Beppe Grillo is not a clown - and he's turned politics upside down
Grillo takes his place in the piazza with the Italian people - and there's no going back to the old ways
BEPPE GRILLO, satirist, blogger and protester has staged one the greatest coups de theatre in Italian political history. His storming finish in the Italian general election is not only turning Italy upside down, but threatens to do the same across the EU.
His Five Star Movement, or M5S, was a gleam in a blogger's eye just four years ago. Now it has 150 members of parliament - and whoever forms the next government will need its support one way or another.
Grillo has also given birth to a new political protest concept - fancullismo. It arises from the campaign slogan and battle cry 'Vafancullo' – which is going to give headline writers a headache because, as any tourist who has witnessed road rage in Rome will know, it translates literally as 'F*** 0ff!"
Grillo, now 64, has been giving the finger to old-style Italian politics, its corrupt ways and corrupt practitioners. The five stars of M5S stand for a bundle of principles and policies - free water supply, social and economic mobility, protect the environment, and no to bad politicians.
Crucially, the movement also opposes the austerity measures approved by the EU and Chancellor Merkel and imposed by their buddies in the outgoing government of technocrats headed by former banker Mario Monti.
In Italy, these measures have brought unemployment to one young person in three, reduced pensions in the fastest ageing population in Europe and a widening gap between the productive North and the impoverished South.
But it's the style of the protest as much as the substance which is so striking - the latest and most accomplished example of a new form of movement which rejects the old ways of parliamentary democracy and government.
It has a lot in common with the protesters camping out in the squares of Athens when Greece was forced to go through repeated elections to come up with a government agreeable to the EU leadership and their banker, Germany.
Among the Athenian campers were university professors, economists and university teachers suddenly thrown out of jobs who now believed the old consensual system of parliamentary politics was irretrievably broken.
M5S also chimes with single-issue parties like Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands and even Nigel Farage's UKIP - though I should stress that Grillo and his movement tend to the left.
Grillo himself will not take a seat in parliament, having ruled himself out under his own party rules because of a conviction for manslaughter after a fatal car crash in 1980.
This, as Italians like to say, puts him in the piazza with the people, instead of in the palace with the politicians, making him potentially all the more effective - rather as the radical John Wilkes was in 18th Century England, when he successfully challenged the authority of parliament with monster outdoor rallies across London.
Yet in Britain today, reaction has been slow to the seismic game-changer Grillo is proving to be. As M5S claims its 150 seats in Rome as the single most successful party in the Italian elections (the others are alliances), in London George Osborne has been reaffirming his austerity measures following Moody's downgrading of our Triple A credit rating.
On the BBC's Today programme yesterday, Evan Davis, an economist by trade, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian political analyst, agreed that Italians would have to see the error of their ways in backing Grillo and "learn that austerity programmes are for their long-term good". As a piece of political judgment this ranks alongside Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake".
"Grillo really has changed everything in Italian politics, and in the EU," says Lucio Caracciolo, an editor and professor of politics in Rome. "He has got some very able young people both in parliament and in the regional assemblies. Things will have to change on austerity and it is a very serious moment for the EU and the Euro. Things just can't go back to the old ways now."
Beppe Grillo is a shrewd operator, with a pedigree as a political and business analyst. He should not be dismissed as a television clown who just struck lucky with his big red nose day.