Whose Identity? Italy and the Italians

Harry Hearder argues that language has been a help rather than a hindrance in Italy's past and present struggle to achieve political and psychological unity.

Sir James Hudson, British minister in Turin, asked Lord Cowley, British ambassador in Paris in a letter of January 5th, 1860:

Why should it be more difficult for four Italian provinces who have but one written and spoken language to transact their business than it is for Highland, Irish, Welsh and English members to sit and vote together?

The kingdom of Piedmont had just annexed Lombardy from Austria, as a result of the Franco-Piedmontese victory over the Habsburgs in the war of 1859, and the subsequent annexation of Tuscany, Parma, Modena and the papal Romagna was being discussed. Sir James might therefore have written of six, rather than four provinces, but he was at that moment preoccupied with the fate of the former Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and strongly convinced that it should be united with Piedmont.

Most British historians – or British people generally who have some knowledge of Italy – will be surprised at the implication of Hudson's question: that this considerable chunk of Italy had greater linguistic unity than the British Isles had. Their surprise may not be altogether justified, however; Hudson had a stronger point than is at first apparent.

Certainly Hudson's conviction was nearer the mark than one expressed by the British foreign secretary, Lord Malmesbury, a few months earlier. On May 19th, 1859 Malmesbury had written:

I cannot say I see any tangible element to which we can attach ourselves in what you call the 'Italians'. Geographically speaking I know what they are but when I come to a policy, an army and a navy I don't see them ... All this does not apply to Naples where there is a policy, an army and a navy.

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