Opinion: A liberal view from Holland

As someone who has listened to the BBC World Service since 1977, I am very aware of the evolution of the Liberals and their merger with the majority of the SDP, to form the Liberal Democrats. Since the ’80s, Dutch cable TV systems (which started in every city, but are now divided in three regional networks and nationwide) have broadcast BBCs 1 and 2, and since the ’90 BBC World is also available in many places. This has allowed many cosmopolitan-minded Dutchmen to become acquainted with the British political scene, and has deepened my own knowledge and understanding of Liberal and Lib Dem policies and personalities.

D66 or “Democrats ’66” was a party founded in 1966 to try and break (or at least transform) the mould of Dutch politics and Dutch democracy. We always were a party for Direct Democracy: direct election of every city’s mayor, every province’s governor, and of the prime minister who guides each Dutch coalition government.

D66 was and is also an ICT party, drawing attention (as early as the late ’60’s!) to the civic and administrative consequences of computer use by authorities and large companies; the privacy issue has always featured prominently in our arguments in this area.

D66 was prominent in the fight to legalize abortion in the Netherlands (as were the Liberals with David Steel): coalition politics made this a law brought about by the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the right-wing Liberals (VVD), and supported by the Social Democrats (PvdA) and us.

We really made our mark on medical-ethical issues with our Private Members’ Bill on legalizing a supervised version of euthanasia. As a visitor to some Lib Dem autumn conferences in the 90s I helped spread information about the Dutch law on this among Lib Dems and (via their conference broadcast) on the BBC. I wholeheartedly supported Ludovic Kennedy in his fight to get it accepted in the UK, and enthusiastically saw it adopted by the LibDems.

D66 was from the very start the most European-Federalist party of the Netherlands; we started out in 1966 by advocating direct elections for the European Parliament and allowing the UK to join the EC. The first was totally new; the second was already Dutch government policy in those days. The Dutch were mystified when Harold Wilson bowed to his orthodox party wing in holding a referendum once the UK had entered the EC; and were horrified by the Gaullist and ‘Little England’-line Thatcher and her ministers took in the ’80’s.

Like the Liberals, D66 has had a rocky electoral ride in the past 40 years, with many ups and downs. We were elected in the first directly elected European Parliament in 1979, but lost those seats in 1984. We re-entered in 1989, and soon joined the liberal ELDR fraction, where we joined the new Lib Dem MEPs. People like Lousewies van der Laan and Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst became, in the time they were our MEPs, well-known Dutch faces on British television on issues affecting Dutch pioneering policy (tolerating soft drugs like marjhuana; legalizing prostitution and euthanasia), and the Dutch take on European policy matters.

Our political high watermark came in 1994, when we took 24 out of the 150 seats in the Dutch Second Chamber (our directly elected Commons; our Senate is elected by the members of the provincial parliaments). After being in Dutch government coalitions for 80 years (longer than the Communists governed Russia), the Christian Democrats of the CDA were left outside by a coalition of D66, PvdA and VVD.

But our big gain in 1994 was due to the disarray CDA and PvdA were in at the time, so D66 never had that influence again. D66 has declined in our number of seats ever since; also because we never shrunk from accepting government responsibility to achieve at least some of our issues (direct democracy; euthanasia; ICT privacy).

The political shock wave the Populist Pim Fortuyn delivered to Dutch politics in 2002 also affected us; as did the unprecedented event of his murder by an Animal Rights activist that year. The party Fortuyn founded quickly disintegrated and has now disappeared, but its populism has infected Dutch politics permanently.

Globalization made orthodox Socialists and newborn Populists nervous and edgy; so they colluded in ensuring the Dutch voted ‘No’ by 64% in the D66-inspired Referendum on the European Constitution. The Social Democrats (PvdA) have seen a Socialist Party (SP) rise at its left wing and amongst trade union activists; and the debate about how to integrate Muslims in Dutch society led to Geert Wilders splitting off the VVD from the rightwing Liberals. Wilders founded his own Freedom Party, advocating a ban on the Qoran, and treating our Muslim and Carribean compatriots as second-class and/or untrustworthy citizens.

From the start, D66 – initially alone among Dutch parties – has opposed Wilders’ Populist, Lega Nord-like party through argument, and by showing how hollow his diatribes really are. This has helped us regain prominence despite our electoral decline – which shows signs of turning around to a revival in the polls.

Ever since the Dutch referendum on the EU Constitution, almost all Dutch parties have become more Euro-sceptical in their rhetoric and programs. All? No not all!. Like the small Gaulish village of the comic hero, Asterix, D66 has stuck to its European-Federalist guns. We fully endorse the Lib Dem argument that the UK needs to sort out once and for all its definitive attitude towards the EU and its federal policies, without forcing opt-outs and rebates by swinging handbags or by pouting.

D66 was just as mistrustful as the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell of the way those conjoined twins – Bush and Blair – spun and lied the western world into the war in Iraq. And D66 is forever pleading for a parliamentary inquiry into what was the reason for the then Dutch government – comprising the CDA, VVD and Fortuynists, supported by the PvdA opposition – offering “political support” to the Anglo-American invasion. But CDA, VVD, and now the PvdA too, is blocking such an inquiry for power-political and prestige reasons.

D66 is a Liberal and thus instinctively Internationalist party; but we opposed the way the Dutch joined other NATO countries and Australia in trying to establish a western-style government in the south of Afghanistan. We insisted on accepting this would be more of a military (‘fighting’) mission than a peaceful reconstruction mission; but just like the Blair government – whose defence secretary, ignoring three British-Afghan wars in 1857-1919, expressed the hope that “no shot would be fired” – the three big parties of Dutch politics, CDA, PvdA and VVD, insist on accentuating the Reconstruction aspect and minimizing the fighting part.

Now that a big parliamentary majority has supported the prolongation of the Dutch mission in the Uruzgan province, we of course support our troops in that dangerous theatre; but we are watchful to ensure that Dutch ISAF forces don’t exceed their mandate, and operate humanely and pragmatically: the ‘Dutch approach’.

Being Dutch, we always have had party leaders who could talk English. Now you have a Lib Dem
party leader whose Dutch mother taught him both the Dutch language and Liberal values, I think we should intensify our acquaintance. My aim is to communicate via Lib Dem Voice how we view European and international affairs, and to support you in the hard slog to keep the Federalist flag flying in the Commons debate about the EU Reform Treaty that has just begun.

Let me finish this long letter by wishing every reader of this website the very best for 2008; and let’s follow the men of Harleigh in breaking up not only the Tory but also the New Labour factions!

* Dr Bernard Aris, a historian by education but a ‘Social Liberal’ by lifelong conviction, has been a researcher for the D66 Parliamentary Party in the Second Chamber of the Dutch parliament (the equivalent of the Commons) for the past 18 years.

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16 Comments

  • Thankyou Bernard, a very interesting and informative article. More like this from our other European colleagues please.

  • Yes, very interesting. I heard Louisewies van der Laan speak a couple of times and I thought she was outstanding (isn’t there a connection bewtween her and Clegg from their student days?). Can’t agree with you about European Federalism though – there’s no appetite for this within the Liberal Democrats these days beyond a very small minority.

  • Peter Bancroft 23rd Jan '08 - 10:39am

    This is a great article.

    There are quite a few part Dutch members of the Lib Dems (including myself), and I’ve been a happy partner of D66’s youth wing since I was a teenager!

  • Terry Gilbert 23rd Jan '08 - 12:22pm

    Thanks, Bernard – I do hope that we in the Lib Dems keep our social liberal policies rather than going down the VVD route. Do please give us the benefit of your perspective on other topics on this forum. Comments on how the Dutch health or education systems works (or not!) compared to our own would be very valuable to our activists.

  • Is D66 still the official name? Might it not sound a little dated to new voters? Perhaps a name change is in order ….??!!

  • A very interesting article – thank you for writing it, thank you LDV for publishing, hopefully we will have more international Liberal views in the future.

    Most certainly agree with the European Federalism – we should be seeking to spread our Liberal values, and a strong, democratic EU is the best vehicle for doing this.

  • D66 hasn’t been very successful in few last General Elections, and the support of the VVD has been dropping, as well. Has there been any discussion about uniting the two Dutch liberal parties? I’d expect it would be easier now when such populists as Geert Wilders and Rita Verdonk have been dismissed from the VVD?

  • David Morton 23rd Jan '08 - 5:11pm

    Interesting and welcome. Could a thread of this international reports be commissioned?

  • Noorderling 23rd Jan '08 - 5:37pm

    Anonymous 3:36 The VVD-positions on many issues concerning integration and minorities vary very little from those taken by Wilders and Verdonk. Also on issues like the environment, roadbuilding and crime, the VVD position are very similar to those taken by the British Conservatives. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to take D66 very seriously.

  • Noorderling: “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to take D66 very seriously.”

    Do you mean that they can’t be taken seriously because of their size or because of their policy positions, or because they have brought down two governments they participated to?

    BTW, I think I have read some of your postings in Politicalbetting.com. Aren’t you a supporter of the PvdA yourself?

  • Ummm, I thought UK already has two liberal parties.

    But even with PR it doesn’t always make sense to have several liberal parties, if they can’t separately get enough support to get in the parliament. D66 got 3 seats of the 150 in last General Elections in 2006, 6 seats in 2003, 7 in 2002, 14 in 1998 and 24 in 1994. With that kind of development they won’t have any seats before long.

  • Noorderling 24th Jan '08 - 7:02am

    I’m a social Liberal, who in Britain would vote Lib Dem, but in the Dutch context voted PVDA in the past with a minimum of conviction. If there were elections tomorrow, i probably wouldn’t vote at all.
    I especially don’t take D66 very serious after their behaviour in 2006, when first they threatened to leave the government if it decided to pursue the Afghanistan-mission, but then backed down rather clumsily and then a few months left the government over a far less important point.

  • I see you note at the start of your piece the key point in Liberal Democrat history: the old Liberals joining some of the SDP to form the new party.

    For a party to be successful it requires a range of talents. The experience here in the UK suggests that it is necessary to have a core element of solid party political professionals (like the ex-SDP members of the Lib Dems) commanding a countrywide network of envelope stuffers and leaflet deliverers (as provided by the ex-Liberal contingent).

    It is crucial that each side plays to its strengths. The lessons of the SDP/Liberal Alliance are useful once more. For example, allowing the Liberals to make their own policy proved disastrous – witness their calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament at the height of the Cold War when Britain was living under mortal threat from the Soviet Union. The adverse impact on the opinion polls of this was predictable.

    Likewise, the professionals of the party should be placed in key positions at the centre of the management structure, and their skills and talents not wasted by requiring them to deliver leaflets and other mundane tasks.

    I hope this has been useful to you, it is always valuable to learn from the experiences of those in other countries.

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