Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party, and CEO of Brexit Analytics.
The Dutch pride themselves on being ahead of the curve. When the curve was liberal, they were tolerant towards drug use and homosexuality before most other countries. We may think populism is exciting and new, but to them it’s old hat. Pim Fortuyn, a man of whom Milo Yannopolous is a vulgarisation, was murdered back in 2002, not by an Islamist but by a vegetarian extremist.
We haven’t come nearly so far. Our vegetarian extremists lead the Labour party. They make excuses for terrorism, but don’t commit it.
But in our excited projection of our own trends onto Dutch society we exaggerate its novelty and importance.
Geert Wilders, whose PVV party may well top the poll in next week’s elections, is a talented populist. He has been given every assistance by state institutions that construct a cult of martyrdom around him: they detained him for his own protection on a military base because of his attacks on Islam; they even prosecuted him for remarks against Moroccans that were considered to infringe hate speech laws (he said there should be “fewer” in the Netherlands). Yet his party struggles to exceed 20 per cent in the polls.
The Dutch have a purely proportional electoral system (like Israel used to) and this encourages small parties. But it also makes the identity of the single largest one much less important. In a country used to coalitions, being the biggest individual party doesn’t convey a right to govern. And if 75 or 80 per cent of the people vote for the others it’s hard to see how it could.
This isn’t to say the populists don’t appeal to genuine grievances, but the base of resentment is narrow and Prime Minister Mark Rutte has gone down the direction of assimilation – telling immigrants they must “act normal”, et cetera. To get Dutch citizenship, one must pass not just a language test but also a cycling test.
Other parties go in the opposite direction, so DENK – a pro-immigration party – plays up minority identity politics instead, while the liberals (there are two markedly different liberal parties) stick to their guns. In a sign that the British Labour party’s problems are due to more than Jeremy Corbyn’s ineptitude, only the Dutch social democrats seem paralysed, their urban and pro-immigrant and traditional working class supporters drifting off in opposite directions.
All now rule out coalition with Wilders. The centre-right VVD in particular were burned by giving Wilders the populists’ dream of a confidence and supply arrangement in 2010, giving him the power to bring the Government down, but no responsibility for its decisions.
The question now is not how he will do in elections but whether he will be able to exploit opposition to establish himself as the main alternative force. And that depends on how any new government deals with two issues as incendiary in the Netherlands as they are elsewhere: deindustrialisation and white men’s loss of status, and Islam.
The Netherlands is hardly the only country struggling with socially conservative but politically radical Islamic movements that demand political concessions they claim are due to them because of freedom to practice their faith. How does a society provide equal equal respect for a religion when many of its followers don’t think that women or gay people should be entitled to equal treatment? The Dutch answer – give each religion a separate “pillar” in which to develop its own social life, and have people mix at work and in politics – worked with a Catholic Church whose militancy was declining, but failed to integrate muslim communities in which the power of fundamentalism has been growing. Wilders asserts that Islam can’t possibly adapt to modern Dutch society, and it will be up to the new government to prove that enough assimilation is possible.
Deindustrialisation will be harder to fix. The jobs that used to give uneducated men income, social status, and a collective purpose aren’t viable in an economy as advanced as the Dutch. Wilders (who, like Le Pen but unlike Anglo-American populists, has significant support among sectors of the young) insists that protectionism can give them opportunities their fathers had and which, he falsely claims, immigrants are taking away. Though protectionism’s gains are illusory, nationalist ideology can supply a sense of common purpose that technocratic attempts to improve skills and opportunities can’t.
Wilders himself is unlikely to make the breakthrough he had hoped this time, but there is a sizeable minority of people from whom he will be able to draw support from some time.