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More Democracy: Learning From Norway's Response to Terror

25/07/2011 15:15 BST | Updated 24/09/2011 10:12 BST

The first time I went to Scandinavia, I remember clearly visiting the Queen of Denmark's summer residence. As I peered through the windows and over the fence to the swimming pool I asked my Danish/Norwegian husband to be- How can we be allowed so close? Surely this is a security risk? His response was one of real puzzlement. Who would want to attack the Queen?

Granted, that was back in 1998, and the world has changed hugely since then. Not least by the horrific events in Oslo and on Utøya. First and foremost our reaction must be one of compassion for the families who have lost their near and dear, and for those who survived but will be always marked by the experience.

Right from the outset, the reaction from Norway has set the tragic events in a wider perspective. The Justice Minister noted how the attack was against one of the best expressions of democracy, young people meeting together to discuss politics and be active. In Scandinavia many have felt it was an assault on the kind of open society that people see as fundamental to their way of life. They pride themselves that their politicians and public figures are accessible, as I found out that day at the Queen of Denmark's summer house.

The Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's response has been very clear- the answer to violence must be more democracy, more openness, more participation in society. On the national broadcaster NRK various commentators expressed a fear that increased security would also lead to the shutting off of the political class from ordinary people.

Sadly, it is this we have seen in Britain. Downing Street is gated off, and petitioners must stand behind a wall on the opposite side of the road. The attempts to squeeze protest out of Parliament square have been going on for years, with dissent now limited to a specified piece of pavement. The process of getting in to Parliament for those of us who aren't Lords or MPs is an intimidating experience of automated photographs and armed Police. As lawyer David Allen Green puts it "By the time you get through all this you are highly conscious of the power of Parliament's officials, and also the lack of your own." The protecting of our political class has unfortunately contributed to the already widespread belief that they are aloof.

The British reaction to the undoubted security challenges we face in the 21st century has not been one of how we strengthen our democracy. It has instead been to move to a more restricted society. We are constantly assailed by public announcements to be vigilant, without really being sure what for. The Britain of New Labour was one of an explosion in surveillance and acquiescence to rendition. The Britain of the Coalition is one of preemptive arrests and kettling.

It is still early to go in to too much speculation about the motives behind these attacks in Norway. In fact the kneejerk reaction that they must have been connected to al-Qaeda was potentially dangerous in itself. Nevertheless it's clear we must take threats from the far right seriously.

What does appear to be emerging places a major question mark against the coalition government's updating of the UK terrorism strategy 'Prevent'. The entire thrust of the document is focused on Islamists, even though such groups are a tiny proportion of the actual attacks in Europe in recent years. In 2007 less than 1% of incidents were connected to Islamic extremism. But both the media and politicians seem unhelpfully fixated on these groups. The section in the strategy on far right radicalism is woefully underwritten and offers no research or factual backing at all.

To my mind, the measures proposed by the coalition's 'Prevent' terrorism strategy run counter to the values articulated by Stoltenberg. Health professionals - everyone from speech therapists to community psychiatric nurses - are to be recruited as informers who can "identify the signs that someone is vulnerable to radicalisation". Universities and colleges are expected to deal with potential terrorists without being given clear guidance of how or what to do. The report states that filtering of the Internet in the public sphere is "essential".

All of this goes to creating a climate of fear, suspicion and censorship, without providing evidence of how it will make us safer. If this is our response to terror, then our government may well erode our values in a way that bombers could never hope to do - whatever their background or motives. We will be on the road to what Norway's Prime Minister fears, being terrorised into silence.

What is notable about the forces that threaten us is how alienated they feel. But it is up to us to show that real participation is possible and worthwhile, and that our political class is not just hidden behind a wall. It is time we learnt from Scandinavia- more democracy and more openness are not just statements in the face of a terrible tragedy, this is a call for action that we would do well to hear.