Leading Article: Time takes its toll on a party's good name

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THE TROUBLES of the Conservative Party are trifling compared with those of Italy's Christian Democrats - though they would no doubt be greater if the Tories, too, had been in power continuously since the Second World War. The message from both fronts, as from this week's fracturing of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is that power corrupts more absolutely the longer it is held.

Two days ago the Secretary General of the Christian Democrats, Mino Martinazzoli, said he would propose the founding of a new party, to be called Centro Popolare, in place of the party that had become, in the words of La Repubblica, 'the mother and stepmother for all Italy . . . an omnipotent party in which state, church and family were fused and confused into an earthly trinity'. The party's demise - or renewal, as its remaining supporters hope it will become - may be decided today. The Christian Democrats would thus follow the Communist Party into oblivion: two years ago the once-powerful CP renounced Marxism and changed its name to become the Democratic Party of the Left.

Both these historic developments have a common root: the collapse and comprehensive discrediting of Communism in Eastern Europe. It was the real danger of Italy going Communist after the Second World War that led democratic forces in Italy to rally behind the Christian Democratic Party. Among its most powerful new supporters was the Roman Catholic church, which had had an unhappy relationship with its predecessor, the Partito Popolare, itself founded in 1919 (from Italy's unification in 1870 onwards, predominantly anti-clerical governments were at loggerheads with the church until its inglorious concordat with Benito Mussolini in 1929). The church saw what had happened to organised religion behind the Iron Curtain, and was not slow to identify where its salvation lay.

Amid the scandals, recriminations and electoral disasters that have latterly engulfed the party, its earlier achievements should not be forgotten. It was the party that made Italy a far more whole-hearted member of Nato than many others. As the very name of the Treaty of Rome indicates, its leaders played a significant part in the founding of the European Economic Community. Under the Christian Democrats or coalitions in which they predominated, Italian industry established itself as a formidable and remarkably dynamic force.

In the end, however, the temptations of power, coupled with the weaknesses of the Italian political system and the nation's enduring mistrust of central government, undermined those remarkable achievements. In local elections earlier this month, the party's candidates, along with those of the no less discredited Socialists, were treated with contempt by the voters.

There can be no more abject admission of decline than to change a party's name. That, it now seems, is the only choice left. Yet with regionalism, personified by Umberto Rossi's Lombardy League, emerging as an ever more potent force, the chances of a new Popular Party justifying its name do not look good.

Might our own Conservative Party one day find itself in similar straits and questing around for a new name? The possibility can surely not be excluded. As with the Christian Democrats, a phase of drastic overhaul and renewal looks increasingly urgent.