Dutch “Liberal” VVD cosying up to the Tories and distancing itself from “European” Liberals

vvdIn the past week, attentive British citizens could see a clear divide opening up between the two Dutch ALDE member parties, the EU-enthusiasts and Social Liberals (in Beveridge’s tradition) D66, and the populist (see the enduring stature of prominent ex-leaders like Hans Wiegel) VVD.

On Monday, a short furore erupted in the British tabloid media over conversation notes gleaned from the writing pad of a Tory political assistant coming out of Downing Street 10 (or 9: the Brexit Department). She was the assistant of Tory party vice-chairman (International) Mark Field, and she and Field were accompanying foreign visitors who obviously had had a meeting about Brexit. The notes appeared to suggest that the Tory Brexit strategy is as Boris Johnson sometime brags: “have your cake and eat it”. Nobody asked or mentioned who those foreigners were: the leader, Mr. Halbe Zijlstra, and Foreign Affairs spokesman, Mr. Han ten Broeke, of the VVD parliamentary party.

Dutch voters well remember that VVD party leader (since 2006), and present coalition prime minister, Mark Rutte had a warm personal and ideological (“Green Right”) bond with David Cameron as party leader and prime minister; obviously that bond has been continued with Theresa May’s party leadership. Although the VVD at present is a coalition party in the Dutch government, and looks set to return in the coalition after the March 2017 general elections, it isn’t that normal for leaders from any foreign parliamentary party to get to visit Downing Street (9, 10 or 11). When news of this visit appeared in the Dutch “Telegraaf” newspaper, nobody said anything about the VVD top brass visiting the struggling LibDems, to support them.

On Friday December 2nd, the LibDems celebrated their victory after the Richmond by-election campaign which we framed with the motto: “No Evacuation without Representation” (=Commons mandate for implementing Article 50). Congratulations to all concerned, by the way. The LibDems clearly demonstrated their undiminished EU-enthusiasm, and abhorrence of the Brexit folly, which turns out to be an “unmanageable beast” (Bagehot, Economist) for the unprepared British government. D66 has remained just as pro-European, despite our reversal in the Dutch Spring 2016 Referendum on the EU Association Treaty with Ukraine (in that campaign prime minister Rutte made just one TV appeal to vote yes; that was the entire campaign effort by the VVD party machine; D66 had thousands of canvassers and activists on the street).

On Saturday, at the big ALDE conference in Warsaw, Mr. Rutte made a speech as VVD party leader, which exposed the inconsequent VVD line on European politics:

  • he explicitly emphasized the ideological divide between VVD and D66 on Europe, calling us “dreamers on even further integration”, who weren’t listening to the worries and concerns of average citizens about mass immigration and EU federalization.
  • But at the same time he demanded much more EU federal diplomacy, making treaties with Egypt and Morocco to return African migrants risking their lives on the Mediterranean (without increasing the EU development aid for the Sahel countries those migrants are fleeing from, seeking a decent living standard and remittances to their families; the VVD is fiercely against altruistic “Development Aid” to the Third World).

Unbeknown to his ALDE audience, Rutte was also dead wrong on D66 not listening to the worries and grievances of ordinary people (and he knew it!). The biggest Dutch media event of the past week was the 8 minutes monologue (without autocue, from the heart) on Wednesday  of 85 years old former D66 party leader Jan Terlouw on the popular evening TV talkshow DWDD. Terlouw was an active politician in the years 1967-’82, but most young people know him from his still widely read factional or parable-like youth books like Winter in Wartime about a boy in the Nazi occupation (1940-’45), and “How to become king”, a political manifesto (on disarmament and pollution, amongst others) in parable, fantasy form.

As he has done all through his career, Terlouw expressed his concern about Climate Change and about the immaterial side of building up and living in the Welfare State. He reminded older viewers how up to the mid-1960’s, people let dangle a cord from their letterboxes so children could get home (Dutch women started working part-time in droves from that era). This symbolized the trust amongst people in that age, Terlouw said; and governments (even if you were in opposition) enjoyed the same trust from citizens. Terlouw contrasted that to the social distrust in present Western European societies; and how Populists (Trump!) enhance distrust in all governments whatever they do. He appealed to politicians to help restore that trust (Mr. Rutte had made foolish promises in his 2012 re-election campaign, as he recently acknowledged), and said “I don’t mind myself, I’ve had a good life, but (pointing to a row of young people in the studio audience) I do it, we should do it for them, for their and our future”.

This monologue instantly went viral on all possible social media; and at his weekly Friday press conference as prime minister, Rutte acknowledged these points from Terlouw. In 40 years of active politics (from my student days), I never heard a comparable monologue from any VVD speaker; Terlouw made me a lifelong D66 activist.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • Andrew Martin 5th Dec '16 - 5:11pm

    This weekend I had the privilege of being able to attend ALDE Congress where a VVD speaker during one of the debates reaffirmed that he wanted text to refer to 28, not 27 Member States as he hoped Britain would remain a member.

  • Simon mcgrath 5th Dec '16 - 5:13pm

    This appears to be carrying on some obscure ideological battle in dutch politics in, for some reason, LDV.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Dec '16 - 5:23pm

    Sorry , Bernard but your usual fairness leaves you here. You are a member of the D66, but VVd are also colleagues in ALDE and Liberal International, and thus we , at least a number of us , members of a Liberal and Democratic party in the UK , as with you , as a member too, are inclined to be of various and nuanced views on the EU , and offer a more balanced judgement!

    The policies of the VVd are not necessarily to my liking at all times , and as I am not Dutch , despite following with interest many parties in Europe and elsewhere, I do not claim to be an adherant of any one. But the quote of Rutte was far nearer my view on the institutional homogenisation that is the norm of the too often present EUrophilia! The EU needs reform to mean more flexibility not more federalism !Iam an EUpragmatist. In Holland I would be equidistant between D66 and VVd on some issues.

    Any party this week in which it emerges that in one year previous to this , we had higher immigration than ever, who do not adapt policies and deal with it as an issue of concern is more than full of dreamers. It is one of at least some , fantasists !

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Dec '16 - 5:24pm

    Yes, I agree with Simon McGrath.

    Bernard’s articles have been sometimes helpful, but …

    I am a probably definable as a social democrat / social liberal, and would probably be taking my vote to D66 were I Dutch, but both VVD and D66 are sister parties of ourselves in ALDE and deserving of a little bit of respect; there is a limit and I think this article is overstepping it.

    What about if Alliance opened up shop in the Irish Republic, and then Caron or another editor of this blog wrote an article calling on LibDems active in Ireland to vote for them over Fianna Fail?

    Maybe it’s something to do with ALDE conference. First Guy Verhofstadt in the Guardian, and now this.

    Bernard, we know you are sceptical of VVD. We know you have an election coming. We know the stakes are high, and that clearly there is no love lost between the two parties. We know Tim Farron has ben fairly explicit that he personally regards the LibDems as instinctively closer to D66.

    Many of us wish you well. But this is not entirely seemly.

    Where’s Mark Valladeres, when you need him?

    (Ironically, I’m learning more about European politics post-Brexit than I ever knew beforehand!)

  • paul barker 5th Dec '16 - 5:27pm

    I know almost nothing about Dutch politics & this article doesnt help, perhaps we could have a seies of articles on the wider background, the history of D66 & VVE ? Or VVE could be invited to put their side of things ?
    I dont see anything odd about delegations from across Europe turning up in Downing St wanting to know whats going on, I would like to know too.

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Dec '16 - 5:35pm

    Paul – I’d second that; there are several elections coming next year (and possibly some major ructions in Italy, now) where it would be useful to have potted histories of Liberalism in the relevant country…

    The articles by Hannah from Spain last year were helpful.

    As I realise Europeanism is something that needs a case making for it, I realise how much more I need to know (as I said above)…

  • Noorderling 5th Dec '16 - 6:25pm

    I Can assure you: it’s not just the people in Britain that fail to see much of a difference between D66 And VVD. D66 is practically the third coalition partner in the current Dutch government

  • Steve Comer 5th Dec '16 - 8:10pm

    WE all need to understand that party structures are not identical in different countries, but D66 has always been closer to the UK Liberal Democrats than the VVD. D66 has always been very strong on civil liberties, and wanting a strong European dimension. I dount many of its members would fit into the UK Conservative Party, whereas many in the VVD would probably feel more comfortable there than in the Lib Dems.

    I’m please Bernard has written this article, and would like to see more from D66 on this forum.

  • Bernard Aris 5th Dec '16 - 8:37pm

    Simon, Matt,

    a two-part reply to explain my ideological and party-political point.

    what you call an “obscure” ideological battle is not only playing out in the Netherlands, but
    *) is also playing out, even starker, in Denmark; and
    *) has plagued the old British Liberal Party from 1931 up to the 1960’s (the “National Liberals”, from 1945 a figleaf poster name for crypto-Tories, as Marot Asquith remarked in her “back-end of the Tory Pantomime horse” remark in 1956), and hindered the Grimond-era Liberal resurgence just as much as Owens rump SDP did the LibDems in their startoff year.
    *) It also played in Italy (1946-1994) with the rightist “Liberali” PLI and the social-liberal “Repubblicani” PRI of La Malfa (until Berlusconi obliterated the postwar party system); and
    *) in many other countries previously (Weimar and Imperial Germany; the Netherlands 1884-1946).

    In Denmark you always had two liberal parties: Venstre (right-of-center Liberal) and Radikale Venstre (Social liberal, inspired by the progressive “Radical” parties in France in 1874-1958). The Venstre party has led two minority governments with support from the racist, anti-imiigrant and violently anti-muslim Danisch Peoples Party (DF, see Wikipedia). That support hasn’t been tacit: they loudly claimed victory every time an anti-immigrants law or amendment was passed, and when Denmark resisted taking its fair share of Syrian refugees last year.
    DF supports Taiwan like Trump appears to do, not Mainland China; it wants out of the EMU and is forever harping about loss of Danish sovereignty in the EU. All the while its only too happy to stay out of proper government responsability. Its immigration laws got criticized by the Council of Europe and the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.
    DF is a close ally and soulmate of Geert Wilders, and both use discriminatory, demeaning terminology that is seeping into normal Dutch/Danish discourse insidiously (Wilders “Polish Alarm helpline” would be unacceptable in Britain with its big postwar Polish population).

  • Bernard Aris 5th Dec '16 - 9:04pm

    On the other side you have Radikale Venstre, which always refused to do deals with the monocultural, Lutheran-white values-hugging DF. The Radikals were led from 2007 by Margarethe Vestager, who inspired the main character in the Danish TV polit-drama series “Borgen” (see Wikipedia; “House of Cards” in a European coalition politics system).
    It was Vestager who pointed to the linguistic poisoning by Wilders and DF, and got a 10-minute standing ovation at the 2009 D66 party conference where she spoke impressively. And she is no romantic pushover either: as minority coalition partner, she put through swingeing but necessary social cuts after Denmark got hit by the banking- and EMU crisis; Danish newspapers called her more powerful than the prime minister. We at D66 like her style!
    After presenting a Keynesian budget to get Denmark moving again, she in 2014 became Junckers Competition Commissioner in the EU, pursuing Google, Starbucks and (for good balance) Gazprom and FIAT.
    The differences between Venstre and the at times pacifist Radikalen are even starker than those between VVD and D66 (now both committed to reinforcing European state budget support for NATO).

    In both the 1890’s and the 1930’s economic crises, help and education for the European poor and unemployed came not from the rightist Liberals, but from the Beveridgean/Keynesian Social Liberals; a different inheritance for two wings of the multicolor Liberal political stream.

    Some “obscure”, Scholastic dispute indeed; it goes to the heart of what it means to be Liberal…

  • Floating voter 5th Dec '16 - 9:46pm

    Shouldn’t liberals prefer Taiwan to Communist China?

  • Bernard,
    It’s good to have these historical insights. I am puzzled by your quote “back-end of the Tory Pantomime horse”. Was the attribution intended to be to Margot Asquith who died in 1945? Or was it her step daughter Violet?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 5th Dec '16 - 10:36pm

    Bernard, as our commentator , floating voter says, we should be supporting Taiwan !

    Even if they didn’t have a new , female , Liberal Democrat , elected president and colleague in Liberal International, I would say the best thing ever just about, heard from Trump , is the taking of her call, because she is elected ! The fact she is all I said and more and no post has ever been written about her on here , but we have minutiae of Holland baffles !

  • Bernard Aris 5th Dec '16 - 11:28pm

    @John Payne

    I humbly stand corrected for wrongly quoting from memory, it was indeed Violet Bonham Carter (born: lady Asquith), and it was in support of her son Mark Bonham Carter, standing in the Torrington by-election in 1958 (against the son of the late MP, a “National Liberal”,standing as a NatLib).
    Nonetheless it makes my (and lady Bonham Caerters) point about the NatLibs spoiling the Liberal image of the Liberals…

    Because the Tories and “National Liberal Party” of Lord Teviot (Charles Kerr) formally merged (on constitcy level) in 1947, the use of the logo “National Liberal” or “Liberal National” thereafter was a clear attempt to mislead voters (see Wikipedia on the : National Liberal Party”). After 1964 the Tories abandoned the stratagem of fielding NatLibs…

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Dec '16 - 10:01am


    I recognise that there are different Liberal streams in many countries (as someone who over a decade ago, as a student, wrote a Master’s thesis about the continuance of the formulation of the ‘Whig’ identity within the Gladstonian Liberal party of the 1880s), and as I say I cleave rather more to the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum myself.

    I am happy to be finding out more about D66. It sounds the sort of party I would like to be in.

    The problem for me here is that you seem to be arguing that VVD are ‘illegitimate’ liberals, rather than liberals you happen to disagree with.

  • Mike Johanson 6th Dec '16 - 1:58pm

    VVD is not “Liberal” it is definitely Liberal, and has always been center-right and included a strain of conservative liberalism.

    I don’t get how this is suddenly coming as a surprise.

  • Bernard,
    On a point of detail, Mark Bonham Carter’s main opponent at the famous 1958 Torrington by-election was Anthony Royle who stood as a Conservative and subsequently represented Richmond from 1959 to 1983. So presumably lady Violet was referring to George Lambert, the previous incumbent.
    The 1958 by-election resulted after George Lambert inherited a peerage. He had followed his father, also George Lambert, when first elected in 1945 to the predecessor constituency of South Moulton that GL snr. had held since 1891, except when he lost to a unionist from 1924 to 1929, as a Liberal and then from 1931 to 1945 as Liberal National. GL jnr. sat as a National Liberal from 1945 to 1958. In his case, maybe it was reasonable to retain the description as to do otherwise would have implied that he had changed his political views.
    The Conservatives under the leaderships of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan were not then the narrow, nasty and regressive party they have become now.

  • Bernard Aris 7th Dec '16 - 8:29pm

    @ John Payne

    My source was the me4moirs of Jeremy Thorpe, “In my own time”, and he wasn’t exactly clear about the 1958 Torrington line-up.

    I totally agree about the Tories; Disraeli had quite a continuing battle on his hand to reassemble the Tories after the Peel & Gladstone splits. And the crossing of the aisle by Liberals like Joseph Chamberlain and later Winston Churchill didn’t help to increase a homogenous stand on all issues…

    Kenneth Clarke is the last vestige of the Edward Heath-subcurrent; let’s hope the Brexit faction gets such a battering from reality in the coming 21 (3+18) months that that subcurrent gets a revival.

  • Bernard Aris 7th Dec '16 - 8:47pm

    The difference between Rightist- and Social Liberals inside ALDE, also mentioned in the posting by Rosina Robson (above, on december 7th) on the ALDE Conference (some parties present wishing the Libdems and Britain as a whole to “get on with it and leave”; others joining the LibDem positions, for example that Britain belongs in Europe and thus in the EU, and on intervening about the Yemen bloodbath) clearly shows that my point that European Liberals are a two-lane street with a separation is far from “obscure” or a “Dutch-only” problem.
    It directly affects the LibDem position and impact in European politics, both in ALDE and in general.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Dec '16 - 10:33am

    Bernard, I think in writing my original comment as a ‘me too’ to Simon McGrath’s point, I have allowed you to put Simon’s words into my mouth and obscured my main concern.

    1) In retrospect, I now understand from what you post above this is not an ‘obscure’ argument, and you are concerned that there is a split developing (or rather, continuing) in international Liberalism, see the LibDems as firmly on the same side of the split as yourselves in D66, and wish to bring this to LibDem attention via LibDemvoice. Therefore, you wish to counter liberal elements who feel a deal can be done with conservative-minded anti-European and anti-immigrant populist sentiment, and call us into the fight as allies.

    2) My concern remains really about tone and the way you bring your argument to bear. You seem to be arguing (or at least implying) that the VVD are illegitimate liberals who should either shut up or leave either ALDE or the Liberal International, and that LibDems should be prepared to campaign actively against fellow-liberal parties, in their own nations.

    3) I should not have phrased myself in a way that you could hear as saying ‘we do not wish to hear about Dutch politics’; rather I meant to say ‘please do not assume that we are obliged to take sides in a polemical battle within Dutch Liberal politics’. I think a more moderate tone from you, as in your previous pieces, would have convinced more.

    4) I largely think I agree with you on what Liberalism can mean in the current crisis, what I am concerned about, is that the way you wrote your piece seemed to assume that (as a LibDem) I was _obliged_ to agree with you.

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