Breivik's trial now focuses on victims

Breivik's trial continues - but the attention is no longer on the killer.

The court lecture played faithfully into the absurd image he has constructed for himself – Commander Anders Behring Breivik, the gallant defender of Norway.

"If anyone wants to throw something, you can throw it at me,” Commander Breivik admonished the Olso court after the brother of one of his victims hurled a shoe.

The accused gunman and bomber murdered 77 people on July 22 last year, most of them teenagers executed at close range. But they were legitimate targets. Vibeke Hein Bæra, hit gently by footwear aimed at him, was an innocent bystander. Commander Breivik was honour-bound to intervene: “Don’t throw things at my lawyers.”

It was one of several opportunities he has taken to try to regain the attention of a court which has moved on despite him, and attempt to re-establish himself as the hero of his own trial. The contrast with the genuine heroism of some of the survivors from his rampage on the holiday island of Utoya last year could hardly be starker.

Tonje Brenna, 24, terrified, under fire, watching her friends die around her, picked up and carried a wounded 14 year old girl to the relative safety of a steep cliff edge. She slid down to shelter only after guiding others, then held the wounded girl in her arms, willing her to stay awake, while Commander Breivik stood at the top of the rock face, letting out yelps of joy as his bullets found their teenage targets.

Faced with this story of heroism - one of many heard by the court over the last three weeks - Commander Breivik smiled contemptuously and shook his head.

Beneath Ms Brenna, in the shallow water of the lake, a 17 year old boy, Viljar Hanssen, shot five times, felt for his eye. He couldn’t find it. Instead he reached through the gap in his head and touched his brain. While trying to take stock of his injuries – the three fingers dangling by a thread from his hand, the wounds in his shoulder, arm and leg, and the bullet hole in his head – Viljar could only think of his brother. He had kicked him to safety when the first shots found his own flesh and ordered the younger boy to swim to safety.

Disfigured now, unable to run and ski the way he could before and still unsure about the effects the missing part of his brain might have on his life, Viljar made the court laugh by saying that at least missing an eye meant he didn’t have to look at his would-be killer while he testified. When he described his delight at discovering his brother was unhurt then spoke unselfishly, with stirring fraternal compassion, about the younger boy’s own island ordeal, several in the court cried. Almost nobody was left unmoved.

Commander Breivik took notes. Nothing he has seen so far has shaken his belief that he is the only real hero at the trial. He is defending Norway against “Islamic colonisation” by striking at the heart of the “leftist” establishment. Presumably that is why he was screamed, “today you will die Marxists,” at the unarmed children he was gunning down on the island, and why he was satisfied enough at his work to call the police and proclaim, “this is Commander Breivik... Mission accomplished.”

He is not a commander in the established sense.  He’s not been in any of the forces; never even served his normally obligatory year’s national service. He is, however, part of an imagined pan-European chivalric order, The Knights Templar, similar to the online guilds he was so familiar with from playing World of Warcraft 16 hours a day for a whole year.

He also has a uniform. There are camp pictures of him wearing it in the manifesto he emailed to hundreds of supposedly like-minded right-wingers in the hours before the slaughter. But he has dropped his demands to be allowed to wear it in the court – presumably on the advice of his defence team who would argue that in seeking to be sentenced as a sane man, he should ditch anything which might make him look anything but.

There must be disappointment. The uniform was supposed to have been part of the propaganda front Mr Breivik believed he would be able to sustain throughout the course of this ten week trial. But the media have largely been and gone. He has already been given his legal opportunity to preach his ideology and has now been pushed aside. Now, try as he might to wrestle back some attention, as brave witnesses to the Utoya massacre relive their island nightmares, he has been relegated to a sideshow in his own show trial.

Mark Lewis tweets @markantonylewis
 

One of the survivors of Breivik's massacre Photograph: Getty Images
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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.