The silence of technocrats

After the tax scandal and vaccine delays, maybe we can talk about the war.

It’s the time of year for festive seasonal notes. Or so I’d hoped, but the Dutch newspapers are not really in the mood. Opinion writers are preoccupied instead by the shock of corruption and incompetence. Cabinets have fallen for less - er zijn kabinetten om minder gevallen, insisted Stevo Akkerman in Trouw

Now, this may not seem like news to anyone else. The ongoing delays and postponements in rolling out the new coronavirus vaccine have dented public trust in officials, already tested by the shifting rules of successive lockdowns. Then came last month’s damning comments from the Van Dam committee in parliament, which gathered witnesses into the Belastingdienst scandal at the tax authority.

Perhaps these are the ingredients for a perfect storm of disillusion and dismay. Perhaps political heads will roll in the New Year. There is, according to Akkerman, such a thing as political responsibility - er bestaat zoiets als politieke verantwoordelijkheid. But no-one is holding their breath. Journalists and parliament alike have their work cut out, if indeed they have an appetite for the job at all.

At the cabinet table, every side has an interest in mutual criticism: enough to score political points, but not at the price of rocking the boat between elections

The Dutch system has delivered political stability. So much so that during the last round of negotiations to form a government, the mediator in charge of the process granted all the participants leave to go on holiday. But stability is not the same as holding the government to account.

All this we knew already, Akkerman reminded readers - Dat je alles al weet, in his column dedicated to the ‘hard nuances’ of politics. The Netherlands is a beautiful country, but sometimes also a rotten country - mooi land, Nederland. Maar soms ook een rotland. We knew that the system was rotten - het systeem verrot was, and justice was not done - geen recht werd gedaan.

At first glance, the Belastingdienst affair looks like an old-fashioned scandal of fraud, buck-passing and racism in the administration of tax rebates for childcare. Facts were dismissed as fables - feiten fabels werden genomen. Even more people were destroyed than previously thought - nog meer mensen kapot waren gemaakt dan je al dacht

A parliamentary debate next year will hear of the devastating effects on both vulnerable and previously solvent families. In the interim, Van Dam’s interrogation committee - ondervragingscommissie - reported evidence of unprecedented injustice - “ongekend onrecht”.

At the moment when institutions are struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, these statements landed in a series of body blows to the self-image of the Dutch body politic. Fundamental principles of democracy were violated - grondbeginselen van de rechtsstaat zijn geschonden. Then again, if we know everything already, why the paroxysms of self-doubt in the commentariat? Why the shock and dismay? 

Inside the machine

A part of the problem, argued Akkerman, is that the Van Dam committee’s statements sounded definitive. Like a verdict: Het klonk als een vonnis. As if the rottenness were not an exception but the norm, with causes more profound than a few proverbial bad apples in the tax authority.

In search of explanation, Ackerman quoted a stream of Twitter posts from Ben Coates, a British writer who lives near Rotterdam. A former staffer for a British Conservative politician, whose Twitter handle describes him as a “recovering Tory”, Coates is mostly a mild critic of Dutch politics. Before the delays to the coronavirus vaccine, his blog posts tended to avoid high emotion. He doesn’t shy away from acerbic comments, but his instinct is to look under the bonnet of the machine.

Mark Rutte mimics the boardroom style of a corporate CEO - and looks better than the old adversarial mode of a defensive government versus noisy opposition

The Netherlands is a system of government administered by coalition, meaning the political opposition is usually sitting at the same cabinet table as the ministers for finance, health, justice or whatever. Each side has an interest in muted criticism of the others - enough to score political points, but not at the price of rocking the boat between elections. Everything works - if slowly - by consensus, which most Dutch reasonably consider a virtue in government.

Then there’s the role of the press. Journalists can seem deferential, even timid, by comparison with the so-called rottweilers in the British tabloids or the high-octane reporting of the American media. No credible equivalent exists for the interrogations of British ministers by the BBC, nor for that matter of Parisian officials in the pages of the French newspapers. 

Personally, I find this line of explanation unsatisfying. None of these technocratic traits is unique to the Netherlands. Other coalition governments in wealthy European states reacted faster to the challenges of Covid-19 -- notably Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel wields slight authority but huge influence over decentralised decisions made by leaders of 16 federated states. 

And while Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has cultivated a distinct executive mode, adapted from the boardroom style of a corporate CEO to reflect his pro-business agenda, I see a case for that. It may be desirable, compared to more adversarial systems where governments answer defensively in parliament to a noisy opposition. The Westminster system seems an improbable way to make ‘multi-stakeholder’ policy in a relatively open national, European and world economy. 

An old wound, concealed

If technocratic answers don’t explain enough, perhaps there is a more obvious explanation. Perhaps the pundits can’t see the wood for the trees, in the old English idiom. Because this problem is, at root, uncomfortable. It’s obvious in ways that we don’t talk about, even if we might pretend it was a long-time ago (it wasn’t, really). Because the lack of government accountability dates back to the war.

Another way of saying this is to point out that any political system is in part a reflection of culture. And to this day, the political culture of the Netherlands is infused - no, saturated - with the relationship of the Dutch state to Hitler and the Jews. In other words, it’s a culture of silence. Behind the silence lies a disappointment, possibly shame, rooted in the universal human preference to be on the right side of history. 

Tellingly, I suspect the consequences of this historical baggage are more debilitating today in the Netherlands than in Germany. If only because, in the aftermath of defeat, German politicians had to confront the legacy of their actions. They didn’t have the option to not refuse the past. I’ll return to this theme in a new post before the year is up - and happily, there’s good news to report.

On an optimistic note, while the headlines were dominated by the pandemic, 2020 was a year of under-reported but important reckoning for the Dutch authorities. And a year of unexpected apologies. Not least from Minister-president Rutte, who chose the 75th anniversary of the holocaust in January to apologise for the ‘reluctant’ collaboration of the Dutch state with the Nazis.  

This is the historical record. Failing to acknowledge it is the key to the political culture of the Netherlands, a system long admired by its citizens but in recent months loudly lamented. True to their style, the indignation in the comment and opinion pages reflects what may be a national character trait: a talent for reacting with shock and dismay to something that we all knew that we knew all along - dat je alles al weet.

The real shock, for me, is that this indignant mode still works at all. What is the scandal of political corruption, after such a poorly kept secret history of complicity? The righteous moral tone is a fragile commodity, like a combustible powder that is best kept dry and applied sparingly. It’s normal to want to look the other way: “I bloody love the Netherlands,” tweeted Coates, posting a photograph of a cyclist cycling with a bicycle over his shoulder along a misty canal path at dawn. 

This is a phlegmatic, resilient country. The past year - for all its technocratic, administrative and communications problems - has brought plenty of reasons to cherish the Dutch culture nurtured by its pedantic and talented engineers. A mercantile pragmatism is the common factor in a long history of enterprise and expansion, for better and for worse.

So I’m sorry to say here, with all and any humility, that the postwar silence is untenable. It exacts too heavy a price, mocking the rhetoric of accountability at the very moment when, mid-pandemic, we need actual and real accountability in government. From the same authority that chose - consistently, deliberately, over more than seven decades - to turn a blind eye on the reality of its own past.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all readers of 2nd Opinion, and BIG THANKS for your support. Keep safe and well.

COMING SOON: Next time, a seasonal round-up of pittig Dutch stories from 2020, plus more on those unexpected apologies.

And in the new year, an extraordinary tale from 1520 of artist Albrecht Dürer’s quest for a stranded whale in Zeeland.