Leading Article: Disenchantment in the West

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Britain is at present suffering, in temporarily aggravated form, from the same disenchantment with government that has swept the democratic world since the demise of Communism. It is as if the West needed an ideological opponent and a military threat to give meaning to its own institutions. When both vanished, the initial euphoric sense of triumph gave way to a sense of spiritual vacuum or nullity. That was exacerbated by the sapping forces of economic recession, which in turn gathered some of their momentum from the end of the certainties, economic as well as political, of the Cold War.

All this can be seen at its starkest in Italy. From the end of the Second World War, its political order was determined by the strength of the Communist Party. To support the Christian Democrats was to save Italy from atheistic Communism. Corruption, patronage and the Mafia flourished as one government after another looked after its own. In their fiefdoms, the Socialists, too, were corrupted by power. When Communism collapsed, the people's long march against the eternally revolving ruling elites began. It is still gathering strength, helped along by the recession. Will a genuinely new order emerge from the clamour of regional and professional interest groups? Or will the government, against expectations, harness public pressure to push through necessary reforms? Resilient though Italy has often shown itself, optimism is hard to muster.

France's problems are of a lesser order. Yet for all the competence with which President Mitterrand's governments have managed the economy, the people are fed up with the governing classes. In France, too, the shrivelling of the once-powerful Communist Party has created, or exaggerated, the ideological vacuum. Francois Mitterrand's Socialists, who long since abandoned socialism, seem certain to lose next March's parliamentary elections - even though the fragmented opposition is also unloved. The National Front feeds on discontent.

In Germany, the fall of Communism and unification have created major economic as well as spiritual problems. It will be a race against time to fill both voids before manifestations such as neo-Nazi racism do serious damage to the country's political fabric. In that other economic giant, Japan, disgust over corruption within the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party has at last claimed a significant victim with the resignation of the LDP's 'godfather', Shin Kanemaru.

In the United States the disappearance of the 'evil empire' left Americans without an obvious enemy: an unmanning experience, not least for President Bush. The recession and widespread anger at his perceived neglect of urgent domestic issues have compounded his difficulties. Bill Clinton is likely to be the beneficiary, though he, too, is not entirely trusted.

Seen in the context of this pervasive disillusion with the existing order, the Conservatives' fourth election victory here in April was extraordinary. It owed much to the hope that John Major himself represented change, as well as the safest route to an earlier end of the recession. Change he has certainly brought, not least in the form of minimal rather than excessive leadership; but the recession has deepened, and the timing and brutality of the pit closures look like a gratuitous turning of the knife. Across the Western world, leaders face similar decisions. They will be watching nervously to see what form of retribution public anger will bring.