Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

The Daily Telegraph (Section Comment)  - 17 March 2017


Think populism is dead? Then think again

The Dutch election result was welcomed by liberals, but voters’ discontent has still not been addressed

By Sophie Gaston


‘Barely minutes had passed after the first exit polls from the Dutch elections when a collective cheer erupted from Europe’s liberal torchbearers. The Dutch were praised for “common sense” in rejecting Geert Wilders and his anti-EU, Islamophobic Party for Freedom (PVV). Soon, on social media, populism’s last rites were being read.

On a continent shaken by challenges to the liberal consensus, and facing at least three major national elections this year, it is little wonder that this vote, though small, was celebrated by the establishment as a turning point – a populist high-water mark from which the European project can look confidently to the future.

This jubilation is both premature and potentially dangerous. First, it underestimates the extent to which Wilders’s ideas have already shaped Dutch politics. More important, it suggests that the issues he has championed to such effect can now be safely sidelined ahead of a return to the status quo.

This is self-evidently not the case. Wilders, the charismatic showman of Dutch populism, is a veteran of almost 20 years in his national politics. His anti-EU stance and values-based focus on Islamic migration has found steadily growing appeal. His message about the erosion of national identity and pride has resonated strongly – a remarkable feat in a land with such a weak contemporary sense of cohesive nationhood.

While it is true that he did not do as well as he had hoped, Wilders has already fundamentally shifted the goalposts of Dutch political debate, and pushed Prime Minister Mark Rutte and others towards an increasingly Eurosceptic, nationalist rhetoric. From the moment in the campaign two months ago when Rutte declared that immigrants must “act normal, or go away”, this election belonged to the PVV.

So instead of patting themselves on the back, liberals must consider where the ideas that have now been injected into Dutch political debate are channelled – and addressed. Wilders might not have the keys to power, but seeds have been planted, and his ideas will live on. It is unclear whether Rutte will now really respond to the concerns of the voters he courted, or if he regards his hardline rhetoric as the price of power, best confined to the campaign trail. Yet if, having won, he simply buries the policies he co-opted from Wilders, popular resentment will only rise again.

For the most important matter is not the result of this election but what comes next. And complacency is a dangerous game.

Even if Marine Le Pen does not emerge victorious in the forthcoming French presidential poll, and Angela Merkel hangs on to power this autumn in Germany, populist influence on national and European politics will remain undiminished.

Indeed, if there is a sense that their concerns are not being addressed, populists could very well be emboldened. This will be particularly likely if it turns out that mainstream victories are only won on the back of fragmented coalitions and weakened domestic mandates.

The real question is whether any of these mainstream candidates have policies up their sleeves to address the suite of insecurities – economic, social and cultural – that have given rise to populism in the first place. Voters are clamouring for change and decisive action, and politicians will only further turn them off mainstream parties if they cannot, or will not, speak to the heart of their needs.

In America, President Trump continues to polarise opinion, but with his base he has come good as a “man of action”, sticking to what he promised. On this side of the Atlantic, by contrast, the temptation is to sweep voter concerns under an increasingly fraying carpet. That will only set us up for heavier falls down the track.

Not that such warnings will do anything to dispel the evident relief in Brussels about the result of the Dutch elections. For the Eurocrats, the wolves have been kept from the door. But once their euphoria has subsided, even they will know that the pack is still circling. The Netherlands stands, but Europe is by no means out of the woods yet.’

Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historiae

Sophie Gaston is Head of International Projects at the think tank Demos.

From the website of Demos: 'Sophie manages international projects and external affairs at Demos, including overseeing the design, management and delivery of major international research and partnership projects and events, and editing the organisation’s Demos Quarterly journal. She also manages the organisation’s busy national and international events programme, communications, media engagement, strategic positioning, social media and the organisation’s website. (...)'

Demos introduces itself as 'Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank. We produce original research, publish innovative thinkers and host thought-provoking events. We have spent over 20 years at the centre of the policy debate, with an overarching mission to bring politics closer to people. Demos has always been interested in power: how it works, and how to distribute it more equally throughout society. We believe in trusting people with decisions about their own lives and solving problems from the bottom-up.We pride ourselves on working together with the people who are the focus of our research. Alongside quantitative research, Demos pioneers new forms of deliberative work, from citizens’ juries and ethnography to ground breaking social media analysis. Demos is an independent, educational charity, registered in England and Wales (Charity Registration no. 1042046).'