To prove Breivik's sanity, they rolled out the crazies

A deft piece of courtroom theatre in the Breivik trial.

It was one of the weirdest days of the trial so far. They thought they had been given the chance to blow the whole conspiracy wide open. Instead the extreme right-wing obsessives called to testify for the defence in the Anders Breivik trial were exposed to the contempt and bafflement of the ordinary people they typically lionise.

After weeks and weeks of horror, even the survivors of Breivik’s 22 July massacre laughed in the court as the politically marginalised took the stand and relished their moment to finally preach their truth. Each of the unpleasant foursome had their jealous ideological niches – the ever-fractious far-right always will - but each agreed on the existence of a left-wing conspiracy deliberately preventing their popular views from reaching the masses.

In a trial where the only question is over the sanity of a confessed murderer of 77 people, it seems wrong to indulge in reductive pop-psychology. But the temptation is irresistible: in order to prove his sanity, Breivik’s defence had rolled out the crazies.

Ronny Alte, former leader of English Defence League spin-off, the Norwegian Defence League, moaned to a court packed with teenage survivors of a holiday island massacre, how his views means he must fear for his life. Arne Tumyr, chairman of Stop the Islamisation of Norway, complained furiously that the Muslims in his country meant “Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Piglet, is now considered an impure animal.” Tore Tvedt, leader of irrelevant Neo-Nazi organisation, Vigrid, blamed the ever-guilty Jews. Ole Jørgen Arnfindsen, initially adding a sheen of academic authority before descending into unfathomable conspiracy theorising, blamed… It was impossible to know who he blamed.

Each condemned the murders. Yet each still believed they had been called to his defence to legitimise those elements of Breivik’s philosophy where their own obsessions overlapped. They had not. In a deft piece of courtroom theatre, Breivik’s defence counsel, Geir Lippestad, gave them just enough room to show that being a sad, lonely, obsessive may make you a crackpot. But it does not necessarily make you mad.

Each one of these men could have been excused from testifying. A string of witnesses, including Carl I Hagen, the former leader of Norway’s mainstream anti-immigration Progress Party, and Mullah Krekar, Norway’s most notorious Islamic fanatic, were exempted despite originally being on the defence list. Most were able to argue that being called to defend Breivik would put them in an unsafe and morally unbearable position. Lippestad said he had no desire to force them.

Those who did appear were either unfailingly committed to the Norwegian judicial process or saw their appearance as an opportunity to break through the conspiracy and finally be put in front of a receptive public. The fact that they were literally laughed out of court should, but won’t, have dented their belief in a deliberate campaign to ensure their marginalisation.

Breivik complained in his 1,500 page manifesto that he mailed to 8,000 email addresses on the morning before his attacks, that he too had been ignored. He had written twice, we learned, to the influential Oslo daily Aftenposten to complain about its Islam-biased coverage of international affairs. His letters were never published. Hilde Haugsgjerd, the paper’s editor-in-chief said well-written contributions likely to appeal to more than a handful of people were favoured.

Anyone who has struggled through his manifesto, will know Breivik’s missives were deeply unlikely to have met either of these criteria. Yet in some dark corners of the internet, his heartfelt views and pseudo-academic justifications were swallowed and, no doubt, even admired. For the political marginal there is always a constituency and in the shouty internet such constituents can evidently make you feel mainstream.

Arnfindsen is the editor of honestthinking.no, a site aimed at people who don’t realise that websites which evoke truthfulness and honesty should be regarded with the same scepticism as restaurants that testify to their cleanliness. On his site he has hits and acclaim. Shorn of his online echo chamber he and everyone else was shown why he is marginalised. Unable to construct a logical argument, incapable of properly weighing evidence, and flinging out unsubstantiated allegations like a small child playing Cluedo, he like the other nuts who testified to Breivik’s sanity were exposed for what they are.

Breivik wishes to be considered sane. It is galling that these people's testimony could help him to achieve his aim. But there must also be satisfaction in exposing these crackpots as the fairy tale villains they are. Raymond Johansen, general secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party so loathed by Breivik, said it was important their views should be heard. “If a troll comes out into the sunlight it will burst,” he said. “If it remains in the dark it will grow.”

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist reporting from the Breivik trial in Oslo. He tweets as @markantonylewis.

Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik sits on 6 June, 2012 in the courtroom in Oslo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.