Comedian, chameleon, pianist, prime minister
The making of Mark Rutte
LET’S START WITH that line from David Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory, as promised in my last vlog. “He’s comedian, chameleon, Corinthian and caricature,” sang Bowie in Bewlay Brothers. I’m sorry. No obvious comparison connects the late, great iconoclast and rock legend to the serving Dutch prime minister. Please forgive one analogy.
In the Netherlands, either it’s hunky dory: a stable, well-run, rather boring success - gidsland, literally ‘guide country’ - and an example for Europe. Or, depending on your point of view, the wheels are coming off: Dutch politics is now so fragmented that serial coalition governments are incapable of reform, while a self-serving nostalgia hides bureaucratic inertia and urgent social problems.
Both sides of the argument can make a credible claim, from well-informed champions.
Simon Kuper, Financial Times magazine columnist, argued for the optimists in Lessons from the Netherlands in staying in power. Kuper, who grew up here, cites the good fortune of a small population with high wages, decent welfare, short working hours, long holidays, and the best pensions in Europe after Denmark (according to Mercer, a consulting firm).
Most Dutch voters claim a high degree of satisfaction with their lives, reported Kuper. Occasional problems pale by comparison: the “leisurely” vaccine roll-out, racism in the government algorithms exposed by the simmering child benefit scandal, a resurgent far-right fringe in parliament and outside. Even recent rioting amounts to little more than ‘a little local difficulty’ (Kuper didn’t include this phrase, but I was reminded of an oft-repeated aside from British prime minister Harold Macmillan).
The opposing camp is more worried. Caroline de Gruyter, Europe correspondent for NRC, argued in Foreign Policy that the biggest problems in the Netherlands are the same as in the United States. For all their superficial differences, “Dutch - like Americans and other Europeans - want a government that works. What they have is a system that’s stuck”.
For De Gruyter, both countries suffer from ‘kludgeocracy’ - a political system that is unequal to the task of reforming itself. This is the obstacle facing President Joe Biden’s new administration in the US, where the public realm often feels irrelevant to the needs of the population. Ditto in the Netherlands, where even the resignation of the entire cabinet on January 15 heralded a return to business as usual - as I wrote here in Rutte’s bloodless finale.
Which view you find most credible is likely to depend on your appreciation of two factors: one general, one specific. The general factor is your respect for Dutch political culture in its broadest sense. The specific factor is your opinion of Mark Rutte in particular, a politician distinguished by his longevity and a tendency to “flexible” opinions: de flexibele opiniemaker, as the Volkskrant put it.
A knack for winning
In Politico, British writer Ben Coates, a long-term Dutch resident (and now citizen) summarised the position: the Dutch have much to be grateful for, but the foundation myth of the Netherlands is “losing its shine”. Confused handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has dented a reputation for competence, tolerance and cooperation - a near-mythical self-image captured in deep nostalgia for the ‘Polder model’.
On the thorny question of how much specific responsibility for this unraveling may lie with the prime minister, opinion is predictably divided. The evidence is abundant to frame Rutte as a savvy pragmatist, who has deftly avoided the rejection and defeat met by UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, his former peers in the European centre-right.
Young Mark Rutte was impatient to ‘leave the band’, but he never escaped the long shadow of a bourgeois family infused with ‘melancholy for old Europe’
To his detractors, Rutte is a kind of Trojan horse: the harbinger of deep antipathies that have corroded liberal democracy. Here, comparison is often made to France where Sarkozy mishandled the populist surge from the far-right with such ferocity that he alienated conservative supporters from his own ranks.
Rutte has simultaneously borrowed from the anti-immigration rhetoric of the far-right, while proving more effective - so far - in his parliamentary scheming to outmanoeuvre Gert Wilders’s nationalist PVV, Freedom Party, and Thierry Baudet’s FvD, Forum for Democracy. Whether that success owes more to the eccentricity of his opponents, or to Rutte’s strategic mind, is moot.
Instead of Sarkozy’s aggressive posturing, Rutte has cultivated a reputation as level-headed, managerial and technocratic: he entered politics from a career in middle management at Unilever. So it feels timely to recall an oft-quoted axiom attributed more than a half-century ago to the late Peter Drucker, a pioneer of management consulting: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It's by dissecting Rutte's cultural attachments (and prejudice) that we uncover the man.
Liberal, without conviction
In a much-scrutinised speech from 2013, Rutte shared unusual details about his upbringing and political roots. His parents were from a generation shaped by post-war austerity: they started with nothing, twice. They worked hard and never complained.
Speaking at the H.J. Schoolezing, an annual lecture in honour of a late sub-editor at the Volkskrant, Rutte rejected big ideas in politics. Vision was “an elephant that obstructs the view”.
His analogy “fits completely” into the stereotype of a Dutch administrative elite suspicious of ideology and abstractions, noted Jouke Huijzer in the Dutch Review of Books - Nederlandse Boekengids. “I don't believe in comprehensive blueprints that could be used to solve social problems in one fell swoop. As a liberal, that always makes me a bit suspicious,” Rutte explained.
Commentators and satirists alike seized on his remarks. But as a revelation of the prime minister’s political DNA, not much of this ‘credo’ was really new. A first biography, Mark Rutte: Only for Politics (Terra, 2010) by Martijn van der Kooij and Dirk van Harten, portrayed a “modest young gentleman” with a talent for administration but a notable absence of political ideals.
He argued for more nuclear power, more renewables - from solar, wind, biofuels and geothermal - and, simultaneously, against penalties for carbon emissions or new taxes on diesel or flying
Their book was rushed to press, even before negotiations to form Rutte’s first cabinet were complete. The incomer is cast as a brave opportunist, conservative by instinct but with astute timing. His rapid rise was facilitated by a high-stakes gamble, after Rutte’s no-confidence motion in parliament in 2010 secured rivals’ support to topple his predecessor Jan Peter Balkenende’s PvdA-led coalition.
A review in Parool noted Rutte’s bourgeois upbringing which, the authors inferred, shaped a worldview “stuck in traditions and customs”. An only child, Rutte drove an old Saab and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. He was impatient to break free - “to leave the band” - but far from adopting the liberal credentials that Rutte later sought, his belief system was infused with “melancholy for old Europe”.
Chameleon by nature (and nurture)
The results of the 2021 election may seem a foregone conclusion at the ballot box. If Rutte can hold another coalition together for the next 18 months, he’ll earn a place in history as the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister. But the political complexion of Rutte IV, the next cabinet, is far harder to predict.
‘If a yellow jacket movement threatens to emerge in the Netherlands, Rutte puts on such a vest himself and gives the impression that he is on the side of the critics’ - Jouke Huijzer
The prime minister’s “corona bonus” was rapidly melting away in the polls, reckoned another biographer, Sheila Sitalsing, in the Volkskrant - de coronabonus van de premier in rap tempo aan het wegsmelten is. His VVD party would have a “big mouth” - een grote mond - in negotiations to form a government, but an “extensive coalition” was inevitable. That could go either way: rightwards, leftwards or somewhere in-between - rechtsom of linksom of iets daartussenin. Everything was open – alles ligt nog open.
That malleable make-up would suit the instincts described in Sitalsing’s 2016 book, Mark: Portrait of a Prime Minister (Prometheus). In the 1990s, Rutte argued for a power-sharing coalition between the centre-right VVD and the PvdA, labour party. By the 2000s, he leaned in the opposite direction towards a Green-Right alliance.
In 2008, Rutte published Pamphlet of an Optimist. In just seven pages, his brief polemic called for more energy independence, more nuclear power, more renewables - from solar, wind, biofuels and geothermal - and, simultaneously, argued against penalties for carbon emissions or new taxes on diesel or flying.
After ousting Rita Verdonk in a close contest for the VVD party leadership, Rutte came to power in 2010. A right-leaning alliance with parliamentary support from Gert Wilders’ PVV, Rutte I pledged to restore stability in the wake of the global financial crisis. In parliament, Rutte’s straight answers and plain language were compared favourably to Balkenende. All long since forgotten.
A term first coined by US political scientist Steven Teles, kludgeocracy describes a state of complexity beset by inertia, a problem too big for the government. Journalist Ezra Klein gave this concept new currency in a January 2013 article Is America a ‘kludgeocracy’? for the Washington Post. De Gruyter asked the same question of the Netherlands, a system of government characterised by ‘quick fixes’.
With no rhetoric or vision to call his own, Rutte’s serial compromises fit squarely within the long tradition of back-room deals, policy trade-offs and forgotten or unmet pledges that are the staple of Dutch politics. Yet Rutte has grown into his idiosyncratic style, with a practised lack of gravitas.
In February 2020, for example - to the irritation of German chancellor Angela Merkel - Rutte arrived for budget negotiations at a European Union summit carrying a new biography of Chopin. A diversion from the long debate ahead, he told journalists.
‘Government and opposition groups go through the motions. Some groups pose as anarchists, Marxists, or fascists. In truth, they have little to do with real politics: there are very few ideas about workable alternatives’ - Caroline de Gruyter
With experience, Rutte’s sense of humour has become more tactical. At a press briefing in March 2020, amid panic-buying of toilet paper during the first days of the Covid-19 outbreak, Rutte told people to relax: “We can all poop for another 10 years”. Such unseriousness, a necessary trait for a chameleon, was rewarded often by a bounce in opinion polls.
This “jovial” mode has served as a decoy from public anger, argued Huijzer: “If, as in France and Belgium, a yellow jacket movement threatens to emerge in the Netherlands, Rutte does not show any aversion. He puts on such a vest himself and gives the impression that he is on the side of the critics [against his own] policy”.
The most recent biography, Mark Rutte (Brooklyn, 2020) by Petra de Koning, detailed Rutte’s appeal as a safe pair of hands - an image that pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic. While Rutte’s handling of adversaries has become more assured, suggests De Koning, he is strongest when focused on concrete problems.
De Koning describes Rutte’s governing principle as meervaren - going with the flow. In her definition, meervaren is also a process of calculating ‘yields’. Rather than charting the evidence from successive governments, De Koning detects signs of meervaren as a political method from the outset of Rutte’s career.
The pianist and the pendulum
As comedian, chameleon, pianist and prime minister, Rutte is often accused of making ‘policy by focus group’ with an eye for the next day’s headlines. Yet his short-termism has brought cumulative benefits over the long-term. Voters’ preference for an experienced leader during the coronavirus pandemic has boosted other centre-right incumbents, including Angela Merkel in Germany and Sebastian Kurz in Austria.
The contrast with Merkel’s 16-year tenure is telling: the German chancellor was “never a drama queen,” said an advisor. Merkel weathered highs and lows in her personal popularity ratings because, despite controversial policies such as the Eurozone bail-outs and an open-door refugee policy, voters recognised her moral steadfastness in times of crisis (as I reported here in Second wave, second lockdown: not-so-intelligent).
Rutte’s interventions are the opposite of Merkel’s. Motivated by a relentless pragmatism, his day-to-day performance treads a fine line between diversion and harmony. Step back from the daily news cycle, and his signature tactic is an instinct to reassure a crowd. Under the cover of managerial competence, Rutte played simultaneously to themes popularised by his far-right antagonists.
The inevitable outcome, argued De Gruyter, is to stymie any real debate: “Meanwhile, government and opposition groups go through the motions. Some groups pose as anarchists, Marxists, or fascists. But in truth, they have little to do with real politics: There are very few ideas about workable alternatives. It’s empty. It’s theatre, as QAnon proved with its farcical gear.”
Barring surprises, Rutte will be returned to power in the Netherlands’ election on March 17. Among his longest-serving contemporaries, the comparison with Viktor Orbán in Turkey is disconcerting. Orbán has consolidated power by dismantling - or at best, undermining - Hungary’s democratic institutions.
Rutte lacks that totalitarian impulse. On the contrary, to Huijzer he is “the perfection of a long tradition in the Dutch political establishment”. He moves to the right when attacks from the right are loudest, and to the left when a counter-balancing move is required. He is a pendulum. Even a yo-yo.
Which is, more or less, what De Gruyter told us. A yo-yo, a pendulum, an object propelled from one side to another and back by the momentum of external forces. That might be a pejorative description of modern Dutch history, but it's a fair job description for a Kludgeocrat-in-Chief.
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