Waiting for Grillo - or Waldo?
Charlie Brooker's dystopian satire Black Mirror this week featured a foul-mouthed cartoon bear called Waldo who takes a by-election by storm. The bear - a video projection voiced by a comedian - goes around town hassling the Tory candidate with puerile insults, and then at a student Question Time event launches a vicious anti-politics tirade that goes viral on YouTube.
After watching The Waldo Moment on Monday night, I went online to learn that the blogger-comedian Beppe Grillo had won more than 25 per cent of the vote in the Italian general election, a staggering result.
It wasn't much of a stretch to connect the Waldo fantasy with the reality of Grillo's breakthrough, which may yet reshape Italian politics and the eurozone crisis. (See here for my colleague Jamie Bartlett's recent paper on Grillo, part of Demos' ongoing Populism in Europe project.)
It also reawakened a thought I've had for some time - will we in Britain get our own Grillo moment and see a populist party making a determined run against the mainstream consensus? The conditions are propitious for such a movement, with a prolonged economic crisis and widespread disenchantment with the political classes breeding ever deeper cynicism.
Since the 2010 general election, all three of the established parties have found themselves tarnished - the Conservatives for leading the austerity government, the Liberal Democrats for 'selling out' and abetting them, Labour for presiding over the start of the crisis. Even before the election, the MPs' expenses scandal cemented the idea of an all-in-it-together political class alienated from the people.
Meanwhile, minority parties have enjoyed growing success - the SNP's ascendancy in Scotland, the election of the UK's first Green MP and council, George Galloway's 'Bradford Spring', and the rise of Ukip are all signs of this. To some extent they have all benefited from a plague-on-all-their-houses message directed at the Westminster elite.
But these have been disparate phenomena, animated in each case by policy-specific agendas. None has really come up with an alternative model for politics the way Grillo has - embracing social media, bypassing the old politics and promising a grassroots revolution.
There are reasons to doubt that British voters would welcome a new movement like Grillo's, however. The British people tend to be sceptical of new-broom politics: witness, for instance, the fate of Robert Kilroy-Silk's ill-starred Veritas in 2005. It's worth noting too that our elections have long given space for playful mavericks and satirists such as the late Screaming Lord Sutch (a point acknowledged in Black Mirror).
And crucially, for all the cynicism about British politics, our system is surely far more robust than Italy's. The difficulties we face pale into insignificance next to Italy's corruption and bribery scandals, its flawed justice system, endemic organised crime problem and profound north-south divide.
Nevertheless, in such an unstable Europe, where comedians and Pirates and all manner of opportunists are making gains, we cannot be complacent that we will somehow be immune.
Let's hope that if the moment comes we get something better than a nihilistic cartoon bear.