The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all

We should not turn Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast

Horror, yes. Shock, yes. But also relief. Relief that we had no need for caveats. Calls for historic perspective or dialogue, or remembrance of the fallen innocents on the other side. The massacre in Norway could be condemned unequivocally.

Anders Behring Breivik is the right's Angel of Death. His act of barbarity perpetrated with brutal political clarity. A Labour prime minister, Labour government and a Labour youth camp his targets.

But as the slaughter was unfolding we still hadn't encountered that cold, blue eyed stare. Initial reports indicated an attack in response to Norway's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Labour MP Tom Harris, responding, predicted on Twitter that "we'll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by "foreign policy" or by "disrespect to the Prophet."

Harris was wrong about the terrorists' identity and motives. But the apologists rushed forward nontheless. "You have a better chance of a wet floor killing you than an Islamist", tweeted Dr Eoin Clarke, founder of GEER, the new Gender, Environment, Equality and Race think-tank. "Hamas have a mandate better than the Tories", was a follow up intervention. That's the same Hamas that launched a rocket attack on Israeli schoolchildren in April. I tried to find Dr Clarke's condemnation of that attack, but couldn't.

On Utoya people were scrambling for their lives. Across the UK elements of the left were scrambling for their Twitter feeds. "Solidarity", was a favoured response to cold blooded murder. In reply to the initial bombing, author Owen Jones took the opportunity to point out that "working class Norwegians have just been slaughtered". Of the dead and dying of the Norwegian middle and upper classes there was no word. The BBC was condemned for describing Utoya island as a "summer camp". The attack was a "political crime". Not to report it as such was to "diminish" the young Labour members targeted.

By morning, the death toll had risen to 90. And empathy turned to appropriation. We had witnessed a "political act". It would be "madness not to draw political conclusions considering politics". Political points "should be made". The victims had been "killed for their politics by a political activist". It was important to defend "people's right to use the language of solidarity when a right-wing extremist targeted young socialists".

I was in the hall at Labour conference when the relative of one of the victims of the Dunblane massacre spoke of her campaign to introduce a total ban on handguns. It was silent, save for the sound of grown men and women crying. There was no political connection. Or motive to the crime. We cried anyway.

That night I was telephoned by a friend of mine who has no interest in politics. That moment had been shown on the television news. "I didn't think your lot were like that", he said.

He didn't mean he thought we were heartless monsters. Just that we had too often let our politics obscure our humanity.

It's important to put some of the responses to the Norwegian attacks in perspective. Many of those responding on Twitter are themselves still young. And you cannot fully appreciate the horror of a child's murder until you have children of your own.

But there is something wrong when someone's initial reaction to the scenes from Oslo is to reach for an expression of political solidarity, rather than one of basic sympathy. And we have been here before. The shooter of Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen bystanders hadn't even been charged before some on the left were rushing to place the blame squarely at the door of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

This isn't just a matter of poor taste. There are massive issues raised by the events in Norway. If we feel a need to tackle the radicalization of Muslim youth then we clearly have to examine the influences that set Oslo's Timothy McVeigh on his own murderous rampage. If we wish to focus on the threats posed by domestic terrorism then we clearly have to ensure our efforts and resources are focused across all our communities. And we need to examine which "preachers of hate" had Anders Behring Breivik's ear.

But none of this will be achieved by turning Norway's shattered buildings and shrouded bodies into a party political broadcast. The dignity of Jens Stoltenberg and his pledge to fight back with "more democracy and more humanity" stands on its own. It doesn't require cheap comparisons with David Cameron or George W Bush.

Nor will it be addressed by retreating into moral relativism. Far right terrorists; barbarians. Palestinian terrorists; freedom fighters. Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorists; folk heroes. Al-Qaeda terrorists; by-products of US neo-conservatism.

The attacks in Norway weren't an attack on us all. They were an attack on 80 children who went on a camping trip and never came home. Let us mourn for them. But please, let's not grasp for the tragedy and the horror, and try to claim it as our own.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
Show Hide image

Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game