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.


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