Loathing has long lurked beneath the surface of the liberal Dutch cultureby Joris Luyendijk / March 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
Just three decades ago, the world considered the Netherlands a byword for tolerant self-confidence: a social laboratory for gay rights, soft drugs, regulated prostitution and euthanasia. The country’s most right-wing party, the liberal-conservative VVD, was well to the left of the US Democrats. Progressive Dutch intellectuals called their country the “guide-nation,” which was proving to the world that gay marriage and legal marijuana did not spell the end of civilisation. Instead, stable and prosperous, the country seemed like a happy model of freedom, diversity and multiculturalism.
Never did this self-image fit more snugly than on one sunny Saturday in June 1988 when, having beaten Germany in the semi-finals, our football squad beat an uninspired Soviet Union to win the European Championship. The team had key roles for Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Gerald Vanenburg. All three had Surinamese roots—the German and Soviet teams were entirely white. The multicultural Dutch played the more attractive football and won.
Zoom forward to 2017, and at first blush the Netherlands may seem like another land entirely. The left seems lost or deeply divided, all manner of new right-wing parties have sprung up; there is even a dedicated party for immigrants, Denk, that models its campaign on Donald Trump’s. All the campaigning ahead of the parliamentary elections in March showed that the PVV or Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has dragged the country to the right.
But the idea of the Netherlands as a progressive guide-nation was always a caricature. The turn towards Wilders, whose Indonesian heritage is obscured by his bleached hair, is also more complex than it may look. He may support Trump, Brexit and be moving ever closer to Marine Le Pen, but he is less of a break with the past than you might think. For Dutch tolerance was never all it was cracked up to be.
The 1980s saw a slew of political violence. In 1985, anarchists nearly killed the Amsterdam mayor, Ed van Thijn, when they placed two bombs next to his bedroom. A year later, protesters torched the hotel where the far-right Centrum Democraten were convening. The leader’s partner lost her legs in the fire—yet Dutch parliamentarians ignored the incident. In 1991 another left-wing group bombed the house of Aad Kosto, the justice secretary responsible for asylum policy.
But when German neo-Nazis in Solingen set fire to the house of a Turkish family and killed five, two years later, tolerant Holland swung into action. A media campaign saw 1.2m Dutch send postcards to the German leader, Helmut Kohl. The text read: “I am angry.” This was the guide nation, too: the moralising index finger, as the Dutch call it. Some of today’s fury with the mainstream traces back to these days. In the name of tolerance, all views that contradicted the progressive establishment were suppressed. As a result, so the argument goes, problems with immigrants festered. The Wilders crowd plays on this, terming the establishment “the church of the left.”
The demise of that establishment was prefigured again in football. In the 1996 European Championships, the Dutch squad was divided. Five black players suggested they were being sidelined by the manager. In keeping with the Dutch love for bluntness, the black star player, Edgar Davids, said that the coach, Guus Hiddink “must get his head out of players’ asses so he can see better.” When the team performed dismally the lesson was bleak: immigration did not only enrich society, it could also throw up conflict.
In the years since, the financial crisis, the faltering euro, welfare state cutbacks and privatisation bred intense resentment of the establishment. But it was immigration that proved the biggest lightning rod. Around the turn of the century a charismatic, gay former Labour Party member began warning about the risks. His books were bestsellers and when Pim Fortuyn ran for parliament, a revolution seemed afoot. He stole the progressives’ agenda saying he was the only politician ready to fight for an open society. Fortuyn’s central question was troubling: how safe is an open, free society that, every year, absorbs hundreds of thousands of immigrants from countries without any tradition of openness or freedom?
In the Netherlands of the 1980s and 1990s those questions were dismissed as racist or alarmist. But by the 2000s gay men had stopped walking hand in hand in Amsterdam, out of fear of homophobic violence by men of Moroccan descent. Jews took off their yarmulkes. Swimming pools hired guards to protect girls from harassment. Then came 9/11. In 2002 I was a correspondent living in Israel. I turned on the television for an update on the intifada raging around me—but the top story was about my own country. An animal rights activist had shot and killed Fortuyn. It heralded a wave of unprecedented violence. Filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered in broad daylight. A car drove into a royal parade on Queen’s day in 2009, killing eight. Left-wing activist Louis Sévèke was murdered, as was Els Borst, the politician responsible for the legalisation of euthanasia in the 1990s.
Like Fortuyn, Wilders frames his programme not around ethnicity, but around freedom of speech, equality and other progressive values. This makes him different from authoritarian types such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or closet nationalists like Ukip. But at the same time, Wilders shows deeply illiberal contempt for parliament, the press and judicial independence. He rules his party like a dictator, ignoring and even humiliating his own MPs. No party wants to govern with him; indeed, he seems to have no desire to govern.
The Dutch wait for a leader who can offer an angry electorate more than the defunct establishment consensus, or the empty symbolism of the protest parties. Those hoping for the “guide nation” to lead the west out of its conundrum are looking in the wrong place. As for football, the Netherlands is struggling to qualify for the next European championship.