Leading Article: The dark side of Italy's revolution

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IMAGINE a Britain in which Lord Hanson has just committed suicide in prison by putting a plastic bag over his head and Lord King has blown his brains out - and that they are just the latest of a dozen leading businessmen and politicians who preferred death to a ruthless investigation of their business affairs. Imagine, too, that the Serious Fraud Office, along with the CID, is rampaging through the Establishment, making arrests on grounds of corruption, using the legal system to have suspects detained in Wormwood Scrubs for three months or more, and issuing judicial warnings of investigation that blacken the names of hundreds more.

In this somewhat Kafkaesque, if not McCarthyite Britain, terrorist car bombs periodically explode outside sites such as Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery. No one is sure whether they have been planted by leftist anarchists; by a sinister conspiracy of the far right, bringing together malcontents in MI5 and Freemasons from Special Branch; or by a criminal grouping that has cornered the drug trade, deeply penetrated the Conservative Party and long perverted the course of justice.

For Italians, such a country needs no imagining: it is their everyday reality. Seen from these shores, the revolution through which Italy is more or less peacefully passing seems belated and necessary: at last the legal system, undeterred by Mafia assassinations and the Establishment's objections, is nailing both the corruption and the professional crime that have long undermined Italian political life. This, in turn, is being forced by the voters' disgust to metamorphose itself. Many Italians see the situation similarly. Others, however, are wondering whether the judiciary has acquired too much power, and whether magistrates' use of preventive detention conflicts with basic human rights.

When Gabriele Cagliari, former chairman of the state energy concern ENI, killed himself in Milan's packed San Vittore jail, he had been held for 133 days, essentially to make him talk. Full co-operation would have meant implicating colleagues and friends as well as business partners. Raul Gardini, former chairman of the huge Ferruzzi conglomerate, and among industrialists second only in renown to Fiat's Gianni Agnelli, could not face such an ordeal. He reached for his pistol when his arrest looked imminent.

Most of the public figures involved in bribes, contributions to political party funds and kickbacks on contracts believe they were merely operating the system, primarily in the interests of their companies. Their punishment is a necessary part of the cleansing process. Recent elections have shown widespread approval of this national purging. But concern is growing not just at the heavy- handed methods of the magistrates, but also at the uncertain nature of the new order. Italians will not be alone in grieving if the baby of Italy's complex genius is thrown out with the dirty bathwater of corruption.