The stormy marriage between Britain and the Netherlands
When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands arrived in London in May 1940, she was forced to sleep in a basement. The Netherlands had been overrun by the Nazis just a few days previously, and the Dutch monarch had fled on a British destroyer to England, where she would remain for the next five years. However, even London wasn’t entirely safe, and as bombing raids shook the city, the Queen was forced to move every night from her rooms near Grosvenor Square to the cellars under Claridge’s hotel. Dinner guests having coffee in the lobby were (Life magazine reported) astonished to see Her Majesty, “wrapped up in a flannel dressing gown”, descending the staircase to go to bed each evening. Unfortunately, she rarely got much rest: sharing the cellar with her was a man who snored so loudly that the thick curtain between their beds trembled. The Queen protested repeatedly, but hotel staff never seemed to do anything to solve the problem. Eventually, after much Queenly complaining, the truth became clear. The epic snorer was the manager of the hotel, and there was little anyone – even a royal on the run – could do to make him shut up.
Nearly eighty years later, when the Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visit London this week, their accommodation will be slightly more luxurious. Their schedule also offers plenty of distractions: a welcoming ceremony at Horse Guards Parade, a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a military exercise on the Thames, and tea with everyone’s favourite republican Brexiteer, Jeremy Corbyn. The whole trip will be – as the Dutch government said – an opportunity to cement “a special relationship”.
The close alliance between Britain and the Netherlands is partly a simple matter of geography. As the crow flies, it’s only about 120 miles from the Suffolk coast to the beaches of South Holland, and London is closer to the Hague than it is to Falmouth or Newcastle. Thousands of years ago, the two nations were even closer; physically connected by a huge land bridge known as ‘Doggerland’. The landscape of the East of England remains strikingly similar to that of the Dutch lowlands: canals and drainage ditches, vast green fields, dikes and windmills. But the relationship goes far beyond mere proximity. Something like 40,000 Brits live in the Netherlands, and perhaps 70,000 Dutch-born people are resident in the UK. Anglo-Dutch companies like Shell and Unilever have been wildly successful, while Britain is the third- biggest destination for Dutch exports, and the fifth-biggest source of Dutch imports. Remarkably, more than 250 flights now cross between Amsterdam and the UK every day – twice as many as between Amsterdam and Germany, and three times as many as there are to France. Centuries after Doggerland collapsed beneath the waves, the Dutch and the Brits remain welded together.
Cliché dictates that there could be few things more different than a Dutch person and a Brit: one formal and class-obsessed and preoccupied with table manners; the other cheerful and freewheeling and smoking pot until sunrise. Yet despite some odd habits which divide them (beans on toast; tea with milk; warm beer) the two peoples share a similar outlook. Britain and the Netherlands are both small countries which became improbably rich and influential, primarily by using their coastlines and navies to build global trading empires. Reliance on trade in turn fostered a certain pragmatism and sensibleness; a belief that few things matter more than being a reliable ally and a good business partner. Above all, both countries have retained an openness to the wider world, and an exposure to global influences which is lacking in some other countries their size. As a French foreign minister said in the 1960s: “the Netherlands was an island in the same sense that the United Kingdom was an island… They had always been looking out over the waters at other areas of the world”. Today it’s easy to find flaws with the Anglo-Dutch model, but it’s a recipe which has helped both the Brits and the Dutch punch well above their weight on the world stage. Together, the two countries account for about a fifth of Europe’s GDP – more than most of eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland combined.
Despite these shared values, however, the Anglo-Dutch relationship has had more rivalries and betrayals than a Mexican soap opera. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was usually the Dutch who had the upper hand. From the 1590s onwards, the famous ‘Golden Age’ saw an astonishing explosion of trade, prosperity and cultural advance in the Netherlands. It was at the time easier for a Londoner to reach Amsterdam than Exeter, and Brits who visited were astonished by what they saw. Cultural influences flowed east across the North Sea. English country houses proudly displayed works by Dutch Masters, and when Marlborough House was being built, decorators put in an order for 14,000 Dutch tiles. English architecture, too, was heavily influenced by the grand churches and city halls of the nascent Dutch Republic. Christopher Wren, architect of masterpieces including St Paul’s Cathedral, was helped by two Dutch assistants. Dutch engineers reclaimed Canvey Island from the Thames, drained the Great Park at Windsor and built the first pumping engine to supply London with fresh drinking water, “greatly to the astonishment of the Mayor and Aldermen”. In the economic sphere, the Bank of England was created with capital assistance from Amsterdam, and the first chairman of Lloyds was a Dutchman. Dutch immigrants funded scholarships for Dutchmen to attend Oxford and Cambridge, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ included a lengthy digression on the wonders of Dutch banking. Dutch nautical words like “yacht”, “sloop”, and “boom” entered the English language, while John Milton took Dutch language lessons and based large parts of ‘Paradise Lost’ on the poetry of Joost van der Vondel. In an era where swathes of Europe were still mired in poverty, the rise of the Dutch was, for the Brits, a thing of wonder. As Sir Josiah Child wrote in 1665: “the prodigious increase of the Netherlands in their domestic and foreign trade, riches and multitude of shipping is the envy of the present, and may be the wonder of all future generations”.
At other times, though, the Brits and the Dutch were like tigers in a cage, constantly circling one another and frequently drawing blood. Early Dutch immigrants to Britain were a common target – in the sixteenth century, one mayor of Norwich complained that the arrival of immigrants from the Low Countries had “sucked the living away from the English”. Dutch traders were admired for their business skills but despised for the way they undersold their British rivals. Later, as the British began building their sea power and projecting it outwards, they bumped up hard against the Dutch, who had already established trading posts from Brazil to Cape Town and Jakarta. As both country’s commercial ambitions grew, the rivalry intensified, and English ships began regularly hassling Dutch fleets in the North Sea. In 1651, Oliver Cromwell even attempted a barely-disguised takeover of the Netherlands, sending a delegation to the Hague which offered the Dutch the chance to join the English Commonwealth. When this kind offer was declined, the English attitude hardened, and a series of conflicts – the Anglo-Dutch wars – ensued; characterised by fierce sea battles with fairytale names: the Battle of the Kentish Knock, the Battle of Leghorn, the Battle of the Gabbard. Perhaps the most famous scuffle came in 1667, when a flotilla of Dutch ships sailed up the Thames, smashed through the chains which were meant to blockade the river, and burned much of the English fleet moored at Chatham. Coming within a few years of the Great Fire of London (which many English suspected the Dutch of igniting), the Medway raid was traumatic for Londoners. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “All our hearts do now ache; for the news is true, that the Dutch have broken the chain and burned our ships… and, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone.” “In all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us,” he said.
The rollercoaster continued through the following centuries, including the small matter of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in which Prince William III of Orange launched a semi-hostile takeover of the British throne in order to prevent a Catholic assuming power. The Dutch King of England ended up ruling for fifteen years; sparking another wave of acquisitions. British artists and architects eagerly copied the latest Dutch styles, while the Dutch admired English literature and coffee shop culture, launching Dutch versions of the Spectator and creating ‘Sterne Clubs’ to read the work of Laurence Sterne. The English also discovered a deep love of Dutch jenever, or gin. Dozens of small distilleries opened throughout London, hiring distillers who had previously worked in Schiedam, and producing English gins based on slight variations of traditional Dutch recipes. For King William, the rapid expansion of the gin business was an important way of keeping wealthy English supporters onside – as English gin production soared, landowners could sell excess grain which might otherwise be worthless to distillers for a healthy profit. Yet the social costs were considerable. London newspapers were filled with gin horror stories, such as the alcoholics who killed their children so they could sell their clothes and buy gin with the proceeds. In 1751, a survey counted a total of 17,000 “private gin shops” in London alone; many of which provided straw on the floor so gin-lovers could sleep where they fell. In Holborn, one in every five houses was a gin shop.
One might think the Brits would be eternally grateful, but as empires rose and fell, the balance of power kept shifting. As the age of wind and sail gave way to that of coal and steam and steel, and the industrial revolution transformed Britain, Dutch power faded. The British, who’d once looked enviously at Amsterdam’s riches, began to look at their neighbours a little piteously. When Scrooge, in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, sat shivering over a bowl of gruel, he did so next to a crumbling fireplace “build by some Dutch merchant, long ago”. One London newspaper mocked Hollanders as “Hogg-landers”; describing them as “Lusty, Fat, Two-Legged Cheese Worms” and claiming they’d only got rich by cheating others. Easier travel helped strengthen some ties between the countries, and in the nineteenth century, thousands of Brits crossed the North Sea and travelled up the Rhine by boat. However, many were scathing of local habits, mocking the Europeans for their ‘Popery and wooden shoes’. ‘Good Rhinish wine and salmon, and bad cooks’ was Joseph Shaw’s review. Some Brits claimed that the superiority of their nation’s food reflected the superiority of its people. ‘A true Englishman who loves roast beef and pudding cannot breathe freely out of his own island,’ Lord Boyle wrote. Even during friendly times, the rivalry remained intense. One British poet wrote: “To the new world in the moon away let us go / For if the Dutch Colony get thither first / ‘Tis a thousand to one but they’ll drain that too”.
The details of the Anglo-Dutch relationship are enough to fill several books, but it’s fair to say that any account of it is complicated by the fact that it’s somewhat unequal. For the Dutch, the relationship with Britain is perhaps the most complex and consequential bilateral relationship after the one with Germany. For the Brits, though, the Netherlands is important, but also just one of many countries which lie “over there” across the water. Post-war British statesmen have often worried more about how Dutch fortunes influence those of France or Germany than they have about the Netherlands as a power in its own right. Today, many Brits seem affectionate but somewhat incurious about the Dutch; tending to view them as cute and liberal and vaguely Scandinavian, but not worth monitoring in much detail. A Dutch local election or by-election would rarely be covered in the British press the way that one in Germany, the US or even Canada or Australia would. Yet it’s also clear that the Netherlands and Britain still have an enormous amount in common. They’re both constitutional monarchies, with a benevolent king or queen leaving the day-to-day running to a prime minister and a bicameral parliament. As former colonial powers – they’re also both entrepreneurial, Atlanticist and somewhat hawkish; confident on the world stage and unafraid to project their power overseas.
But then of course comes the B- word. The Dutch have, understandably, long been keen to see the Brits playing an active role in Europe. When Harold Macmillan announced that Britain planned to join the European Community, the Dutch foreign ministry responded that it had “always favoured” strengthening the community and “thus applauds the British step”. Fifty years later, when David Cameron aimed to reform the EU ahead of the Brexit referendum, he originally wanted to announce his plans in Amsterdam, but had to find another venue when the Dutch government could barely hide their discomfort. When the referendum was held, the result was, for the Dutch, baffling. They’d thought they were in an imperfect but happy marriage, but suddenly found their spouse declaring they wanted an immediate divorce. The sense of confusion and dismay has been heightened by the way things have played out since then – for a country which prides itself on running things consensually and undramatically, the current state of British politics is difficult to fathom. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, spoke for many when he despaired, shortly after the referendum result, that the UK seemed to have “collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally, and economically”. Others have been forced to bite their tongues. “I’m trying to be as polite, as my British friends have taught me to be”, finance minister Wopke Hoekstra said recently.
Both inside and outside the Netherlands, media coverage of Brexit has inevitably focused on the threat to the Dutch economy. Dutch ports at the mouth of the Rhine act as a major gateway between Britain and the rest of Europe, meaning Brexit will leave the Dutch economy horribly exposed. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, even the “best-case” soft Brexit would see Dutch economic output cut by 0.9% a year. Hundreds of extra customs inspectors have been recruited in Rotterdam, but most experts say that (with the possible exception of Ireland) no European country stands to lose more from a clumsy or hard Brexit. For the Portuguese or Romanians, Brexit might be an annoyance, but for the Dutch it’s a logistical nightmare. However, it’s also important to note that the effects of Brexit are not uniformly spread. While Rotterdam could be hit hard, in places like Amsterdam, the outlook is more mixed, thanks to the prospect of luring well-paid bankers and bureaucrats away from London. Unilever shareholders recently voted against relocating permanently to Rotterdam, but the European Medicines Agency will move from London to Amsterdam, after the Dutch government pledged to spend tens of millions on new headquarters.
When the history books are written, though, the biggest impact on Anglo-Dutch relations might be played out on a bigger stage; as Brexit forces a redrawing of a complex tangle of alliances at the European level. Within the EU, the Dutch and Brits have long been close allies; leaders of a finger-wagging Calvinist faction which thinks frivolous Greeks and Italians are to blame for their own misfortunes. For the Dutch, the worry is that the post-Brexit EU will become a southern-focused, protectionist bloc; more interested in handing subsidies to French farmers than in promoting free trade. At the same time, if post-Brexit Britain seeks to cut regulation and taxes, the business hubs of Netherlands might be the first to lose out. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, the Dutch would rather have the Brits inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.
For a while after the referendum, it looked plausible that Britain might be the first domino to fall, and the Netherlands might also move to leave the EU. In fact, the opposite has happened. Polling shows about four-fifths of Dutch people back EU membership, and populist parties talk about leaving less than they used to. Now, the smart money is not on ‘Nexit’ but on new alliances. Fearful of being steamrollered by their powerful neighbours, the Dutch are stepping up to take the Brits’ seat at the table, and looking for new friends. “If people talk about ‘the French-German axis’, then I think: ‘what about the French-Dutch axis?’” Mark Rutte said recently. “I want to help shape Europe and you need alliances for that.” In the Hague, people talk of building “a new Hanseatic League”; an alliance of northern countries which can promote free trade in the age of America First. In the past, Britain often liked to think of itself as a bridge between Europe and America. Might the Netherlands now play a similar role, as a bridge between Britain and Europe? No-one really knows. But whatever happens, the two countries are (as the Anglo-Dutch politician Nick Clegg once said) “condemned to work together”.
In 1945, Queen Wilhelmina left her basement in London and returned to her beloved Netherlands; a country wrecked but free. Not long afterwards, she invited Winston Churchill to visit. He was by then, a former Prime Minister with time on his hands, but the visit had many of the trappings of an official Royal Visit – high tea with Queen Wilhelmina, a series of grand banquets and speeches, and cheering crowds on Dam Square, as well as an impromptu stop when the ageing statesman escaped his police escort to enjoy a beer at a terrace bar. At the visit’s climax, Churchill addressed the States-General in the Hague, giving a lecture which was typically sweeping and grandiose. “The tornado has passed away”, he said. “The thunder of the cannons has ceased, the terror from the skies is over, the oppressors are cast out and broken. We may be wounded and impoverished. But we are still alive and free”. There were, Churchill said, “two supreme tasks” facing the Dutch and the British alike: “to revive the prosperity of Europe; and … to devise those measures of world security which will prevent disaster descending upon us again.” “Holland and England were united”, he said, “as the foremost champions of Freedom”; and should now integrate further by forming “the United States of Europe”. After the speech, writing to the British ambassador, Neville Bland, Churchill was a little blunter. The difference between Dutch and British was, he said, that “the Dutch were compressed by the war and are now erect and expanding, whereas we, who were blood donors throughout, are now exhausted physically, economy and above all financially, and find victory bleak and disappointing”. It was time, the great statesman said, for a new relationship.