Dutch Lessons

The World Cup started in a normal fashion for me this year. The team I was supporting didn’t have high expectations – but then they went and beat the reigning champions 5-1 in the opening game, and my world was turned upside down: I was living in a country that actually believed it could win the competition. In the end, the Oranje had to make do with a second successive semi final – and their fifth overall: not bad for a country with a fraction of the population of the other semi finalists.

Now, those of you familiar with Dutch football, having read Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War; or David Winner’s Brilliant Orange would have recognised the tactical astuteness and versatility that brought Louis van Gaal’s unheralded elftal so far: their determination and abilities underlined by the performance of veteran Dirk Kuijt, usually a striker, but who played in some five or six positions over the course of the tournament. The manager, now moved on to Manchester United, is direct, headstrong and has an unshakeable faith in his own abilities, along with a terrible tan: embodying the best virtues of the Dutch nation, and also its football team.

Students of Dutch football history will know that they weren’t always this great: the Eredivisie only became fully professional in the late 1960s, as a new era was heralded by the Ajax Amsterdam club, and a young man from the working class Jordaan district, Johan Cruijff. How did they change it around so quickly? Simon Kuper has a theory he puts forward in Soccernomics: Because the Netherlands was such a small country, with no real league of its own, coaches and players were forced to go abroad to find work, to the largest European leagues at the time.

They came back having learned from the different footballing cultures they had encountered, and assimilated them into their styles back home. The 1970s were also a time when the Netherlands began to receive TV signals from abroad, and thus Match of the Day on the BBC, and its German equivalent, were beamed into homes, long before the age of satellite television. Smallness, and having to look beyond their borders was transformed from a strength into a weakness.

It’s a common thread throughout Dutch history. That famously flat landscape is also very easy to invade, and a tiny upstart has been frequently at war with its three large neighbours: England, France and Germany. It was unsustainable, and so the Dutch developed a culture of balancing their larger neighbours’ interests, trading and keeping friendly relations with them all. These flat lands are also exceptionally vulnerable to flooding, from its rivers and from the sea: but you rarely see any anymore, because these crafty Dutch decided to build the world’s largest system of flood defences, a modern wonder of the world. On the way became the world experts in water management – after the recent flooding in Somerset, the UK government’s first call was across the North Sea.

The more you look into it, the relative smallness of the Netherlands hasn’t held it back at all. It has turned vulnerabilities into strengths in many other ways too. The port of Rotterdam in the busiest in Europe, and fourth busiest in the world. Schipol airport is the fourth busiest, with seven runways, and connections for passengers and freight all over the world. It’s the world’s fifth largest exporter, and the Dutch are incredibly the world’s seventh biggest foreign investors, despite being only 61st in terms of population. I could go on, but you get the point.

Somehow, a small country, vulnerable to flooding, and with hardly any natural resources has become the fourth most developed state in the world, the most international, the thirteenth richest…yet incredibly, they work the fewest hours on the continent (29), and take some of the longest holidays each year – thanks to a system which ensures that flexible working, especially for women, is the norm.

I’m writing this on the very morning I return to Scotland to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum next month. I’ve seen the frustration from friends on social media, and from other undecided or no voters, about the way that Yes Scotland frequently asserts that things will automatically be better, or that they bang on too much about how great it is to live in a small country, as if Northern Europe is Alex Salmond’s own private Narnia. Maybe these nay-sayers have a point, but I find it hard to see, because I’ve been living in a country like that for almost 2 years.

This point came crashing up to me when I was sitting in the dressing room at half time during a match for my Saturday football team. We were actually playing against Dirk Kuijt’s first club, the wonderfully named ‘Quick Boys’ from Katwijk, a shabby fishing port-cum-tourist resort near where I live in Leiden. The club had invested the money from his transfers wisely, and we were sitting in a spanking new dressing room in a huge complex built to house on of the 30 (!) or so adult teams that this small club from a small town was able to field every Saturday. As I looked around at my teammates, smoking, and talking about their hangovers, I realised that, despite the myth, the Dutch weren’t genetically programmed to be great footballers – they’d embraced knowledge and techniques from all over the world, and then gone out and built the facilities and the clubs, from the bottom up.
And its not just football. The Dutch have produced world class speed skaters, track stars, cyclists and tennis players, and their hockey and volleyball teams have won world championships and Olympic golds recently too. Size is not a barrier to ambition: in sport, in the economy, or in creating excellent infrastructure. And when your nose is small enough to see past the end of it, that can be a good thing too.

The Dutch like to say about themselves ‘God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands‘. In Scotland, many still seem to be convinced that our terrible health outcomes, rampant inequality and consistently terrible football team is just God’s idea of a joke. Maybe I’ve let my love of the Netherlands blind me to how terrible a place it really is – and after all, what can we learn from a generally post-religious but formerly Calvinist majority / Catholic minority country with crap weather, a proud reputation for stinginess, and terrible cuisine revolving around sugar, fried things and worship of the potato?

A shorter version of this article first appeared on scotspolitics.com on 21 August 2014.

No Nationalism Please – We’re British

They say you should never meet your heroes – they never tell you the part about not listening to them talk about politics either. Last month, Simon Schama decided to turn his usually sensitive grasp of the sweep of time towards Scottish independence, or as he calls it ‘a catastrophe that somehow came about in our political sleep‘. (He has a way with words, that’s what I like about him)

In doing so, and repeating the same mantra this week, he illuminated a part of the #indyref that I’d been aware of, but unable to fully articulate, until recently – the fact that what is essentially a debate between two different nationalisms has been framed in such a way as to seem like the assault of a narrow (Scottish) nationalism on the ‘precious’, ‘splendid mess’ of (British) non-nationalism.

Most of the the discussion at present seems to be around whether Yes Scotland’s nationalism is either ‘ethnic’ or ‘civil’ (it is both, read Anthony Smith), after David Torrance’s elaborate piece of trolling in the Herald from April – a false battle which obscures the real point that no one is really discussing the debate as one between two nationalisms.

It only really hit me between the eyes when I read Schama describing ‘legions of die-stamp patriots – whether Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Scotland’s own first minister, Alex Salmond – for whom similarity is identity‘ being unable to appreciate the beauty of: ‘a nation state whose glory over the centuries has been precisely that it does not correspond with some imagined romance of tribal singularity but has been made up of many peoples, languages, customs, all jumbled together within the expansive, inclusive British home‘.

Here was a statement that I’d seen countless times, in different guises, but never presented as beautifully as this – a foundation myth, but a very modern, very British one. The United Kingdom is different, it says. It is a nation, but above nationalism. Now, as foundation myths go, it is pretty good, certainly more believable than the Hungarian one about Csodaszarvas, the magic deer and Turul, the giant falcon bringing the Magyars to Central Europe, but one that is as replete with the invented traditions or imagined communities that Hobsbawm and Anderson wrote about – and don’t just listen me, even the LSE politics blog got in on the act this morning.

What made me most upset was the fact that it was Simon Schama writing this – a man who is no slouch as a historian (some people think he’s terribly populist, just because he’s on the telly) letting his nationalist sentiments get in the way of the evidence. This is a man who knows that the UK isn’t unique as multicultural, inclusive jumble in Europe, because he first made his name writing about the French Revolution. A revolution that was of course the basis for popular sovereignty over divine rule, but it was indeed popular sovereignty over a land made of many peoples, languages and customs, that was still to be united.

He will surely have read Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen, about the struggle of the French Third Republic, after the farce of the Franco-Prussian war, to bring the assorted Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Occitain, Provençal and speakers of innumerable patois into an inclusive French home – an idea probably embodied best by General de Gaulle’s ‘How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?‘.

The more you read about large, modern nation states, the more you realise that they’ve all had a hard time making ‘E pluribus unum‘. I’m sure Schama knows this – he will have read about the difficulties of bringing Protestant Prussia and Catholic Bavaria into a united Germany, and how the most destructive nationalism in history was born in order to find a way to unite them around a singularly German gemeinschaft. He will know about the way Southern Italians feel betrayed that their once great capitals of Naples and Palermo saw their riches literally stripped and wheeled off to fill the coffers of a national, Italian, bank further north, laying the seeds of an inequality that exists to this day. Even (whisper it) ‘die-stamp patriots’ like Putin preside over diverse, multi-faith, multi-ethic states. And while he may be a chauvinist and a homophobe, I don’t think he’d give up Europe’s largest Muslim population to make a smaller Russia more ethnically Russian and Orthodox.

And while it would be correct to say that Scots in the United Kingdom are not like Tatars in the Russian Federation (because the Tatars get to keep more oil money, boom-boom), and I for one have been grateful that we have been held in a more benign grip, never tiring of reminding people when abroad that Scotland was never conquered by force, but willingly entered into an Act of Union. But the United Kingdom wasn’t even the first to do that – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth beat it by 30-odd years.

Now, I actually agree with David Torrance about our own little foundation myth – that an independent Scotland will be automatically a fairer place than at present. We must not be complacent in thinking that a rebranded Scottish right-of-centre party won’t gain more votes than its present incarnation – but I don’t agree with him when he said in that piece in April that ‘British Unionism…by and large, does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground.‘ The foundation myth that says the UK is above nationalism because it is, in some ways, supra-national, isn’t just occupying the moral high-ground, its building fortifications around the moral high-ground to make sure no one else can get onto it.

Critiques of nationalism tend to hit a brick wall when you consider that the world is solely composed of nation-states, and any attempt at finding an alternative has not ended well. That doesn’t make what Hobsbawm, or Gellner, or Anderson wrote any less true, because belief in, or a sense of belonging to a nation is irrational. Following that logic, sadness at the demise of a nation is just as irrational as loving that nation. That’s why I was so disappointed to read the article from Schama, and hear the same logic from others – because while I might expect such intellectual sloppiness from the @UKaForceForGood guy, I didn’t expect it from one of our greatest living Historians.

In short, we’re dealing with a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the future, against a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the past. Recently we’ve had the last two British Prime Ministers invoking the words of John Smith by saying that it is possible to be both Scottish, and part of something bigger, which, as British nationalists, they are bound to see the United Kingdom as. That that bigger United Kingdom is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world is unacceptable to me, and means I’ll be voting to be part of something smaller, but fairer. I get to be part of something bigger, because I want that fairer Scotland to be playing a full part in the European Union, not sniping from the cheap seats. That is my foundation myth – and I’m sticking to it.

A shorter version of this article appeared on scotspolitics.com on 14 July 2014

Weird Scenes in the Global City of Law

The saga of the international group of protesters stuck in a Russian jail after being detained on a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace mission is a fairly standard story of where the Netherlands likes to see itself in the world. This on-going narrative has been shaken recently, however, when a UN Human Rights Council report included the Netherlands among a select band of international human rights abusers, including Sudan, Burma and Iran. A follow-up letter was sent to the Dutch government to address the issue. The crime? Racism, and an infringement of minority rights, all centred around a character beloved of generations of Dutch children and adults.

Now, anyone who has stayed for more than a short time in the Netherlands knows the shock that accompanies meeting the man who has attracted the ire of the UN for the first time. Mine was just before deciding to come and stay here – as I was walking through Amsterdam and fantasising about cycling everywhere generally living the cosmopolitan Dutch dream, I passed through Dam Square and seemed to slip through a hole in the time/space continuum: for before my very eyes I saw a grown man, in full blackface, with exaggerated red lips and afro wig, dressed as a page-boy, dancing around excited children as he showered them with traditional sweets and pepernoten.

Many Nederlanders just shrug and give wry smile when asked about ‘Zwarte Piet’, but for those unacquainted with the story of ‘Black Pete’ it doesn’t get much better: In Dutch folklore, Sinterklaas comes from Spain on the 5th of December with his Moorish servant (now euphemistically referred to as a helper) and visits children – Pete is the comedy sidekick and sweet distributor.

These sort of tensions in that strange intersection between cultural heritage, colonial history and multi-cultural reality are part of the modern European experience. British readers will be aware of the ‘Winterval’ storm that blows up almost annually at this most special time of the year: but the reaction to this UN reversal of the Dutch internationalist narrative has been pretty remarkable, with more than a week of media outrage, a Prime-Ministerial statement and more than 2 million people (almost 15% of the population) signing up to a Facebook ‘Pete-ition’.

Before the current controversy, there had been previous (tentative) moves to address this strange anachronism, with suggestions that ‘Black’ Pete could be replaced by Petes of many colours, or even a ‘Rainbow-flag’ Pete. The Mayor of Amsterdam suggested another compromise: simply taking the garish red lips and afro wig away, would take the furore with it. While demonstrations were held all over the country at the weekend it was hoped that would be the end of it.

Except it wasn’t – in a disturbing, if somewhat absurd turn of events, a section of the Hague crowd of pro-Pete demonstrators confronted a lone woman protesting the situation in the former Dutch colony of West Papua and accused her of being part of the Anti-Pete conspiracy – seemingly because of the colour of her skin. As Christmas songs were sung in the background, she was jostled, jeered and struck as some tried to wrestle a flag, mistaken for an American one, from her grasp, before she was eventually asked by the Police to leave for her own safety.

If Zwarte Piet were standing on the Malieveld, where the incident took place, he could almost hit the US Embassy with his pepernoten. He could also hit any one of the innumerable other embassies, government buildings and offices of global firms which are to The Hague what container ships are to Rotterdam. While that city proudly gets its hands dirty being a conduit for all the goods of the world, and the capital skips along to its own cosmopolitan beat, the Hague has an efficient, transnational hum. There is probably no city in the world with such international clout for its size, with the UN, International Court, EuroPol and a plethora of Dutch and Global multinationals choosing to call it home – that such a parochial and distasteful scene could unfold here is remarkable.

Tilly Kaisiepo, the injured party, decided not to press charges, pointing out that she was effectively on the same side as the demonstrators. The longer term blow will be most likely to the old Dutch tolerance cliché, especially in a climate where notorious bandwagoneers the PVV are riding high in the polls.

Kasiepo was protesting against the UN taking an undue interest in an on-going domestic issue, over more pressing human-rights abuses by Indonesia. Prime Minister Rutte’s response was measured, if tautological: (Black Pete is black, we can’t change that) less so was the reaction of the UK government when criticised by the UN regarding the controversial ‘Bedroom Tax’.

Both governments, however, will now be wondering if these are isolated cases or the ‘new normal’, as emerging nations begin to gently push back in the face of Western weakness in global institutions. And what about Black Pete? After this weekend, he’s probably on the lookout for a new PR company.

This article first appeared in The Holland Bureau
on 3 November 2013