Anger? Fury? Disgust? Apathy? Which word would you choose to describe what the voters in Italeigh have displayed this week?
(Note to readers on the Planet Zog: Italy is a country in southern Europe; Eastleigh is a constituency in southern England. They've both just held elections.)
The wonderful thing about elections is how powerless they make politicians feel. Suddenly, their fate is in the hands of people they have no control over -- some of them are stupid, malevolent, ignorant or plain cussed. It doesn't matter, because they all have a vote, and, if the election is fairly conducted, every vote counts.
The man with the biggest smile on his face in Italy this week has been Beppe Grillo, a comedian who heads an anarchic movement of political novices whose most memorable campaign slogan translates, very approximately, as: "Kindly depart and have sexual relations with yourself."
His English counterpart (yes, I know it's a bit of a stretch) is Nigel Farage of UKIP, not a comedian in the conventional sense, perhaps, but certainly a man who taps into the same vein of voter anger that signor Grillo has so successfully identified.
What significant numbers of voters in Italeigh have in common is a profound sense that conventional politicians have let them down. They lie, they cheat, they make promises that they have no intention of keeping -- and, most seriously, they preside over a collapse in living standards that throws thousands of people out of work and creates real, palpable misery.
I suggested last September, after elections in France, Greece and the Netherlands, that European voters had cast their ballots in a spirit of either anger or fear. In those three countries in 2012, it seemed as if the fear had overcome the anger -- fear of the unknown, and therefore fear of voting for parties (the Front National in France, Syriza in Greece) that might well take them out of the euro and perhaps even out of the EU.
In Italeigh, on the other hand, for significant numbers of voters (25 per cent voted for Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy, nearly 28 per cent voted for UKIP in Eastleigh, the highest parliamentary share in their history), the anger has triumphed. The message to the major, traditional parties can be simply summarised: "Get lost." Or in the far more colourful Italian version: "Vaffanculo."
The last time something similar happened in Italy, in 1994, after the meltdown of the sclerotic and deeply corrupt traditional ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, the new man on the scene was the country's richest and most colourful business tycoon, a certain Silvio Berlusconi. His campaign slogan, indeed the name of the party he created, was "Forza Italia", the Italian football fans' equivalent of "Eng-er-land", which at least had the merit of being markedly more upbeat than "Go f*** yourself."
As for UKIP, they can now claim (though they won't, of course) to be the new Lib Dems, the home for the "dustbin votes", the pox-on-both-your-houses votes, now that the Lib Dems are joined at the hip to the Tories. Remember those "stunning Lib Dem by-election upsets" of the past? Stand by for equally stunning UKIP upsets in the months to come.
I don't understand why anyone is surprised by what's happened in Italeigh. What does surprise me is how many voters still support the traditional parties, given the utter balls-up they've made of dealing with the crisis of the past five years.
And herein lies the danger: if that stubborn loyalty crumbles, if more voters turn to the populist fringes, we need only look to Greece to see what ugly political forces start crawling out of the woodwork when voters lose faith in conventional politics. Gangs of thugs roaming the streets, hunting for ethnic minorities to beat up; mysterious attacks on political targets -- Europe knows only too well where that can lead.
So the lesson for Europe's current leaders is this: start being more honest about the choices you're making. Tell us we're in a hole and you're doing your best to dig us out of it -- but admit that you can't be sure it'll work, and you can't be sure how long it'll take.
Admit there are alternatives: austerity is a policy option, not an immutable law of physics. As the columnist Simon Jenkins put it, in a phrase I would dearly love to have come up with myself: "These [EU] finance ministers are like Aztec priests at an altar. If the blood sacrifice fails to deliver rain, there must be more blood."
And one final lesson from Italeigh -- voters don't seem to care a hoot about politicians' sexual proclivities. Whether it's Silvio Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties (and remember, he's still facing criminal charges over allegations that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute), or allegations of milord Rennard's "inappropriate behaviour", the reaction from voters seems to be much along the lines of what I was told when I asked African-American women at a Washington soup kitchen in 1998 what they thought of President Clinton's behaviour towards the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
"He's a man, ain't he?"