Leading Article: Cynical? Who wouldn't be?

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THE ITALIANS, long burdened with discredited politicians hanging on to power, were yesterday set a general election date. Would that Britain were so blessed. The Conservatives may be able to wait until April 1997 before going to the country. Each day's delay engenders deeper disillusionment among voters. Another three years of sleaze, hypocrisy and ineffectual government will do untold damage not only to the Tories but, more importantly, to the standing of Britain's public institutions.

Politicians of all parties recognise the country's plummeting respect for authority. John Smith yesterday attributed the climate of cynicism to the Government's broken electoral promises. Paddy Ashdown accepted some responsibility. Opposition parties had failed to excite voters with alternative policies, he said.

But ministers, who deserve the lion's share of the blame for this collapse in public faith, can find no fault with themselves. Instead, they shamelessly point the finger at everyone else. Michael Portillo, with a vigour until recently reserved for attacks on single mothers, has diagnosed a new 'British Disease' - the endless crowing of critics that has supposedly undermined Crown, Parliament and Church, and induced a national pessimism.

But the villains are not the messengers. It is Mr Portillo and his colleagues who have done most to sully Britain's hallowed institutions. Is it not government ministers who are having to explain to the Scott inquiry why they misled Parliament, Britain's most important political cleansing mechanism? They, of all people, forgot where they came from, and demeaned Parliament. Over 15 years the Conservatives have challenged with Herculean effort the standing of other institutions - the Civil Service, local government, the universities, the BBC - that were once confidently regarded as the best in the world. Yet suddenly, Tory iconoclasts such as Mr Portillo want to disown their own destruction and clothe themselves in nostalgia for the good old days.

But the public recognises such cynicism. They can see the difference between these Conservatives and their predecessors. Harold Macmillan breathed the history of this country and Churchill wrote it. But today's ministers sound like strangers in their own land, with little understanding of what holds it together. Their hymn to old traditions falls on ears deafened not by critics but by weariness with political manipulation.

There have been too few honest voices of dissent against the Tory assault. Douglas Hurd warned at the party conference against pursuit of 'permanent cultural revolution'. In contrast, many right-wing colleagues seem determined to sell off the institutional equivalent of the family silver.

Ministers should learn from their disastrous intrusion into personal morality and cease lecturing on the need to respect Britain's institutions. Instead, they should tackle cynicism where it is most acute - with themselves.