His rising popularity reveals a paradox at the heart of Holland's liberalism
That the US should have elected as president someone like Donald Trump came as a shock. But the US is a strange country, given to periodic outbursts of political madness — though perhaps never quite as mad as this. That the Dutch, often caricatured as pragmatic, bourgeois, phlegmatic, business-minded, tolerant and perhaps a little boring, might in March pick a party led by a vulgar rabble-rouser with dyed blond hair to be the biggest in the land is more surprising. But the rise of Geert Wilders, leader (and only official member) of the Freedom party, shows how populism is sweeping across the Netherlands too. Wilders was one of the main attractions at the recent far-right jamboree in Koblenz, where he hailed Brexit, Donald Trump and what he called the Patriotic Spring in Europe.
The old business-minded Netherlands, always seeking middle-of-the road consensus, still exists, of course, epitomised by the conservative prime minister, Mark Rutte — but even he is trying to adapt to the popular mood. This week, as part of his election campaign, he took out a full-page ad saying that people who ‘refuse to adapt, and criticise our values’ should ‘behave normally or go away’.
It was the panic of a politician realising, perhaps too late, that he had not done enough to stop a populist challenger. Wilders’s party has a one-page manifesto that proposes clos- ing mosques, banning the Quran and turning asylum-seekers away. Polls suggest that at the election in seven weeks’ time, it could well finish first. Under the Dutch system, this might not make him prime minister — but PM or not, he will dominate the national conversation.
To understand how and why, and what is stirring in the Netherlands, you need to understand Geert Wilders’s background. Wilders is the opposite of the stolid Dutch cartoon. He is crass, loud, intolerant and not boring at all. The weird dyed-blond bouffant is less trivial than it may seem. Like Trump’s combover, it is an eccentricity that sets him apart from more conventional technocrats and professional politicians; and that is precisely the point. His fans want him to be as different from the mainstream as possible.
Like so many chauvinistic blowhards, in the past as now, Wilders hails from the margins of national life. He grew up in the southern province of Limburg, whose people are traditionally Roman Catholic, often resentful of the more cosmopolitan coastal areas, and economically lagging since their coal-mines closed in the 1980s.
So Wilders’s main platform, based on the premise that Islam, practised by about 4 per cent of the Dutch population, poses a mortal threat to European civilisation, is rooted in a particular national past. Old colonial wounds are now projected on people who are mostly of Moroccan origin. In 2014, Wilders asked his supporters whether they wanted ‘more Moroccans, or less’ in the Netherlands. ‘Less!’ came the reply. All right, said Wilders, ‘We’ll fix that.’ He was prosecuted for hate speech as a result, and found guilty, but somewhat oddly, not punished for it. His defenders claimed that Wilders had only referred to a national and not an ethnic or religious group, and so couldn’t be guilty of hate speech, but this was rather to miss the point. The ‘Moroccans’ in this case were Dutch citizens. And besides, Wilders has compared the Quran with Hitler’s Mein Kampf and threatened mass deportations of Muslims.
Why should Wilders’s demons have found such resonance in a prosperous, stable and indeed very bourgeois country? Why would enough Dutch citizens seem to share his noxious politics to cause such an upset? To be sure, Muslims are not the only targets of his scorn. Wilders is prone to switch from anti-Islamic polemics to diatribes against the European Union. He has persuaded a large number of people, by no means all from rural Limburg, that ‘Brussels’ and Islam are threatening Dutch identity. And this destruction, in his view, is aided and abetted by the cosmopolitan elites in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague.
Much of this rhetoric would sound familiar in other European countries, not least England. The stresses of global economics, technological change and sclerotic political arrangements, national as well as European, have affected the Netherlands too. Like other populist leaders, Wilders has tapped into a variety of anxieties and conjured up the requisite scapegoats.
There is nonetheless something peculiar about the Dutch case. For the other cliché about Holland, apart from pragmatism etc, is that it was the most socially progressive country in Europe. Remember the brilliant comedy sketch by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse (who is half-Dutch) about the two gay policemen in Amsterdam smoking pot in their patrol car? A joke, of course. But radical liberalism, about which some Dutch people have tended to feel a bit smug, has in fact something to do with the specific nature of the populist reaction.
Even though the bulk of Wilders’s supporters are both provincial and conservative, he uses Dutch social tolerance as a stick to beat up Muslims. Islam is a threat to our civilisation because its believers supposedly hate homosexuals and don’t treat their women as equals. That the same was true of most Dutch people not so long ago is no longer considered relevant. His predecessor as a successful populist, the late Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated by a fanatical vegan (with a Pentecostal British mother), was homosexual himself and bragged about having sex with Moroccan immigrants in the ‘back rooms’ of gay bars in Rotterdam.
But there is a more profound reason why progressive ideals are linked to today’s nativism. Not long ago, the primary identification of most Dutch people was not with their nationality but with their beliefs. Dutch society rested on so-called pillars, vertical social-political-economic networks built around religious or political affiliations. Protestants didn’t marry Catholics, or even shop in stores owned by people of the other faith. From cradle to grave, life was organised along these lines. A Catholic went to Catholic schools, joined Catholic sports clubs, voted for the Catholic party, retired in Catholic nursing homes, and so forth. The same was true for the various Protestant denominations, and indeed even the socialists. From a secular liberal milieu myself, I barely ever met a practising Calvinist or a Catholic when I grew up in the Hague. And the only socialists I knew were upper-class eccentrics.
The pillars began to crumble in the 1960s, along with so much else that we considered to be fusty and oppressive. Churches emptied. The influence of Christian parties shrank, or disappeared entirely. Intermarriage became more and more common. To be progressive, in effect, was to join in the destruction of the pillars.
This was liberating, but, like all social change, it had unintended consequences. As the traditional forms of identity faded, more and more people began to feel cast adrift, especially in such conservative rural areas as Limburg. The monarchy and the national soccer team offered some solace, but except during World Cup matches with Germany, this was not really enough. Urban liberals, still inspired by European idealism and haunted by bad memories of Nazi occupation, were hyper-conscious of the dangers of racial prejudice. This made them less than receptive to the need among less privileged fellow citizens for a renewed sense of belonging.
It all came to a head in the 1990s, by which time industrial ‘guest workers’, recruited in the 1960s from poor villages in Turkey and Morocco, were no longer guests, but had become Dutch citizens with extended families. Their presence could no longer be ignored. Pim Fortuyn exploited the resulting tensions. A more mainstream conservative politician named Frits Bolkestein also gave a sympathetic hearing to the grumbling, as he put it, in ‘church and pub’. Bolkestein’s protégé and speechwriter in the 1990s was an up-and-coming young man named Geert Wilders.
In 2004, Wilders broke away from Bolke-stein’s conservative party, the VVD. He started a movement dedicated to purging the Netherlands of its Muslim Problem. But he went further than Fortuyn or Bolkestein ever did. He is not only at war with Islam and ‘Brussels’, but also with the entire established political order. Wilders has denounced the independent judiciary as a ‘phony judiciary’, and parliament, in which he has served for many years, as a ‘phony parliament’.
This makes him a dangerous figure, rather like the new American president he professes to admire. For he is deliberately undermining the legitimacy of parliament and the rule of law. Islamist extremism needs to be taken seriously, of course. But despite the name of his so-called Freedom party, I would say that Wilders poses the greater threat to his country’s political institutions. His success would be a sad day for one of the oldest democracies in Europe.