Tories, Poles and Reckless Gambles: some points on the UK and Europe

With apologies to readers who aren’t that interested in politics, a few random thoughts on the draft deal announced this week between the UK and the EU:

1). Mind the gap. One of David Cameron’s greatest triumphs in more than ten years as leader of the Conservatives has been to drag his party into the modern age; narrowing the gap between party policy and public opinion on issues such as the National Health Service, climate change, gay rights and maternity leave. On Europe, though, this shift hasn’t happened: there’s still a huge gap between what many Conservative MPs and party members think about the EU and what the average voter believes. To many of the people who join local Conservative Associations or attend MPs’ Christmas drinks parties, Europe is the most important political issue of the day; a source of endless frustration and disappointment. To most ordinary voters, however, Europe sits way down their list of priorities, far behind things like jobs, the economy, healthcare and schools. In places like the Netherlands and Belgium, both the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership are fairly obvious: people drive across fenceless borders daily to shop or work, without using passports or changing money. But for Brits, living on an island with their own currency, the Union is far more abstract: something which hovers unnoticed high above their day-to-day lives. All this means that the new deal is one which – as a Bloomberg news headline put it this week – “British Voters Might Not Even Notice”. At the time when Cameron pledged a referendum on EU membership, it may have seemed like a necessary step to kill off UKIP and secure his re-election. Now, it seems like a pointless indulgence; gambling with national security in order to pacify a small minority of Conservatives who might otherwise tire of his husky-hugging ways.

2). Great expectations. In that context, the details of the draft agreement Cameron has reached matter far less than the public’s general impression of it. Sensible people won’t spend their evenings reading the fine print of the new reform plan, but will notice that most newspapers and broadcasters think Britain is getting a bad deal, and will decide how to vote in the referendum accordingly. In this respect, Cameron is in a bit of trouble: having won an election pledging to transform Britain’s relationship with Europe and slash immigration and regulation, he’s now unveiled a draft deal which only tinkers with the status quo, and depends heavily on him winning permission from the very institutions which he claims to be fighting. In the Prime Minister’s defence, it’s impossible to reach a deal which would be agreed by the other member states and keep right-wing Eurosceptics happy, but expectations need to be managed carefully. Cameron blundered by giving the impression that change would be revolutionary rather than evolutionary.


3). Risky business. Despite all that, the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign is likely to win the referendum, despite the unfortunate acronym. This is primarily because most people are fundamentally risk averse, and unwilling to gamble on major changes if there’s a chance they might threaten their economic security. Both the recent Scottish independence campaign and the UK general election last year are cases in point – after months of analysis and debate, voters ignored the tug of their heartstrings and took the safest option. This reality ties in nicely to one of Cameron’s strongest suits as a leader: that even people who deeply dislike him often think he’s competent, crafty and ruthless enough to protect their interests in a time of uncertainty. If Cameron can make a strong case that leaving Europe would damage Britain’s economic competitiveness and put jobs at risk, most voters will be unwilling to risk change. At a time when the economy seems to be healing, why gamble on an uncertain future?

4). Easy rider. The prospects of the pro-Europe campaign are also helped by the fact that Cameron is getting a pretty easy ride. The opposition Labour Party is deeply divided over foreign policy, while the Brexit campaign still hasn’t found a likeable household name to act as its figurehead. Despite some harsh headlines, the media are also playing gently so far. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was ridiculed over his party’s splits on whether to bomb Syria, while Cameron can breezily admit that many of his own Cabinet disagree with him. If Corbyn had proposed a similar deal to that which Cameron announced this week, the press reaction would be far harsher. Cameron has a reputation for being lucky in his opponents, and this is no exception.

5). Contagion. Other countries will be watching the British renegotiation process carefully – not just because they would prefer the UK didn’t leave the EU, but because a British vote to quit would fan the flames of nationalism in their own countries. The Netherlands, for example, famously voted ‘No’ to the European Constitution in 2005 but since then has developed a begrudging affection for the EU. Most Dutch people recognise that a tiny country with an open economy can do better as a member of club than it could on its own. However, many Dutch are also increasingly unhappy about the laxity of immigration rules and the cost of bailing out other countries which have been less careful with their money. Prime Minister Mark Rutte is traditionally a strong ally of Cameron’s, but his support has become increasingly erratic of late. If the British voted to leave the EU, pressure to hold a similar referendum in the Netherlands and elsewhere would probably become unstoppable.

5). Crowded house. It’s also interesting to note the emergence of a new split within Europe. On economic issues like the Greek bailout, there’s long been a (simplistic but largely accurate) divide between the north and south of the continent, with the pro-austerity Germans, Dutch and British facing off against the more spendthrift Greeks, Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians. In the Brexit debate, there now seems to be a new divide emerging, between the western countries which traditionally import labour and the eastern ones which export it. Cameron’s demand that migrants from other EU countries shouldn’t be able to claim benefits seems fairly reasonable to many British, Dutch or German ears, but is hugely controversial south and east of Berlin. It’s significant that the European Council President negotiating with Cameron, Donald Tusk, comes from Poland, one of the countries which sends the most migrant workers to the UK. It’s also no coincidence that one of Cameron’s first trips to sell his EU reform deal will be to Warsaw. During last year’s ‘Grexit’ crisis, shuttle diplomacy centred on Brussels, Berlin, Paris. In this year’s ‘Brexit’ crisis, the hotspots may well be Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn.

6). The gambler. David Cameron has already become so closely identified with the draft reform deal that it will be hard to survive as Prime Minister if the country votes against it. However, in nearly six years in power he’s acquired a habit of making bold gambles which somehow end up paying off: on forming a coalition government, on the Alternative Vote referendum, on letting Parliament vote on Syrian airstrikes, on Scottish independence. Europhiles can only hope his luck won’t run out this time.


Letter from Johannesburg

Anyone who wants to travel through time should consider a visit to South Africa. Arriving in Johannesburg after a spell in Malawi, I felt that a two-hour flight had transported me through perhaps a hundred years in time; from a place where oxen hauled wooden carts over bumpy lanes to a glittering future where lawyers watched films on their iPads while taking high-speed trains to work. Like Marty McFly staring at hoverboards and adverts for ‘Jaws 19’, I stood gaping at the electronic displays at the airport, ten-lane motorways, fast-food restaurants, 3D cinemas, and shining shopping malls selling everything from sunglasses to sushi.

photo 1 (1)

Compared with most of its neighbours, Johannesburg often feels more like an American or European city than an African one; a high-rise modern metropolis in a continent where cities are usually chaotic and low-rise. In suburbs like Melville, where bearded hipsters and tattooed blondes flirt over craft beer and stone-baked pizza, one could almost be in Brooklyn or Berlin. Statistically, too, South Africa is closer to Europe than to many of its neighbours, with income per capita nearly ten times that of Mozambique or Zimbabwe. The average Malawian has to work for nearly a month to earn as much as a South African does in a day.

Of course, this prosperity is partly an illusion. Impressive national income statistics conceal the fact that more than two decades after the end of apartheid, a fifth of South Africans live in what economists drily refer to as “extreme poverty”, and nearly half in “moderate poverty”. In Johannesburg, townships like Soweto have developed rapidly but others, like Alexandra, remain little more than slums, with thousands of leaky shacks crammed around open sewers. Even in prosperous Braamfontein, I saw homeless blacks and whites standing shoulder-to-shoulder to forage in the bins outside a trendy food market. Gold and diamond mines still ring the city; and an archipelago of prosperous suburbs and shopping malls is surrounded by a sea of poverty.

Just as troubling to the occasional visitor is something less tangible: the uneasy sense that the hopeful optimism which characterised South Africa in the 1990s has been replaced by something darker. The roots of the problem are partly political. For all the talk of post-apartheid ‘Rainbow Democracy’, the dominance of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has never been challenged, despite the often woeful performance of Nelson Mandela’s successors. ANC governments have delivered modest economic growth, but also bungled some of the biggest challenges they’ve faced; peddling dangerouphoto 2 (2)s myths about HIV/AIDS and supporting the tyrannical reign of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Many black South Africans have climbed their way into the middle classes, but many more have been failed by leaders who preach socialist values while acquiring vast personal fortunes. Johannesburgers express dismay at the ANC’s performance but the party still holds a trump card: having brought about the liberation of the country, the ANC has been guaranteed roughly two-thirds of the vote in every election since 1994.

South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, is a case in point: a charismatic leader who promotes himself as a champion of the poor and oppressed, but has been beset by scandals moral and financial. In the past few years alone, Zuma has been accused of corruption in a multi-billion dollar arms deal; charged with (and later acquitted of) the rape of a young family friend; and spent millions in public funds on improving his private home, including building an amphitheatre and swimming pool for “security reasons”. Zuma is one of life’s great survivors but now, with South Africa’s currency in freefall and unemployment hovering over 25%, his competency is openly questioned. zumaOver a breakfast of bacon and eggs in Newtown, I read a newspaper headline announcing that Zuma had abruptly fired his respected finance minister, after the minister reportedly refused to bail out an airline run by an ANC ally. Returning to the same café a few days later, I saw that the same newspaper headline had been recycled: the replacement minister had also been sacked, and the government had its third finance minister in less than a week. In such times, it’s easy to see why people are pessimistic about the future.

With a day to spare, I headed out of Johannesburg towards Pretoria, the administrative centre of South Africa and historic heartland of the apartheid regime. To my surprise, the Gauwtrain (‘Gold Train’) linking the two cities was a delight: spotless, punctual and safe; sliding under the city centre and over miles of dusty green veld. Fellow passengers included a boisterous group of locals speculating about which ANC grandee will take the presidential reins when Zuma retires in 2019. Their favourite candidate was Cyril Ramaphosa; a freedom fighter turned tycoon who owns all of South Africa’s McDonald’s restaurants, and has been accused of inciting brutal crackdowns on striking mineworkers. If great leaders are judged by how well they prepare their successors, then Nelson Mandela may be a less successful leader than his reputation would suggest.

The centre of Pretoria is dominated by Church Square, another strangely European zone of old brick buildings, including the ironically-named Palace of Justice where Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. At the centre of the square stands a top-hatted statue of Paul Kruger, who led the white settler farmers of the Transvaal Republic in their fight against British rule. A few months ago, protestors throughout the country began calling for such statues to be removed or renamed, offended by what they see as the continued celebration of the architects of white minority rule. Pretoria’s Kruger statue had been defaced with splashes of green paint, after which pro-Kruger protesters marched with signs reading “Ons gaan nergens”; “We’re not going anywhere.” Today, the old man stands ringed by a thick necklace of barbed wire for his own protection.

Heading out of town, I ascended the hot tarmac to the Voortrekker monument; a vast red-brick structure which hulked on a grassy hilltop like a bell-shaped heap of Lego. Unveiled in 1949, the structure commemorates the Afrikaners who trekked north in the 1800s in search of new lands, establishing the states which later formed the basis of modern South Africa. Unsurprisingly, this monument has also attracted the interest of protestors, thanks to its unabashed celebration of incidents like the Battle of Blood River, at which some 500 whites defeated around 12,000 Zulus. Today, though, all was quiet. The monument stood still and gloomy in the sunlight, its church-like interior lined with paintings showing white settlers delivering “civilisation” to black Africans through the barrels of their rifles.

On the steps outside the monument, I was surprised to find a pair of white South African newlyweds posing happily for wedding-day photos. The blushing bride laughed gaily as her pinkish dress ruffled in the breeze, while the groom’s friends seemed to fit perfectly the old Afrikaner stereotype: powerfully-built, square and sunburnt, with reddish beards protruding from under straw hats. The group were all aged under 30, but the scene offered a glimpse of a South Africa from another era: burly Afrikaners celebrating in front of a totem of white minority rule, as a bemused black security guard looked on. As the sun set, I felt that I’d travelled back in time again.


The Dutch Donald Trump


To a lazy journalist or busy blogger, the parallels between bouffant blonde blowhard Donald Trump and bouffant blonde blowhard Geert Wilders seem irresistible. The American Presidential hopeful and Dutch Prime Ministerial hopeful are both winning headlines with their incendiary rhetoric about immigration and Islam, both delighting right-wing fans who feel neglected by the political establishment, and both clearer about what they oppose than what they support. They also both seem to share a hairdresser with a 1990s-era Hillary Clinton.

On policy, there is much that the two men agree on. Both pledge to speak up for the working man, and to rebuild a country destroyed by socialism and political correctness. Trump says “there’s a problem in this country, and it’s Muslims”, while Wilders says “we have a great problem with Islam in the Netherlands”. However, there is also one crucial difference between the two men: their endurance. Surprisingly, a Dutch MP with an unpronounceable name looks set to have a far more lasting impact than a billionaire Presidential candidate in the most powerful country in the world.

Like superhero movies and teenage boys, populist politicians often peak too soon. Good at winning headlines, they tend to be rather less good at winning the elections which follow. In Britain, for example, the UK Independence Party dominated media coverage in the run-up to this year’s election, but ultimately won just one seat in Parliament. A few years previously, Nick Griffin’s British National Party secured acres of anguished newsprint, but then received less than 0.1% of the vote. In France, the National Front has proved more resilient, but party leader Marine Le Pen (yet another bottle blond) remains a relative newcomer, and it’s unclear how long her popularity will last. The US, meanwhile, has long tradition of blustering demagogues like Herman Cain dominating the early primary campaigns without ever getting within shouting distance of the White House. For all his talk of “making America great again”, Donald Trump looks set to follow the same path as his predecessors; providing an amusing sideshow which will soon be eclipsed by moderates like Marco Rubio. On the nationalist right, rising stars often turn out to be shooting stars.

Geert Wilders, though, is an exception to the rule. First elected to the Dutch parliament in 1998, he has demonstrated unusual staying power. Wilders’ became a national figure in the Netherlands when he broke away from a mainstream party to form his own Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party, or PVV), and became a household name when he denounced Islam and was named on a terrorist ‘death list’. Today, he lives in a bullet-proof safe house and attends Parliament under heavy armed guard. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this notoriety, he has proved adept at winning votes; collecting at least nine seats at each of the last three elections. In the 2010 elections, his party won nearly sixteen per cent of the vote, making it the third largest party in parliament and giving it a formal role in the coalition government. Unlike many other radicals, Wilders has not just a popular Twitter feed, but a hand on the levers of power.

Of course, the Geert Wilders fan club remains relatively small. To many Dutch, the bombastic blonde is anathema to everything their country stands for; a living violation of the principle that all are welcome and all are equal. In my book, I quote one mild-mannered Dutch woman comparing Wilders to a Nazi. However, there’s also something typically Dutch about Wilders’ refusal to tone down his language and avoid causing offence to others. In a country where politics is based on compromise and coalition, and where Prime Ministers are usually dull technocrats who look like Harry Potter, there will always be room for a maverick showman. The complex Dutch voting system also means it’s possible to win a seat in Parliament even if a fairly small number people vote for a party, spread across the entire country.

As a result, Wilders is no transient force. In recent weeks, the Netherlands has (like many other countries) been gripped by concern about the refugee crisis. To many Dutch, the solution is clear: let them in, let them stay, and make them welcome. But to others, hospitality is an unaffordable luxury, and immigrants a threat to the culture of a country which already imports much of its entertainment from the US, its language from the UK, and its economic policy from Germany. Angry mobs have disrupted public meetings, councillors’ cars have been torched and a leading politician was sent bullets in the post.

Wilders has been quick to exploit the crisis with a “Grenzen Dicht” (“Borders Shut”) campaign, gaining popularity with every outrageous comment he makes. Like Trump, he has elevated trolling into a national campaign, but a certain portion of the electorate views him in Churchillian terms, as the only man clear-sighted enough to save his country from a gathering storm. According to aggregate polls released this week, support for Wilders’ party has just reached an all-time high, backed by around a quarter of all Dutch voters. If there were an election tomorrow, the party would more than double its number of seats in parliament.

Support for Donald Trump is already fading, but it seems clear that Wilders is here to stay, and will keep surprising an establishment which writes him off as a cartoon extremist. As the noted political commentator Pamela Anderson once said; “It’s great to be a blonde. With low expectations it’s very easy to surprise people.”

Death of a Dissident: Murder, Empire and the Dutch in Indonesia


Almost eleven years ago, in September 2004, a man called Munir Thalib boarded a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. A slight, moustachioed man in his late thirties, Thalib was relatively well-known in his native Indonesia, having won headlines as the head of a human rights group which exposed corruption and brutality among the Indonesian military. Thalib’s work had earned him many admirers, but also fierce opponents – he’d received a broken hand from the security services, hate mail and even the occasional death threat. Now, though, Thalib had reason to feel relieved. After years of campaigning, he had secured place at university in the Dutch city of Utrecht, and was looking forward to starting a new life beyond the reach of his powerful enemies. The plane ride to Amsterdam was,quite literally, a flight to a safer life.

Thalib’s upbeat mood was further improved when the plane stopped briefly in Singapore, and a friendly off-duty Garuda Airlines pilot stopped by his seat to offer a free upgrade to Business Class. Delighted at his good fortune, Thalib moved to a new extra-large chair and settled back to enjoy the free food and fruit juice. A few hours later, however, he began to feel unwell. He soon began vomiting, and doctor who happened to be on board was summoned to provide assistance. But by the time the plane began its slow descent into Schiphol airport, Thalib was dead. Dutch authorities quickly conducted an autopsy, and reached a remarkable conclusion: Thalib had been poisoned by a dose of arsenic added to the orange juice he’d been served on the plane. In a plot twist worthy of the trashiest airport thriller, the pilot who had offered Thalib an upgrade was convicted of his murder, and the airline’s Chief Executive charged with telling the pilot to do it.

A couple of months ago, more than a decade after Thalib’s death, a small group of relatives, activists, reporters and politicians held a brief remembrance ceremony in the Hague. Thalib’s widow watched as the city’s Mayor renamed a street in the dead dissident’s honour. An area of the city which already had streets named for Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela now also has a ‘Munirpad’, or Munir Street.

For Thalib’s family, the renaming ceremony was a welcome recognition of the price that had been paid. For the Dutch, though, it was perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of their sometimes rocky relationship with his homeland.

The Dutch relationship with Indonesia goes back over four hundred years, to the days when motley bands of explorers and adventurers left Amsterdam by ship in pursuit of nutmeg, pepper and other valuable spices. As the spice trade flourished, the Dutch established trading posts and colonies in cities like Jakarta, and Amsterdam’s wharves heaved with imported coffee, tea and spices. Dutch merchants became fabulously wealthy, and invested their new-found riches in the construction of beautiful canals and elegant townhouses, decorated with art by new talents like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Indonesia remained a Dutch colony for several centuries, winning independence only during the great fracturing of empires which followed the Second World War.

More than half a century later, the legacy of those colonial days is still obvious in the Netherlands: countless streets are named after Indonesian cities, there’s a sizable Indo-Dutch community and Indonesia is a popular Dutch holiday destination. Indonesian food is as popular in the Netherlands as Indian food is in Britain.

However, the Dutch empire also had its darker side; now often forgotten by those who holiday in Bali and rave about the quality of Dutch ‘nasi goreng’ and ‘kip satay’. The Dutch fought hard to retain control of their colonies, and left only after a bloody civil war, enormous pressure from the UN, and an American threat of economic sanctions. Thousands were killed in fighting between the departing colonists and the colonised. After the Dutch left, Indonesia suffered decades of dictatorship, marked by anti-communist purges which killed thousands, brutal domination of territories like East Timor, corruption, economic crises and terrorism; troubles for which the departed Dutch bore at least some responsibility. Stories of imperial guilt are not unusual, but remain a challenge to the Netherlands’ reputation as a beacon for human rights and personal liberty. Many remain ignorant of the dark side of imperial history, or at least reluctant to talk about it. Just last week, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was criticised by some for expressing “regret” about “the horrors of the war in Asia” but stopping short of offering a full apology. Today, relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia are warm, but the shadow of empire is long.

Despite its turbulent past, Indonesia is now a thriving (if chaotic) democracy, and an emerging economic success story. As of last year, it has a dynamic new president, Joko Widodo – a street kid turned statesman, doing his best to present himself as an Asian Obama – who hopes to accelerate the development of the country. However, those hoping that Widodo’s election would lead an accounting for the crimes of the previous era have been disappointed. Last year, before Widodo’s election, the pilot convicted of Munir Thalib’s murder was released from jail. He had served just six years of a murder sentence, and was freed amid rumours of a close relationship with the Indonesian intelligence services. Despite the memorial in The Hague, the exact circumstances of Thalib’s death remain clouded in mystery. “This street is like a ghost,” one of his friends told reporters in the Hague. “As long as the case is not resolved, then the Indonesian government will keep being haunted by the truth”.

Revolution in Amsterdam: How one Dutch rebel brought bicycles to the world

bikesExactly fifty years ago this week, a young Dutchman called Luud Schimmelpennink went for a ride on his bike. Leaving his apartment in Amsterdam, he cycled through the winding brick streets to Spui square; a cobbled plaza nestled amid the city’s concentric canals, lined with pretty bookshops and cafés. Arriving at the centre of the square, he parked his bicycle next to a statue: a bronze of a cheerful young boy in shorts and cap, with his hands on his hips, gazing out across the tram tracks and cycle lanes. A small crowd gathered. The statue had been donated to the city by a tobacco company a few years earlier, and had by the mid-1960s become regular meeting place for members of the anarchist group known as the Provos, a playful-but-radical bunch of hippies and rebels who would soon become famous when they disrupted a Dutch Royal Wedding with smoke-bombs and were rumoured to have put LSD in Amsterdam’s water supply.

Producing a can of paint from a bag, Schimmelpennink began messily painting his bike white. The repainted bicycle, Schimmelpennink announced to the crowd, was no longer his – it belonged to everyone. Along with two others, it would be left unlocked for anyone to use, free of charge – the embodiment of the democratic, egalitarian society which the Provos hoped to create. The White Bicycles would, Schimmelpennink hoped, spark a revolution in the way Amsterdammers got around.

For a Dutchman, a bicycle was a natural choice of political symbol. Cycling had always been hugely popular in the Netherlands, largely as a result of the flat terrain and compact dimensions of most cities. Doctors, lawyers, schoolchildren, Queens and Prime Ministers all traveled to work by bike. The devastation of the Second World War dealt a serious blow to the Dutch cycling tradition, but following the war hundreds of new bike lanes helped get the country back on two wheels, even if many Dutch never entirely forgave their German neighbours for the wartime theft of thousands of bicycles. “Mijn fiets terug!” (Give me my bike back!) would remain a common, if rather outdated, joke hollered by drunken Dutchmen at visiting German tourists.

In that context, it was hardly surprising that Luud Schimmelpennink’s White Bicycle Plan soon captured the public imagination. Ceremonies were held at the Spui statue at which people would donate more bikes to the scheme, dancing and setting off fireworks while the police struggled to keep crowds under control. Honeymooning in Amsterdam, John Lennon was given a white bike as a wedding gift. Schimmelpennink won a seat on Amsterdam’s city council, and the Provos received acres of press coverage, although a mooted ‘White Wives’ wife-swapping scheme proved rather less popular than the bicycles.

Ultimately, the White Bicycle Plan fizzled out in the Netherlands, thanks to a determined police operation which confiscated unlocked white bicycles throughout the city. The Provo movement itself disbanded in 1967 and, in the way of ageing revolutionaries worldwide, most of its former adherents ended up living the kind of settled, bourgeois lives they had once scorned. Luud Schimmelpennink, however, did end up sparking a revolution.

Some thirty years after his original protest, activists in Oregon who heard about the White Bicycles were inspired to start their own bike-sharing scheme in the city of Portland. Despite bearing a rather unoriginal name– the Yellow Bike Scheme – the Portland project thrived, and provided the inspiration for others in North America and Europe. As technology improved, public-bike sharing programmes sprang up in dozens of major cities around the world. Fifty years on from the first paint-splattered protest, some 700 cities from Dubai to Hawaii now have bike-sharing schemes, with more than 800,000 bicycles up for loan, including 90,000 under one Chinese scheme alone. In an era of widespread cuts to public spending, bike-sharing schemes are a rare example of a public service which is growing almost exponentially, in communist and capitalist municipalities alike. In London, Mayor Boris Johnson has even managed the neat trick of positioning himself as a standard-bearer of the political right while also claiming credit for a communal property-sharing scheme thought up by a free-loving Dutch beatnik. This year, two more new schemes have already been launched, in Belfast and New Delhi. In both cities, the bicycles available for loan are painted white.

Going Dutch: Cameron, Clegg and what the Netherlands can teach Britain about politics

Watching the UK’s general election from afar is a strange experience. Last time around, in 2010, I was working on the campaign in Westminster and followed every detail obsessively; monitoring polls and watching news feeds and helping craft endless ‘Lines To Take’ based on the day’s headlines. Five years later, watching from abroad, I’m completely ignorant of the stream of policy announcements, minor scandals, attacks and rebuttals which make up the mood music of the campaign. However, as I work to complete my book on the Netherlands, it’s been interesting to watch the UK moving towards a more Dutch way of doing politics. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that one of the main players in the current campaign, Nick Clegg, is half Dutch and speaks the language fluently.

cameron-rutteTo an outsider, the Dutch political system is a curious beast. Historically, politics in the Netherlands was dominated by a few large parties, and people’s votes were often based heavily on whether they identified with the Protestant or Catholic community. Over the last fifty years, however, the major Dutch parties have fractured into numerous smaller parties, catering to every conceivable belief. At the 2014 European elections, the ballot delivered to my house in Rotterdam listed no fewer than nineteen different parties, with a total of 345 candidates competing for just 26 seats. There’s a Dutch political party for animal-lovers, another for old people, and until recently there was even one for paedophiles.

It’s unlike that the UK will ever go quite that far, but it looks as if British politics is in the early stages of a similar evolution, with the old duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives facing increasingly stiff competition from an array of smaller rivals. Five years ago the big political story was the sudden rise to prominence of the Liberal Democrats; last year all eyes were on UKIP; and now the media are obsessing over whether the Scottish National Party will be the power brokers propping up a Labour-led government. With less than two weeks to go, the pollsters and pundits whose job it is to predict the outcome all agree on one thing: they have no idea what shape the next government will take.

Compared with five years ago, if the election does end in stalemate, the party leaders will be ready. Forewarned by months of divided polls, they will have identified possible partners, agreed red lines and decided negotiating strategies well before the polls close. Constitutionally, the country is also well-prepared for power-sharing, thanks to the introduction of fixed term parliaments which remove some of uncertainty usually associated with coalitions.  Culturally, however, the UK remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of cross-party government. Nearly two-thirds of voters say they would prefer a single party to be in charge, while politicians cannot abide the idea that the public might find them all equally unappealing. Generally, Brits seem to think of coalition governments the way they think about new Indiana Jones or Star Wars sequels: a nice enough idea in theory, but pretty awful in practice.

Looking at the Netherlands, where coalition governments are the norm, it’s clear that if Britain is to move to a permanent multi-party system, several profound shifts in political culture will be needed.

Firstly, British voters will have to become accustomed to the idea that they might not get what they vote for. In countries where coalitions are common, voters accept that the manifestos they vote for will never actually be delivered, but are instead starting points for negotiation. For a party to pledge to abolish tuition fees and then support the opposite policy when in power would not be a shocking example of duplicity, but a natural outcome of a system where rivals negotiate and no-one gets exactly what they want. This approach has some benefits – the fact that every conceivable minority has a voice in Dutch politics is one reason why the Netherlands was so quick to adopt policies like gay marriage. But for the voter, there are also disadvantages, including the fact that – as a certain shrimp-fishing Vietnam veteran might say – you never know what you’re going to get. If multi-party politics is to thrive in Britain, voters will need to get used to the fact that having chosen between manifestos A, B, C and D, they actually end up with policy Z.

Secondly, politicians themselves will have to get used to the idea that the rivals who they fight in elections might soon be their allies in government. Cameron and Clegg have done a reasonable job of pretending to get along, but in reality British politics has long been a bloodsport; a Hunger Games-style contest where only the most ruthless can survive. This can be fun to watch, but is incompatible with a situation where the leaders of two, three or four rival parties may soon end up bumping elbows around the Cabinet table. In the Netherlands, the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (pictured above with David Cameron), has depended on the backing of no fewer than three rival parties in as many years. As such, he’s rather less likely to attack them harshly during election campaigns, and more likely to tone down the rhetoric. In the future, British party leaders may have to start treating each other less like worst enemies and more like potential best friends.

Thirdly, political parties will have to get used to the idea that they are not the major forces they used to be. In the last fifty years support for the two main parties has plummeted, but the parties themselves remain wedded to the idea that large blocks of voters will stick with them as loyally as football fans on match day. In a multi-party system, however, voter loyalty is much lower. To many Dutch voters, Political Compass style quizzes which help people decide who to vote for aren’t just an interesting curiosity, but a serious tool for picking a party. Politicians’ affiliations are also more fluid, with rising stars regularly breaking away from established parties to form their own one-man bands. Britain may not see a Boris Johnson Party any time soon, but defections between parties may become more common, and small breakaway parties may stake out more distinctive positions. British voters may soon have to stop complaining that all the parties are the same, and start complaining that they’re all too different.

After five years of coalition government, the UK is in the curious position of having adopted some of the features of a multi-party system, but not others. Coalition governments are increasingly likely, but the political culture hasn’t yet caught up with the new reality. If voters, politicians and party bosses shift their views, multi-party politics in Britain may become permanent. If not, it’s more likely to go the way of Nick Clegg’s political career.

The World’s Most Popular Dictator

Kigali, where I recently spent a week or so, is a beautiful city: a vast cobweb of tree-lined boulevards which rise and fall over the surrounding ridges and valleys. Viewed from the air, the famous ‘Thousand Hills’ of Rwanda stretch like a rumpled green blanket away from the city, ending at the shimmering shores of Lake Kivu. To the outside world, though, the country is famous not for its beauty but for other reasons: the terrible genocide which took place there, and the spectacular recovery which followed.

When the rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) swept into Kigali and ended the genocide in July of 1994, they found themselves in control of a devastated country. Close to a million people had been butchered in a little over three months, many of them by former friends, colleagues and neighbours. Kigali’s graceful streets were littered with the corpses of ethnic minority Tutsis and those who had sought to protect them. Thousands of women had been raped, and thousands of limbs amputated by machete-wielding extremists. According to one study, roughly two-thirds of the country’s children had seen a close relative or friend murdered. It was hard to imagine how the country could ever recover.

In the two decades since then, however, Rwanda has experienced a remarkable turnaround. Average life expectancy, for example, has increased from 36 years to 56. The Rwandan economy is growing at more than eight percent a year, and child poverty has fallen by around two-thirds. A national anti-malaria programme has cut malaria-related deaths by 85 percent, while nearly two-thirds of the members of the Rwandan parliament are women (compared with around a fifth in the UK). Waves of foreign investment have transformed Kigali’s skyline and the city is famously litter-free, thanks to a nationwide ban on plastic bags and an army of brush-wielding cleaners.

As a result of this progress, Rwanda has become something of a poster child for the international community; welcome proof of the good that donors can do. Roughly forty percent of the Rwandan government’s budget is paid for by foreign do-gooders – the UK government, for example, is scheduled to give nearly £100m this year alone. The two Bills of international development – Clinton and Gates – are regular visitors to Kigali, and Tony Blair is an official adviser to the RPF guerrilla leader turned President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. Jogging around the city early on a Sunday morning, I had to stop twice to let the motorcades of visiting foreign presidents pass, while the car park of the famous Hotel des Mille Collines – Hollywood’s “Hotel Rwanda” – was overflowing with the white Toyota Land Cruisers of resident aid workers. To those interested in turning around failed states, Rwanda provides a lesson: with a clear vision and a firm hand, it’s possible to steer even the most damaged of countries towards a brighter future.

Personally, I was never convinced by this narrative. Unfortunately, Rwanda’s rapid economic growth has been matched by a sharp decline in political freedom, and Paul Kagame’s leadership has become increasingly authoritarian. A Rwandan journalist was recently jailed for four years for editing articles critical of the President, while other critics have been forced to leave the country. In 2011, the British police accused the Rwandan government of trying to arrange the assassination of a human rights activist who had called a BBC radio show to ask Kagame whether an Arab Spring-style revolution was possible in his country. Perhaps most seriously, the Rwandan government has been accused of giving financial support to armed groups operating in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, including the notorious M23 rebel group; adding fuel to a conflict which has already claimed an estimated four million lives. Kagame refutes these allegations, but few would dispute that he has built something close to a one-party state. At the last elections, in 2010, he won 93 percent of the vote, and the rumours in Kigali are that he may seek to amend the constitution so he can run for a third term in 2017. The New York Times recently alleged that Kagame had beaten members of his presidential staff for offences such as choosing the wrong colour curtains for his office.

To me the loss of freedom had always seemed like a very heavy price to pay for improvement in other areas. Given that many of the problems of poverty in Africa are caused in part by corruption and a lack of human rights, it seemed deeply misguided to be actively sponsoring more of the same. To turn a blind eye to dictatorships might occasionally be necessary, but to hold them up as an example of enlightened development was immoral.

After a few days in Rwanda, however, my views began to change. Entering the country from elsewhere in Africa feels a little like arriving in the centre of Paris after years in the desert. The main airport in Kigali is cleaner and more efficiently run than many in Europe, with gleaming floors and cafes offering fresh pain au chocolat alongside the rich local coffee. The roads leading through the city centre are well-maintained and immaculately swept, with proper pavements, streetlights, well-tended roundabouts and functioning traffic lights which everyone obeys. When I went out for dinner one night with some American friends, we walked home at two o’clock in the morning, chatting noisily without any fear of being mugged or hassled. Rwanda is still one of Africa’s poorest countries, but there were, as far as I could see, no homeless people and no slums.

Out in the countryside, amid a vertiginous landscape which looked like the set of Avatar, there were similar signs of progress. Small coffee-growing villages clearly were far poorer than diplomat-friendly Kigali, but the roads were still excellent. When I visited a school in a fairly remote area, I found it better-equipped than any I’d seen in Africa. The smartly-uniformed children there told me, in near-perfect English, that they would receive up to twelve years of free state education. When I chatted to a couple of policemen in French, at one of the omnipresent security roadblocks, I found them jovial and helpful in a way which the authorities in many African countries rarely are. Above all, the country seemed filled with a palpable sense of potential. Aid workers I met enthused about how easy it was to get things done – “If you have a good idea to fix something, the government will make it possible for you to do it overnight”, one said. “Kagame makes it easy to do things which we can’t do elsewhere”, said another. In a continent where getting someone to fix a leaking tap often requires weeks of waiting and phone calls, it was easy to see the appeal.

It’s clear that Rwanda still faces many serious challenges, including the question of whether the poisonous ethnic rivalries which sparked the genocide are truly extinct, or merely dormant. Less clear to me, however, was the question of whether the trade-off between freedom and development was worthwhile. I’d found it easy to take a dim view of Kagame’s leadership when reading hostile news coverage in Europe, but a lot harder when talking to a farmer who couldn’t vote freely but could send his daughters to school for the first time in their lives. Benjamin Franklin once said that any country willing to give up a little liberty in order to gain a little security deserved to have neither, and would eventually lose both. Before visiting Rwanda, I would have agreed. Afterwards, I wasn’t so sure.


The Emperor’s Clothes

DSCF0368Within the Netherlands, the city of Rotterdam is well known for its skyline: a jagged row of modern towers which spreads away from the River Maas like a bar graph. Locals are probably overdoing it when they refer to the city as “Manhattan on the Maas”, given that the soggy ground limits most towers to about twenty storeys, but many of the buildings are undeniably impressive. Bombed heavily during the Second World War, Rotterdam has since become a showcase for the bold style of modern Dutch architecture in which a building isn’t a building if it doesn’t have at least one wildly sloping face or precarious overhang. Architecture students come from across Europe to visit the Rubik’s-shaped Cube Houses, harbourside Hotel New York and knife-like train station.

The latest example of this style opened recently on the south bank of the river: a set of three glassy towers which loom high over the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge) connecting the northern and southern halves of the city. The towers were designed by star architect and local boy Rem Koolhaas, whose skills in designing buildings clearly don’t extend to naming them – after some debate, developers agreed the towers should jointly be known as ‘De Rotterdam’ (‘The Rotterdam’).

I found myself in the area a couple of weeks ago and snuck inside for a look around. From the lobby, the buildings were undeniably impressive, with all the features one would expect of a world-class office building and luxury hotel: an upmarket coffee bar, beautiful blonde receptionists, sweeping panoramas of the traffic on the river, and a collection of comfortable furniture which probably cost more than my house. However, when I snuck up to the upper floors, I was surprised to find that most of them were empty, with bare concrete floors littered with dangling wires, tools and paintbrushes. There were few people around and most of the offices and parking spaces were unoccupied. According to news reports, Koolhaas designed the towers long ago but was able to secure funding only after the economic crisis hit, when the cost of land fell and builders’ wages plummeted. It now seemed that the same weak economy which had enabled the project to begin might ultimately doom it to failure.

The Netherlands was hit hard by the global economic downturn. The collapse of Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland Group was triggered partly by the failings of its Dutch subsidiary, ABN Amro, and the Dutch government was forced to provide a costly bailout. The economy went into recession, unemployment hit eight percent and the price of the country’s slender old town houses fell sharply. Several years later, the Dutch economy is still looking pretty bruised, with many people out of work and the government running a fearsome budget deficit. With natural gas forming a significant slice of Dutch export earnings, the situation has been exacerbated by plummeting energy prices, while Dutch hopes of a special ‘year of trade with Russia’ ended abruptly last year when Russian-backed forces first invaded Crimea, and then shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight with hundreds of Dutch people on board.

The centre-right governing coalition responded to the slump in much the same way as their British counterparts: with billions of euros in spending cuts, sharp tax rises and reform of the complex welfare system. For people who had long been accustomed to receiving generous government support and enjoying a high quality of life, it’s been a bumpy ride. Recently there have been some welcome signs of a turnaround – after two years of contraction, the Dutch economy grew 0.8 percent in 2014. A falling euro has helped boost exports, and most analysts are predicting higher growth over the next two years. However, it remains to be seen whether the country can recover its former prosperity, or whether the Dutch, like others in Europe, will have to adjust to permanently lower standards of living. At the very least, it looks likely that a system which once heavily subsidised the lifestyles of part-time workers and parents will become far less benevolent, making the Netherlands less like Scandinavia and more like Britain or the United States. The underlying fundamentals of the economy seem to be improving, but like the new skyscrapers in Rotterdam, that could turn out to be a mirage.

DSCF0851   DSCF0374   DSCF1705

A House Divided


Last week was one of my favourite times of year in the Netherlands: Carnival, an annual celebration held in the run-up to Easter, during which half the country braves the cold and rain to enjoy several days of drinking, costumed parades, marching bands and more drinking.

I say “half the country” because Carnival is only celebrated in the south of the Netherlands, in the region between the River Maas and the Belgian border – a reflection of the traditional divide between the predominantly Protestant north of the country and the largely Catholic south. This religious divide is a topic I explore extensively in my book, both because it explains a lot about how the Netherlands developed its unique culture, and because writing about it gave me an excuse to spend several days drinking beer while dressed as a tiger.

I won’t repeat the whole story here, but suffice it to say that until relatively recently, the Netherlands was quite starkly divided on religious lines, with Dutch Catholics and Protestants using different schools, hospitals, football clubs and even newspapers depending on which faith they belonged to. Dividing the population into these faith-based groups – known as zuilen, or pillars – made it possible to ensure peace and equality between communities which previously had been mired in a bloody war.

In recent years these pillars have largely dissolved, thanks to the growing popularity of atheism, and the growth of a more mobile, more educated workforce which blurred the traditional boundaries. However, the pillars have left behind an enduring legacy, including a national culture in which people attach huge importance to the need for discussion and compromise. People will happily spend hours debating even the most mundane of issues, and in Dutch politics there’s little of the partisan point-scoring seen in countries like the UK. You could even argue that many of the things which the Netherlands is now most famous for – homosexual equality, for example – are partly a result of the long tradition of giving each minority group an equal say, and ensuring that their rights are protected.

Although a majority of Dutch are now atheists, there are still places where conservative values reign supreme, such as in the staunchly Protestant Dutch ‘Bible Belt’. I’ve also been surprised to find that despite the Netherlands’ reputation as a freewheeling country where anything goes, there’s still quite a strong conservative streak running through Dutch society, with people attaching huge importance to hard work and family, and frowning on anything which smacks of overindulgence. Woe betide anyone who dares show off their new sports car.

This year, I went to two Carnival celebrations – one in the ancient city of Breda, to the south of Rotterdam, and the other in Eindhoven, a large southern city best known as the home of the Dutch electrical giant Philips. Both cities have a reputation for holding particularly rowdy celebrations, and they didn’t disappoint – tens of thousands of people had turned out in costume for vast street parties which would put the Notting Hill Carnival to shame. A week later, my hangover has eased just about enough to upload some pictures here. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book…

DSCF0556 DSCF0572 DSCF0579 DSCF0606 DSCF0589 DSCF0599