The pampered Dutch voted for Fortuyn because he made politics funby Simon Kuper / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
It was a scandal, a Dutch friend told me, that the foreign press was always comparing Pim Fortuyn to Jean-Marie Le Pen and J?rg Haider when he wasn’t far right at all. This is a common view in the Netherlands. Partly it is sympathy for the murdered Fortuyn, partly Dutch moral superiority (our racist politicians are better than theirs!), but there is truth in it too. Foreigners have never been interested in Dutch politics, and are interested in it now only as another domino in continental Europe’s supposed slide back into barbarism. That is why Fortuyn is grouped with Le Pen. But the two men regarded each other with revulsion. Fortuyn was a specifically Dutch phenomenon, different to Le Pen, Haider and Belgium’s Filip de Winter. He did share with them an opposition to immigration, but that issue is quantitatively different in the Netherlands than elsewhere. Fortuyn was not a “fascist.” He never hinted at violence, never flirted with anti-semitism, and never exuded the hatred of foreigners that Le Pen does. The gay former Marxist academic was in fact the first camp populist, ranting with a joke and a wink. Asked on television whether he knew any Moroccans, he replied: “Know them? I go to bed with them!” Indeed, he claimed he was attacking Islam (which he called “a backward religion”) precisely because the religion was supposedly intolerant and antidemocratic. Fortuyn was not Le Pen, and nor is the Netherlands France. Poverty and despair are not big features of Dutch life. After nearly 20 years of virtually unbroken economic growth, official unemployment is just 2 per cent. The Dutch have never had it so good, and the Dutch model-combining some of the labour flexibility of Anglo-Saxon countries with the long-termism and high productivity of Germany-is often regarded as the best in Europe. Admittedly, about one in seven Dutch people of working age lives on disability benefit. Foreigners regard this as a form of hidden unemployment. Becoming “disabled” is often a choice: you can quit your job and continue to draw 70 per cent of your salary. Nor is there nostalgia for the great days of fascism in the Netherlands, as there seems to be in parts of Austria and even France. The 8 per cent or so of Dutch people who supported the Dutch Nazi Party (NSB) at its peak in the late 1930s, crept under stones after 1945, emerging afterwards as democrats. “NSB’er!” remains one of the most potent insults in Dutch. Nor is Holland’s political class corrupt-supposedly a factor behind the disenchantment of European voters. Dutch politicians do not retire as millionaires or accept funding from crooked businessmen. Dutch prime ministers traditionally cycle to work. It is true that in the wave of sentiment that has swept the Netherlands since Fortuyn’s murder on 6th May, it has become conventional to depict him as a crusader against the oligarchy of “regents” who supposedly rule the country. Many of the banners and cards laid outside his villa in Rotterdam attack other party leaders, even blaming them for Fortuyn’s murder. But discontent with the political elite had barely surfaced before Fortuyn popped up last autumn. Wim Kok, who announced his resignation months before the 15th May election, was a beloved technocratic prime minister for eight years until the murder. His predecessor, Ruud Lubbers, was a beloved technocratic prime minister for 12 years. Dutch prime ministers are generally popular. The last time one of them was voted out of office was 1973. Fortuyn succeeded because he spotted two gaps in the Dutch political market. Firstly, he offered entertainment in a country where politics had always been boring. Whereas William Hague, a product of Oxford and Insead, tried to sound like a man in a pub, most Dutch politicians try to sound like products of Oxford and Insead. They speak in long sentences and complex language about technical issues. An election campaign often resembles a convention of civil servants. Fortuyn, a former columnist, could express things simply and with humour. He would never have succeeded in the US, where most politicians are plain-spoken populists. But the Dutch had never been offered that type before. Dutch television most evenings is a parade of talk shows in which worthy people ramble on. On an average night, flicking channels, you could catch Fortuyn on a couple of programmes, and when you did, you usually stopped to watch. He made politics fun. Certainly his supporters had grievances, but it is important to recognise the element of theatricality, of soap opera, in his movement. People were prepared to gamble on him because the country was hardly in peril. The second gap he filled was to voice the public’s growing racism. The great clich? among Fortuyn supporters since the murder has been, “Finally someone who dared to tell the truth, and he gets murdered for it!” But that is not quite accurate. He was murdered for his views on the environment, never a topic that interested him much. Playing the race card had long been taboo in Dutch politics. When someone came along who did, people voted for him. Fortuyn could never have succeeded in Britain, where anyone who thinks there are too many immigrants could hear his sentiments expressed, at least in modified form, by David Blunkett or Ann Widdecombe. Moreover, nobody can seriously argue that Britain is being “swamped” by asylum-seekers. But it is possible to believe that in the Netherlands. Indeed if you are a Dutch racist-or someone who is bothered by the rapidly changing ethnic mix of the country-you have a lot to complain about. Until about 1960, the Netherlands was a homogeneous place. There was some immigration from Indonesia after the second world war, but most of the immigrants were Dutch expatriates or Christian Indonesians. In 1961, there were about 200 Turks in the country. Then Turkish and Moroccan male guest workers began arriving to fill labour shortages. They stopped coming after the 1973 oil shock, but the earlier arrivals unexpectedly settled in the Netherlands. Later they brought their families and had more children. In the 1990s, Europe’s most densely populated country accepted two to three times as many asylum-seekers per capita as the European average. The Dutch population grew by more than 6 per cent over the decade, compared with virtually zero growth for the EU as a whole. Today there are more than 300,000 people of Turkish descent in the Netherlands, another 300,000 of Dutch West Indian descent (most of whom arrived after Suriname became independent in 1975), about 250,000 of Moroccan descent, and altogether about 1.5m people of non-western origin. (Few Fortuyn voters are bothered about the 1m or so European and North American immigrants and their children living in the country.) This means that in a Dutch population of 16m, almost 10 per cent is now of non-western origin. This is more than in most of Europe, and the rise has been quicker than elsewhere. Inevitably, there have been problems of integration. Minorities perform worse at school than the indigenous Dutch, are more likely to be unemployed or commit crime, and much has been made of the fact that about 40 per cent of Turkish and Moroccan men over 40 draw disability benefit (though this only amounts to 20,000 people). You could argue that things have gone remarkably well considering the size of the influx. An ageing country with full employment could not cope without immigrants. And the second generation of immigrants born in the Netherlands is doing much better than the first. More of them are finding jobs and fewer complain about discrimination. Their modest contribution to crime will surely diminish as they get older and richer. But these arguments are unlikely to appeal to Fortuyn’s voters. These people-overwhelmingly male, mostly poorly educated, often young, but not particularly poor-just don’t like having coloured people around. About one in three inhabitants of Amsterdam and Rotterdam is now non-white. What the Dutch see when they cycle down their local high street are mosques, cheap telephone shops for calling Turkey or Africa, and Moroccan teenagers hanging around overseen by black policewomen. The Netherlands may be unprecedently wealthy and very orderly but it no longer looks like the place Fortuyn’s voters grew up in. To them, that is a problem, and mainstream Dutch politicians are now going to have to talk about it.