The Dutch consensus economy was never in danger in the twentieth century, not even when the Germans occupied the country in 1940-1945. On the contrary, there had never been so much consultation as when the leaders of the four pillars were taken captive by the German occupiers and interned together in Sint-Michielsgestel. And that is where the idea of the Doorbraak, ‘Breakthrough’, was born. Why not put an end to the old differences between the denominational and non-denominational parties and form one political party, giving businesses and the state a more active role, thus reducing the role of the pillar organizations? The ideology which bound all parties together – from right-wing to left-wing, from Roman Catholic to Protestant – was called ‘personalist socialism’ a purposefully vague ideology with which each group could identify.
Later, after the liberation of Netherland, it was proposed to continue with just two political parties: a conservative and a progressive party. The advantage would be that, as was the case in the United States and Great Britain, there would never have to be negotiations to form a coalition: government decisiveness would be enhanced. The defeat of the Allied Forces at Arnhem in 1944 meant that this plan could never be implemented. As a consequence of this defeat, it was the predominantly Catholic south that was liberated first. The Catholics there immediately organized themselves again along religious lines, and any hope of a reform of party politics was dashed. After the war, an attempt to keep alive the spirit of Sint-Michielsgestel, gave birth to the Labor Party but the consultation structures of pillarization turned out to be too deeply rooted for Labor to get a firm hold.
Although Netherland has never known a two-party system, a ‘breakthrough’ did take place, albeit in a more modest form. From 1945 to 1958, the denominational parties worked with the Labor Party on the post-war reconstruction of Netherland. Before World War II, the Socialists had consistently been kept out of government. Now, in the person of William Drees, they gave the country one of the most reputable Prime Ministers it has ever had. He was responsible for accepting – although not without war – the loss of the Dutch Indies and understood that, after the loss of the colonies, Europe could only keep its prosperity by closer cooperation. There was another important change in these years. Economic growth was rapid and solid, and soon there were not enough workers in the factories. Dutch employers started to recruit foreign labor: first from Spain and Italy, later from Turkey and Morocco. This decision was to have serious consequences that will be discussed later.
The period between 1958 and 1989 was dominated by the religious parties, evidenced by the fact that in these thirty-one years, the Labor Party only managed five years in government. For seventeen of the thirty-one years, the Liberal Party did provide ministers, but always as a junior partner. The dominance of religious parties had far-reaching consequences for the way society was organized. Familiar doctrines like the recognition of the autonomy of the pillars led to the conclusion that the government should confine itself to subsidizing civil society. After all, the subsidized denominational health services worked very well with the minimum of government interference. Compared to Great Britain, where the government played a more active role via the National Health Service, Dutch decision making was very slow, but there was certainly a greater degree of consensus.
When the secularization of society set in at the end of the sixties, it seemed to herald the demise of the denominational parties, although – as we already noted – new pillar-like movements such as environmentalism and feminism evolved and gradually replaced the old pillars. However, pillarization eventually collapsed altogether, and in the nineteen-seventies the Liberal and Labor parties became polarized, sparking off fiery debates in Parliament between left and right which could now be witnessed by the public – seen on television in the living room. However, despite – or because of – the immediacy of these debates the Dutch electorate preferred to stick with the sluggishness of the social center. As a result, the Christian Democrat Party grew significantly and was very successful in elections. An interesting fact is that, by the nineteen-eighties, the denominational parties in Netherland had been in power longer than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
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