the central government in Rome and that they go wasted on Southern regions who do not spend them properly. The same sentiments are repeated again and again. The discourse quickly becomes one of identity, pitting hardworking and honest northerners against corrupt and lazy southerners. Lega Nord has successfully combined popular resentment and a historical story of ‘otherness’ to their advantage. However, Lega Nord’s arguments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to identity politics in Italy. Even though it seems that there are many issues, the referendum did not have large repercussions in Italy and solicited very little political comment from the central government.



Featured image: Manifestation of Lega Nord: One population, one destiny: liberate Padania


Hangjing Peng is an International Relations Student at King’s College London. Passionate for Italian culture – especially classical music and classical arts since childhood.

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