Modern family: the Dutch royals © Shutterstock

Can the British Royal family ever downsize for the 21st century? The Dutch monarchy show how it’s done

They don’t all live in palaces; most do normal jobs and send their kids to state schools. Could it happen here?
March 3, 2022

Even bicycling monarchies can still work magic. Consider the wounded pride of the Netherlands on being elbowed out of membership of the top table: the G20. Something had to be done.

Enter the Dutch Queen Maxima, who had worked as an economist and banker before she married Crown Prince (now King) Willem-Alexander and who put her weight behind a side conference on financial inclusion at the 2017 G20 summit. Since it would have been churlish to receive Maxima and not the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte secured a “wild card” for the proper G20 summit. The Netherlands was back at the big table. Royal mission accomplished.

This episode illustrates how a wealthy, yet small and vulnerable European country can harness its royal family to punch above its fading diplomatic and political weight. Most British people would scoff at a comparison with the Dutch: after all, the UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as well as nuclear weapons. But the differences between Britain and the Netherlands are looking smaller all the time: 0.9 versus 0.2 per cent of the world’s population. As the veteran London correspondent Hieke Jippes writes in God Save the Queen, an essay collection on the British monarchy recently published in the Netherlands: “from the Suez crisis in 1956 to Brexit, a long line of British decline makes the triumphant singing of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ sound almost clownish.”

So what could Britain learn from the Netherlands about how to make use of its royals? And might the Windsors have something to learn from how the Oranjes manage their affairs, their subjects and, above all, their image?

Many Dutch people tend to think of the British as much like them, minus speaking native English and having a sense of humour. I was born and am based in Amsterdam, but between 2011 and 2017 I lived and worked in the UK. Until I came to Britain, I had never realised just how different the two countries are. These differences could help explain why adapting to the demands of the 21st century is proving so difficult for the House of Windsor.

To this Dutchman, the British seem strikingly deferential to royal authority

To this Dutchman, the British seem strikingly deferential to royal authority. When living in London, I remember showing English friends a clip of Queen Beatrix being kissed on the cheek by a stranger at a market during Queen’s Day. After seeing more clips of the Oranjes taking part in mind-numbingly insipid Queen’s Day activities, my friends insisted this had to be a parody: how could royal mystique survive such proximity to the public? But as secular and atheist as Dutch culture has become, it is still steeped in Calvinist notions of humility. By demonstrating they are like the rest of us, the Oranjes gain, rather than lose, respect. 

Whereas the Windsors are expected to keep their distance, the Oranjes have considerably more latitude. During the 33 years of Beatrix’s reign, which ended with her abdication in 2013, the Netherlands witnessed several horrific accidents and disasters. In 1992, an Israeli plane crashed into a high-rise building in Amsterdam, killing 47. In the year 2000 a fireworks factory in the middle of a residential area blew up, causing the largest explosion since the Second World War and resulting in 23 deaths. Later that same year, a New Year’s Eve party in a crowded café in the picturesque village of Volendam ended in flames, leading to the deaths of 14 young people and injuring 241 others, many of them horribly. In instances such as these, Beatrix literally offered her shoulder in comfort to crying relatives. You would have to be a very staunch republican not to be moved by the sight of the nation’s mother figure consoling her people.

More recently, two thirds of the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that was shot down over Ukraine in 2014 were Dutch, and the Netherlands suffered a greater loss of life relative to population than the US did on 9/11. Willem-Alexander and Maxima spent hours with grieving relatives. This was a king who not only met with victims but who shared in their pain. Politicians making similar visits can never entirely escape the suspicion that ultimately their eyes are on the polls; but no royal ever faces election. 

Indeed, the reason I am writing this piece is because I met Prospect’s editor Alan Rusbridger at an event hosted by Beatrix in 2010. There we were, sitting at her side in the Huis ten Bosch palace for a chat. We had been asked to treat our conversation with reasonable discretion, but there were no other instructions on how to address or approach the Queen. It was remarkably relaxed and we discussed the role of journalism in the 21st century. There were no questions about the weather, or “have you travelled far to come here?”

Not having lived in Britain at that point, I was surprised to hear from Rusbridger, then editor of the Guardian, that he had never spoken to his own Queen—something almost unthinkable in the Netherlands, where the royal family makes sure to cultivate the cultural elite. This yields rewards, I must admit. Rusbridger ended up offering me a job at the Guardian. Try to remain staunchly republican after benefiting from the convening power of a royal. The British media take almost no interest in the Netherlands, but the Dutch follow British affairs closely. There are at least a dozen correspondents stationed in London, the BBC is widely watched among the educated elite, and cultural figures such as Hilary Mantel or Stephen Fry are familiar names.

Royal watchers and constitutional anoraks in the Netherlands know both monarchies well. From speaking to them a nuanced picture emerges. “It took the Dutch until 2012 to strip their royals of their last remaining bits of political power,” says constitutional expert Peter Rehwinkel. Until then, the Dutch monarch had a small yet influential post-election role in appointing the person attempting to form a coalition government. On the other hand, the Dutch government is politically responsible for everything the royals do. Were Prince Andrew Dutch, the scandal surrounding him could easily have spilled over into a major political crisis.

There are issues the Windsors have resolved and the Oranjes still have not—fundraising, for example. By opening their palaces and offering receptions, including meet-and-greets, the Windsors can persuade many rich individuals, companies and organisations to donate huge amounts to charity. The Dutch royals are far behind on this.

Prince Charles has spoken out repeatedly about climate change, while the Prince’s Trust successfully targets social inequality. Apart from “water management,” Willem-Alexander has not embraced any issue of similar import. The Dutch king still pays no income tax; Elizabeth does. And where the Windsors have published detailed reports about expenses and received gifts, the Oranjes are notoriously untransparent.

Like the Windsors, the Dutch royal family are struggling to maintain public support, especially during the pandemic, when they came to be seen as out-of-touch and uncaring. Support for a Dutch republic went up from 15 to 25 per cent, especially more among the young. But while the Oranjes have not found the magic formula for royal survival, they do seem better placed than the Windsors. To begin with, Dutch media respect the royals’ privacy. There is no market for the almost psychopathically cruel attacks the British tabloids indulge in. Asked how the Oranjes would react to the treatment meted out to the Windsors by the Daily Mail and the Sun, long-time royal reporter Marc van der Linden says: “they would quit. Of their own accord. They would say: ‘this is unworkable.’”

Royal families have no influence over their country’s media landscape. But they do decide on their own size and organisation. Where the British court is still vast, the Dutch court has been winnowed to a handful of people. More importantly, the Dutch court is centralised, meaning no separate households with competing power centres. At the same time, public relations have been brought under democratic control. The royal family has no PR department, relying instead on the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst or RVD, the prime minister’s communications department. All media requests go through the RVD, dramatically reducing the scope for mishaps, gaffes or competition between royals. The idea that a BBC camera crew would be smuggled into the palace to record a covert interview, as happened with Diana in 1995, is hard to imagine in the Netherlands.

Another advantage for the Oranjes is that King Willem-Alexander is not the head of a church that disapproves of gay marriage or has issues with trans and related issues. Add to this the damage done to the Windsors’ standing among ethnic minorities and the young after Meghan Markle’s allegations of racism, and the loss of support—especially among women—after Prince Andrew was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl. 

These are not the only Windsor own goals. To Dutch eyes, it is inconceivable that Elizabeth has not already abdicated. Even popes need no longer serve until their deaths. By timing her retirement at the age of 75 in 2013, Beatrix was able to create stability in Willem-Alexander’s life, who also knew that he would not be assuming the throne when devastated by the death of his mother.

Many experts in the Netherlands observe an emotional wasteland at the heart of the Windsors

But would Charles be devastated by the death of his mother? Many experts in the Netherlands observe an emotional wasteland at the heart of the Windsors. “The British monarchy can hardly be called progressive, let alone gender neutral,” says Monica Soeting, former editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Life Writing and biographer of the late 19th-century Dutch Queen Emma. “As a consequence, Elizabeth faces demands that are virtually impossible to reconcile. As Queen she has to embody traits that have traditionally been ascribed only to men: authority, stoicism and independence. But as a wife, mother and grandmother Elizabeth is expected to be passive, homely and caring. How can you possibly embody both these things at the same time?”

Elizabeth seems to have been better at playing monarch than being a nurturing parent. Charles appears to have grown into an emotionally stunted and deeply damaged man, unable to connect with his children and beset by jealousy. Willem-Alexander seems unperturbed when crowds respond more positively to his wife Maxima than to him. As Maxima’s biographer Marcia Luyten says: “the King is genuinely proud that such a popular, glamorous woman would choose him for a husband.” Compare that to Charles’s notorious comment that, given Diana’s connection with ordinary people, “it would have been far easier to have had two wives to cover both sides of
the street.”

Willem-Alexander had a difficult time as a teenager, causing him to finish secondary school in Wales. As he famously put it in an interview for his 18th birthday (a tradition in the Netherlands): “look, I didn’t think of myself as difficult. My parents did not think of themselves as difficult. But we did consider each other difficult.” He seems to have found his feet since. By all accounts his marriage is happy. Maxima, originally from Argentina, has quickly learned to speak better Dutch than even the Francophone King of Belgium, and her involvement in financial affairs is serious. It is difficult to see Prince William’s wife Kate showing similar interests or seriousness.

The Oranjes have shown how a monarchy can shrink. The Dienst van het Koninklijk Huis (Service of the Royal House), containing both the civil unit and the military unit, comprises around 300 people—compared with 2,500 members of the Royal Household. Three palaces have been put at the disposal of the Oranjes, in addition to at least three more private residences. The comparable British figure is 23. There are 10 members of the Oranje royal house, only three of whom receive a yearly stipend. There are 13 working members of the UK royal family. The other Dutch royals have proper jobs: they don’t live in palaces and their children go to the same schools as everyone else. (There are almost no private schools in the Netherlands.) Marc van der Linden has followed both monarchies for over 30 years. Asked about the one key difference between the two royal families, van der Linden said, without skipping a beat: “The Oranjes are intelligent. The Windsors are not.”