Why the Dutch are becoming restless


Polder landscape near Weesp

Few things are so deeply rooted in Dutch culture as the perceived need to reach consensus. Although politicians and captains of industry occasionally argue that the process of decision making is slow and inefficient, the consultation culture is hard to abandon. However, the introduction of different, Anglo-Saxon styles of leadership in the late twentieth century has challenged old wisdoms and explains much of the present-day unrest among the Dutch population.

A Culture of Consultation

One of the most common clichés about the Dutch is that their culture has its origins in the struggle against the sea. The French king Louis XIV already said so in the seventeenth century, and today’s historians earn good money by explaining the Dutch national character from the construction of all kinds of dykes and dams. A cliché indeed, but clichés have the unpleasant habit of containing an element of truth. It is true that liberty, tolerance, freedom of speech, and the Dutch custom to endlessly negotiate have their origins in the war against the water.

To start at the beginning: in the eleventh century, the counts of Holland (the northwestern part of the Netherlands) decided to develop several large peat areas behind the dunes, where it was easy to create fertile fields. These projects were called copen, a name that survives in toponyms like Boskoop, Goedkoop, and Benschop (Forested Cope, Good Cope, Ben’s Cope). As it happened, there were not enough peasants to do the work, which forced the count to introduce an unusual incentive: he promised liberty to any settler. The newcomers were no serfs or bondsmen, as was usual in a feudal society, but free people who owned their land and were entitled to give an opinion. At that moment, this measure was nothing but an unusual experiment, but retrospectively, we can say that the count of Holland was one of the first European leaders to offer liberty to his subjects.

Peat is nothing but an amalgam of wet organic remains. Development is easy: you dig several ditches, drain the land, remove some shrubs and trees, and presto: there’s your field of pure compost. There is one complication, however. When the peat has been drained, the process of rotting recommences, the volume of the peat starts to diminish, and the soil starts to bed down. As the sea level remains the same and the rivers are situated on beds of solid clay, the fields will sooner or later be on the same level as the water. If the rotting process continues, they will even become lower. When the fields became beneath water level, the Dutch had to build dykes and windmills. The famous Dutch ‘polder landscape’ – land that is lower than the sea – was created in the fourteenth century.

Of course, the dykes had to be of the same height everywhere, and it was necessary to discuss this. The villagers started to meet on a regular basis, and organized themselves in waterschappen or water boards. To improve the strength and effectiveness of these democratic institutions, the count appointed a dyke warden (the dijkgraaf), who had the right to fine people on behalf of the government.

The water boards were not the world’s first experiment with democracy, but unlike classical Athens, Holland’s democratic institutions were representative. Another difference was that the freedom of speech was guaranteed (the villagers were no serfs). This had never happened in Athens, as Socrates had to discover.

In the thirteenth century, this set of rights was granted to other European peasants as well: first to the Dutch and Flemish immigrants in Brandenburg and Prussia, later to peasants everywhere. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the harmonious relations between count and representative bodies were regarded as an example of the separation of powers between the ruler and the States-General. It would be an exaggeration to say that western democracy was invented in Boskoop, Goedkoop, and Benschop – but not a very big exaggeration.

Consultation Culture and Identity

The consultation culture has manifested itself in various ways. The late medieval guilds are a well-known example, but the model also influenced the organization of the Calvinistic churches of the sixteenth century. In many parts of Europe, people kept to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church; elsewhere, the Church was subjected to the state. But in the Low Countries, the believers had real influence on the policy of their local churches and – through representatives / on the General Synod. This was the best way to ensure representative democracy, and the model was copied when the Estates General took over the sovereignty from the king of Spain.

Time and again, the Dutch chose administrative configurations in which a maximum on consensus was obtained through a maximum of debate. For example, the Dutch East-Indian Company was organized in such a way as to force the board of directors to consult the people of their home towns as often as possible. Seventeenth-century visitors of the Low Countries already noticed that there was much consensus-creating debate in Holland, and believed that this was one of the keys to Dutch success. But opinions can change: eighteenth-century analysts believed that the perennial talks were among the causes of Holland’s stagnation.

For such a mood change, we have a modern parallel. In 1999, the ‘polder model’ was praised from all sides, but within three years, it was heavily criticized. Of course, this had little to do with a sudden change in the consultation culture; the world economy had changed and the Dutch economy – one of the most open economies in the world – had suffered. The changing opinions do not say very much about the consultation culture, but are interesting because they agree on one important point: in both the Netherlands and abroad, back then and now, everyone agrees that the consultation model is an essential part of the Dutch national identity.

A Comparative Perspective

Things might have been different. In the Low Countries, a leader was a decider who listened to others. Other countries developed different styles of leadership. With some exaggeration, we may say that there is a French, a German, and an English model. All have their roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the age in which modern states were created.

In France, the court at Versailles was the nucleus of a centralized state. The king managed to destriy other centers of power. This was justified with the argument that people had different interests and were, therefore, eternally competing with each other. The king was appointed by God to prevent civil wars, and was responsible to his Creator only. It has often been argued that this is the root of a type of leadership that, until quite recently, existed in many French organizations: the word of the patron was the law, and debate was almost impossible.

Germany did not become a unified state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the contrary, the emperor lost control and accepted that he was ruler of Austria only. The German countries became a loosely-knit confederation of counties, duchies, bishoprics, and independent cities. No political innovations here; this was not the place for new types of leadership. Just like in the Medieval guilds, the German boss remained the person who knew his craft best. This was, of course, the case in the craftsmen’s workshops, but it happened in other areas too: for example in the armies. As recently as the First World War, divisions were led by aristocrats, but as soon as the supreme commanders suspected something was wrong, they asked an opinion from the officer with most fighting experience.

In England, we see another development. For centuries, the privileges of the nobility and the citizens had been guarded by the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Although the kings of the seventeenth century tried to obtain a supremacy equal to that of their colleagues in France, the British Parliament successfully defended its powers. In 1689, they were recognized by king William III, originally a Dutchman and well-acquainted with the culture of consultation. After this victory, many noblemen felt they had to spend at least some of their time in Parliament, and could no longer live permanently on their estates. Those were left to people who paid a lease, and because they wanted to get back their money, they sought labor-saving techniques. The aristocrats remained interested, and in this way, a nobility came into being that was willing to invest in agricultural and industrial innovation. An aristocrat would not show himself on the floor and controlled his estate or company from a distance. Leadership became something unrelated to the primary process, some kind of a specialization. This separation of functions is the foundation of every modern management theory.

Of course this typology of leadership is a simplification. Yet, it can be argued that there are four models: the Anglo-Saxon, in which leadership is a specialization; the German, in which the person who knows the trade best becomes the boss; the French, in which the leader is responsible to no one; and the Dutch, in which the leader is in charge of a complex process of mutual complication. They have different advantages: the Frenchman is probably the best keeper of an existing company; the Dutchman creates consensus; the German guarantees quality. The Englishman, finally, can change an organization. On the short term, it does matter who is in charge. However, the four countries are more or less equally rich, so on the long term, these styles appear to be equally efficient.

From Consultation Cultur to Consultation Economy

One of the main disadvantages of the culture of consultation is that it is tempting to ignore potentially divisive problems. In modern times, the Dutch debate about Islam was for a long time reduced to talk about headscarves, the real problems being ignored. This has now changed, due, perhaps, to the extremely popular Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated by an activist in 2002 (the first political murder in the Netherlands since 1672).

Something similar happened in the eighteenth century, when new English techniques were ignored and Holland missed an opportunity to advance. Every condition for industrialization had been met: coals and ores could be imported from the Rhineland, products could be sold in the Indies, and the canals offered great transport possibilities. However, the rulers (the regenten) were too keen on maintaining consensus to be able to innovate. So the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain, where managers and investors were more interested in modernization.

When the Netherlands finally caught up in the nineteenth century, the new, industrial society was shaped by the consultation culture. Because the Dutch had already been organized in the various churches, the political parties represented religious divisions. Religious organizations were subsidized to perform tasks that in other countries were taken care of by the state. A Protestant child would visit a Protestant kindergarten and Protestant schools, become a member of a Protestant trade union, rent a house from a Protestant housing cooperation, read a Protestant newspaper, and would be treated by Protestant doctors in Protestant hospitals. Four of these ‘pillars‘ (zuilen) dominated nineteenth and early twentieth century society; within the orthodox Protestant, Catholic, liberal, and socialist pillars existed a considerable degree of democracy and mutual consultation, while the leaders knew how to create consensus on a national level.

For a long time, this peculiar type of consultation politics, known as verzuiling (‘pillarization’), remained unchallenged. An interesting development, however, took place during the Second World War, when the leaders of the four pillars were taken captive by the German occupiers and were brought together in Sint-Michielsgestel. Here, they discussed the country’s future. In these debates, new ideas were born, which were summarized in one word: Doorbraak, ‘breakthrough’. The old pillars were to be replaced by two large political movements – one socialist, one liberal – that were open to people of all religious denominations. Democracy was to be more direct, the government had to be more active, and business enterprises were to have greater responsibilities. Immediately after the war, the Nederlandse Volksbeweging (‘Dutch Popular Movement’) tried to achieve all these aims. This amalgam of ideas was called ‘personalist socialism’, a deliberately vague ideology that could unify everyone, from left to right and from Catholic to Protestant.

However, the Breakthrough was to remain an utopia. In September 1944, the Allies lost the Battle of Arnhem. The south of Holland, which is predominantly Catholic, was liberated and the Roman-Catholics reorganized themselves, without taking account of the new ideas. The pillarization was to continue for several decades.

It must be stressed, however, that this would probably have happened anyhow. If there had been two parties, the inevitable result would have been polarization – and that was the last thing the Dutch needed in the years after the war. In fact, it would have been out of character. When, in the 1970s, the Dutch Labor Party and the Liberal Party preferred strategies of polarization, most Dutch people voted for the Christian parties in the center. As a result, the Christian parties, united in one big party, remained influential, even though the number of active Christian church visitor diminished. In the 1980s, it was often joked that the Christian parties had been in power for a longer time than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The difference was, of course, that the latter had achieved its position with a violent coup, while the Christian party embodied the Dutch feeling that things have to be done in a sphere of consensus and mutual consultation.

The Consultation Culture Today

Is the consultation culture indestructible? It has been around for several centuries, is the embodiment of the nation’s character, and in the twentieth century, it has survived both the German occupation and the polarization of the 1970s. This suggests that it is deeply, strongly rooted. Yet, there are tensions.

First, a word about semantics. In 2002, the first cabinet led by Christian politician J.P. Balkenende started to rule. One of its central themes was to put an end to the endless discussions, a policy that the ministers called ontpolderen (‘depolderize’), and considered the defining characteristic of the two preceding cabinets (Kok I and Kok II). This is remarkable, because the constituting parties of those cabinets had initially agreed that they wanted to put an end to the slow procedures of the consultation economy. In other words, Balkenende announced to put an end to something that the preceding cabinets had also wanted to terminate.

This is not an example of the phenomenon mentioned above, that opinions have little to do with the consultation culture itself. It probably means that a consensus is growing, at least among politicians, that the consultation culture can not be harmonized with efficient leadership. What we may see, is that a class of politicians has come to power that – even though it is divided by the usual political disagreements – agrees that the permanent consultation between elected and electors, between rulers and ruled, is an obstacle.

The likely explanation of this phenomenon is that most Dutch politicians – just like the managers of companies and other organizations – have accepted the Anglo-Saxon model of leadership. They see themselves as specialists in leadership, not as people who decide after summarizing the results of several rounds of mutual consultation.

Their style of leadership is excellent for innovation, but is not suited for creating consensus and obtaining support, which creates feelings of uneasiness, on all sides. In the first place, once a manager or minister thinks that governing is a specialization, he will not ask advise from people who are not acquainted with this specialization. As a consequence, many a captain of industry has dismissed the advise from the ondernemingsraden (consultation boards within a company), and instead preferred the opinion of a consultancy firm. The same can be said about the government: advise from people ‘in the field’ is often ignored, and – again – the advise from consultants is preferred. (It was only in 2008 that the Minister of Education was forced to acknowledge that this had ruined the secondary schools.) In the second place: employees no longer feel themselves taken seriously. They accuse the managers of being unaware of what really happens in the company.

These tensions became worse since the three cabinets Lubbers (1982-1994) introduced the Anglo-Saxon leadership model to government. Traditional ‘pillar organizations’ were replaced by commercial companies that had less popular support. The old Catholic and Protestant health organizations did not perform better than the present, commercial companies, but while a patient would have some patience with the nurses of his own pillar, commercial companies must offer value for money. Problems that for decades could be contained, like waiting lists, have now become unmanageable.

No Future?

The introduction of the Anglo-Saxon leadership model and its corollary, the disappearance of the consultation culture, are inevitable: both the economy and political life are becoming increasingly globalized. What we see is the birth of a new, European or global style of leadership that owes more to the Anglo-Saxon model than to the traditions of France, Germany, and Holland. Inevitable though this may be, it creates tensions in a country in which, traditionally, every citizen had a right to express his opinion and where everyone had – at least theoretically – some influence on the process of decision making.

It is unlikely that these tensions can be removed by politicians who can only conceptualize problems with the tools they acquired on business schools, and for the moment, tensions appear to be growing. Many people believe that the government ignores the real problems (the imperfect integration of Moroccan boys being among them). Since the 1990s, protest parties on the left and right have increased in number, have been able to acquire more votes, and are increasingly dominating the national political agenda.

If the Dutch consultation culture disappears, that will be the end of the Dutch as a cultural identity. For about a millennium, mutual consultation was the cornerstone of Dutch political and social life. However, it remains to be seen whether an identity that is so deeply rooted can really disappear. And it must be noted that so far, all attempts to delimit the perennial process of mutual consultation, have failed. True, the Cabinets Kok I, Balkenende I, and Balkenende II have said that they wanted to depolderize, but in the end, they all had to seek consent from the organizations in which the consultation culture lies embedded: trade unions, employers’ organizations, and self-appointed committees to save this monument or that piece of nature.

Whether the Dutch cultural identity is disappearing or just changing, we will not know this year, next year, or in ten years. That the Dutch companies will be run along Anglo-Saxon lines, is inevitable, but political life may – for better or worse – retain its old qualities. The central issue may be whether Dutch politicians will realize that their voters hate them because they try to run a nation as if it were an Anglo-Saxon company, neglecting the process of mutual consultation. The current crisis within western capitalism may or may not result in a reappreciation of the French, German, and Dutch models, and may save the Dutch cultural identity.

[This article was originally published in Dutch in Openbaar Bestuur (October 2005).].

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