A few days ago we posted H. Numan’s essay about the push by the Dutch elites to boycott Geert Wilders’ party and keep them from participating in the next government, despite their position as the far-and-away most popular party in the country.
Based on the comments on his essay posted by mystified readers, H. Numan concluded that it was necessary to write a longer account that might helps shine a light on the peculiar political customs of The Netherlands.
Dutch politics explained
by H. Numan
Most readers here are American, and you folks have a two party system. We have a very different system, in which it is next to impossible for one party to gain a majority. It’s totally different, looks incomprehensibly complicated but it sort of works. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Our system isn’t better or worse than yours. Just different. Both systems weren’t invented yesterday. A lot of it comes from history. Both can very easily be perverted into something other than a democracy. Trump saved American democracy in the nick of time. I hope Wilders can do the same for us.
Let’s dive into history for a bit. It’s really interesting. I think few people know that the US constitution is directly based on the Union of Utrecht, for example.
The present-day kingdom of the Netherlands is not all that old. It only emerged after the fall of Napoleon. The exact date is difficult to give, even for a history buff like me. 2 December 1813 or 24 August 1815, depending on your viewpoint. Prince William VI didn’t like constitutions one little bit, and he simply refused one. He’d much rather have been an absolute ruling prince than a king under a constitution. It took a lot of effort to change his mind. That’s why there are different dates.
In 1813 Prince William VI landed in Scheveningen from England and accepted the throne as Prince. In 1815 he accepted the throne as king under a constitution. From prince William VI he was promoted to King William I. Both names refer to Prince William the Silent, of whom he wasn’t even a descendant… but appearances do matter. “What’s in a name?” asked the great bard. “EVERYTHING!” replies the Dutch royal family.
The people who made him change his mind weren’t exactly democrats themselves. They all (the prince/king included) wanted to return to the happy days of yesteryear before the French Revolution spoiled everything. Regrettably, they succeeded for the better part. It doesn’t differ that much from America, mind you. A small class of people who rule the country and a very large class that actually do the work. Please bear in mind I abhor communism and socialism. Any resemblance is purely coincidental. It’s easier for an American paperboy to become president than for a Dutch paperboy, I grant you that. In both countries it’s possible, but not likely. If your name is Bush, for example, you’ll do your paper round five minutes for appearances’ sake. Then it’s off to the cursus honorum on your way to the senate or the presidency. In Holland it works exactly the same way. The big difference is that important decisions are always a compromise in Holland, while in America it’s decided within one party.
In the past, and for the greater part of our history, what is now The Netherlands was a republic. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, to be exact. That’s were the plural ‘The Netherlands’ comes from. There are more of them then just one. Seven provinces united in their struggle for independence from Spain. Each province was a completely independent state. The only two things they tried to do together were defense and foreign policy, as little as possible. The Dutch navy of the 17th century was well-known and feared, but there was no Dutch navy. The city of Rotterdam had an admiralty; so did Amsterdam, Friesland, North Holland (outside Amsterdam), and the province of Zealand. They worked together, yes. But were completely independent from each other. One served as an officer in that particular admiralty. Transfers could and did happen, but most served within one single admiralty their whole career or life. Sometimes admiralties clashed (not in war, though) and didn’t always agree. Each did what it thought was best. Selfish interests prevailed. Some things don’t really change, do they?
It seems horribly complicated, and it of course was. But at that time this crude system was a big political improvement. So much so, that the founding fathers modeled the early USA on it. The Dutch republic was at that time two centuries old, so the founding fathers didn’t really copy it. They copied the concept and improved on it.
To make matters even more complicated … Yes, that is possible. The individual provinces weren’t really independent countries. The cities within a province were almost fully independent. Remnants of that can be found even today in our country. In the present day Netherlands cities have a large level of legal independence: they can raise taxes, sometimes ignore national laws, and most of the families from the 17th century (we call them ‘regents’) still control city politics, albeit behind the scenes. The cities had their own private armies, formed out of their middle- and upper-class citizens. Seen the Nightwatch, by Rembrandt? That was the private militia army of the city of Amsterdam. A big bank made a brilliant commercial out of it a few years ago. Watch it. You’ll really like it. Until a couple of years ago, a city could fund its own police force.
How did we reach a consensus? Very, very slowly. Let’s imagine that a war had to be declared. First, all cities had to approve of it, by majority vote, in their own city. They send a representative to their own provincial government. They had to meet and by majority agree. Then a representative of that provincial government had to vote within the States General (sort of parliament), and only then war could be declared. If you wonder how anything moved faster than continents, so do I. Mind you, this was a step up from medieval times. There were only four places in Europe without a monarchy: The Dutch Republic, the Swiss Confederation, Genoa and the Venetian Republic. Your founding fathers admired the Dutch Republic enough to base their constitution on it, but were clever enough to understand the snail should not become their national symbol.
You think that was slow? Forget it. It can get much worse. In Holland we say ‘op z’n elf en dertigst’ or, in English, ‘by way of the eleven and thirty’ for something that is really slow. The province of Friesland (or Frisia in English) has 11 cities and 30 districts, then and now. Each city and each district was allowed to vote on everything in the States General. Without their consent, there was no approval from the Frisian delegate. Phones didn’t exist, roads were very bad. So he had to travel by coach or on horseback, cross the Zuiderzee, travel to each of the 11 cities and 30 districts, argue in all of them, in order to get their aye or nay. Then travel all the way back and present that aye or nay in the States General. Glaciers move a whole lot faster than that.
There were of course shortcuts. They are very much present today. First of all, each political deal was discussed in private. See who would agree, or how much it would cost to make him agree. Backroom deals were an essential part of government, then and now. Next, everybody was equal, yes. But some were a lot more equal than others. On the provincial level the province of Holland was bigger than all the others combined. Within the province of Holland, Amsterdam was bigger (politically and economically) than all other cities in the province of Holland combined. Basically, if Amsterdam said ‘yes’ and the whole country said ‘no’, ‘yes’ it usually was.
Another shortcut was the prince of Orange. Officially he wasn’t the head of the country; the grand pensionary was. But he was the official head of the army (not the navy) and controlled much of the land provinces. It would be a very brave grand pensionary indeed to defy the prince. Several paid with their heads. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded and Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis were lynched by the mob. To relate this to today: Johan and his brother Cornelis de Witt were at that time under government protection. As Geert Wilders is today. “Mysteriously” the guard detachment was withdrawn, giving the mob the opportunity to lynch them. Nobody knows until this very day who was responsible for this withdrawal. Let’s hope that history will not repeat itself during the first 15 days of March.
Modern Dutch politics began at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century. At that time politics as well as social life were strictly segregated based on religion, known as pillarisation. If you were born in a Roman Catholic family, your mum would have an RC doctor, RC midwife, you’d go to an RC kindergarten, RC primary school, RC secondary school, listen to the RC radio station KRO, read an RC newspaper, work for an RC employer, be a member of an RC labor union, live in a rented house from RC housing, go to an RC hospital and finally be laid to rest in an RC cemetery. There were four main pillars: Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Socialist and Neutral.
Next-door neighbors would barely see or even talk to one another if they belonged to different pillars. Nothing negative mind you, but ‘he ain’t one of us’. Surely a nice bloke, but why on earth should I say anything else than good morning to him? Basically you ignored the fact that other pillars even existed.
This pillarisation slowly disappeared in the late sixties early seventies. It’s not that long ago, folks! Yes, I know it vividly — I am that old. The pillarisation had and still has a massive influence on our political system. Why did it disappear? Because the Dutch did something that most Americans of today can’t understand: they became the most atheist nation on the planet, outside of communist countries. Because nobody really liked pillarisation. Only the people on top did. Everybody else more or less followed their lead, mostly because they had to. Social pressure, you know. The only pillar that remained and absorbed all others was the socialist pillar, one could and should argue. Our society was for almost a century entirely based on that pillarisation principle, and you will find a lot of it is still there. In fact, a new pillar is emerging: the mohammedan pillar. Integration is never on the agenda for mohammedans, segregation always is. The Slovervaart hospital, for example is already a preferred mohammedan hospital. Not a mohammedans-only hospital; the law does not yet allow for that. Don’t worry, all parties except for one are working towards that sacred goal.
An example of pillarisation: we don’t have truly independent media. The reason? Pillarisation. We had RC, Dutch Reformed, socialist and conservative newspapers. You would subscribe to them based on your pillar. No other reason. Exactly the same for radio and later TV stations. No commercial TV was ever allowed before the early eighties. All radio and TV stations were non-profit, based on your pillar. There was very little advertising, only a five-minute block before and after the news. TV stations didn’t really need the advertising, as their members had to pay membership fees. You didn’t get a TV program unless you were member. Today there is almost no difference between a really commercial and non-profit station whatsoever. The message is now 100% multicultural. The inauguration of Trump was presented very negatively, as if it was a worse disaster than 9/11. That’s the Dutch media today, and that is what the PVV has to fight against.
Now a few conclusions for you. As I said, I abhor communism and socialism. Having said that, I’m not a staunch libertarian either. The PVV party is firmly rooted in Dutch political history. During the republic the ‘little people’ revolted many times against their regent overlords. Sometimes with success, more often not. That Nightwatch militia you watched a moment ago mostly was used to for crowd control, 17th-century style. Pussyfooting hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had teargas, but a whiff of grapeshot could do wonders. Disapproving of socialism doesn’t mean to say anti-social, or ‘here’s a cup, you can beg over there’. The Dutch republic and afterwards had a system (rudimentary by today’s standards) that was light-years ahead of its time for the needy and the elderly. Poor people have, by sheer necessity, more interest in social welfare. That doesn’t mean to say they are therefore automatically socialists or worse. That’s a stupid mistake socialists and communists always make. Seems ingrained in their ideology.
Another point to ponder is why the Dutch revolted in 1572. That was a conservative revolution. The Habsburgian government wanted to centralize and modernize government. The population wanted to preserve their old privileges and customs. Up to a point, they succeeded. Very quickly the merchant class who led the revolt found their governmental seats very comfortable, and changed it into a family business. Literally. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revolt was conservative, not progressive, and was extremely successful. Wilders is leading a conservative revolution. This conservative movement is worldwide. Wilders may not succeed right now, but in the end he will. Socialism has had its day; now it’s time to react to that. Given the fact that Trump is now president, PVV voters will get a big moral boost from that.
Rest assured that Wilders and all other politicos already know to a great extent what kind of cabinet will be possible after the 15th of March elections. Wilders is one of the most capable politicians of the country. Of course he is already negotiating with most party leaders. And vice versa, all other parties are feeling out the others. Back-room politics was practically invented in The Netherlands. Or elevated to a higher level at the very least. Will the VVD work together with Wilders? Perhaps, I don’t know. We, the people, don’t know and we won’t know what deals have been struck until after the elections. That’s back-room politics for you, and that is part of our cultural history. Yes, we don’t like that part either.
Whatever you hear about the PVV party, they are anything but a socialist party. It is a conservative party with a strong social program, and that is something vastly different. It may look the PVV program overlaps with the SP (Maoists) program, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rest assured that the VVD (conservatives) will sing that tune until they are voted out of existence on the 15th. If they won’t, the media will.
It’s important to realize you cannot make a society according to your political ideas of the moment. The Frankfurt school of nihilism has had its time. History always plays a very important part, no matter how much you try to ignore it. Forgetting your history is forgetting why you look at a certain situation differently from, say, the way an American or a German will. Our Argentinean queen said ‘Dutch culture? I haven’t seen it.’ Neither has nearly all of my country’s elite… They all claim to be cosmopolitan citizens of planet Earth. No passports required, no boundaries necessary.
I myself really am sort of a cosmopolitan. After all, I have lived for 23 years in a very different culture. Yet I see something different: I see yokels who know little or nothing about foreign cultures and assume they know everything. Because they were born in well-to-do families or have a university degree, and therefore know it all. What I see is a Dutch yokel walking on clogs wearing a necktie looking down upon his heritage. Or nowadays he wears a Palestinian headscarf instead of the tie, because it’s so fashionable.
Myself? Cosmopolitan? Good lord, no! I am a Dutchman who happens to live in Thailand, and likes it very much there. Trying to understand Thai culture and Thai people. Sometimes, I even succeed. The difference between them, my country’s elite, and me is that I know what I am. They do not.
That’s a very short abbreviated history of The Netherlands. I could go on, but I think you get the idea why we have such a weird political system.
— H. Numan