26 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 5: the Netherlands

In the first four instalments of this series, we explored some of the principal characteristics of power-sharing in a divided polity, which collectively are often called consociational. I noted that there is no single form of consociational arrangement but that all are intended to facilitate co-operation among leaders of sharply divided communities for proximate political purposes. Each country that has happened upon such an arrangement has its own story. Today I will focus on the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, sometimes shortened to Holland (although Holland is merely one of the country's historic provinces), is a country of some 17 million people living along the northwest coast of Europe along the North Sea. The people speak a west Germanic language closely related to the standard German spoken to its east. In the late middle ages and early modern era it was part of the Holy Roman Empire, its territory being ruled by the Habsburgs who also ruled the kingdom of Spain. When Emperor Charles V abdicated in 1556, the Netherlands passed into the hands of his son Philip II of Spain, who proved to be an irritant to his Dutch subjects. From 1568 until 1648 the Dutch fought a war of independence against Spain, becoming a loosely confederated republic under the princes of Orange. The Reformation took hold here during this time, and the Reformed Church became the dominant ecclesiastical body in the republic, while a substantial Roman Catholic population persisted, especially in the south.

With the coming of the French Revolution in 1789, the whole of Europe was pulled into a full generation of turmoil, which profoundly affected the Netherlands. The Dutch Republic, also known as the United Provinces, was abolished by the invading French in 1795 and replaced by the Batavian Republic, modelled on revolutionary principles. In 1815 the Netherlands was revived as an enlarged kingdom under the Prince of Orange, who became King Willem I of the Netherlands. In 1830 the southern portion of the kingdom became independent as the Kingdom of Belgium, while the personal union with Luxembourg continued until the accession of Queen Wilhelmina to the throne in 1890.

Throughout the 19th century the new kingdom, which was now a highly centralized state rather than a loose confederation of provinces, became increasingly divided as followers of the ideologies engendered by the Revolution attempted to exert their influence over the country as a whole. Much as France had been divided by the Revolution's legacy, so was the Netherlands. The most divisive issue at this time was education. Under the rule of post-revolutionary liberals, the Dutch government undertook to gain control of the schools and claim a monopoly on educating the young. Traditional Reformed and Catholic parents understandably objected to this hegemonic approach, and up until 1917 education continued to be a bone of contention. As Harry Van Dyke puts it in his biographical essay on Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876),

The School Act of 1806 had instituted the common, public, non-sectarian school. . . . The common school had degenerated into a place of instruction that was based not on commonly held Christian beliefs but on common unbelief and indifference.

This approach to education survived the end of the Napoleonic wars and only intensified under the decades of liberal rule. This prompted the rise of a movement of Reformed Christians to combat this policy, led by Groen, an archivist for the house of Orange. Groen authored a book titled, Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution) in 1847, only months before a new wave of revolutions swept across Europe. In this work Groen analyzed the spiritual roots as well as the effects of the French Revolution, which he saw originating in unbelief in the Christian gospel. The movement he founded styled itself both anti-revolutionary and christian historical, leading to the establishment of an array of organizations intended to implement its vision in the face of an hegemonic secularism.

Groen's successor in this movement was the remarkable polymath, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), whose gifts as catalyst and organizer were unsurpassed by his peers. (Those interested in knowing more about Kuyper and his work should read James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, the best biography available in English.) Kuyper successfully mobilized the ordinary Reformed Christian populace, jealous of their right to educate their own offspring, into a formidable political force at the polls. Kuyper organized the world's first christian democratic party and the first political party in the Netherlands, known as the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP). In the 1890s this party would split, with the Christian Historical Union becoming the second major Protestant party in that country. Nevertheless the two parties were able to co-operate with other parties in coalition governments thereafter.

With Catholics being organized politically in the Roman Catholic State Party under their clergy, the Netherlands was now divided into four major cultural and political groupings: liberals, socialists, Reformed, and Catholics. Each community was relatively self-contained, with low levels of intermarriage and other forms of contact among members of the respective communities. Each community established its own network of institutions, including labour unions, cultural associations, schools, and so forth, in a phenomenon that came to be known as verzuiling, or pillarization, which can be illustrated with the following figure:

Each confessional/ideological community had its own network of organizations in which members lived and worked. The Reformed had their two political parties, and the Catholics had their single party. The liberals were represented by the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, or the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, while the socialists were represented by the Partij van de Arbeid, or the Party of Labour.

Arend Lijphart tells the story in his classic work, The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968). After decades of political struggle, by 1917 the four major groupings had come to an agreement on the following reforms:

  1. public funding for all schools on an equitable basis, including explicitly faith-based schools;
  2. establishment of a party list system of proportional representation for elections; 
  3. compulsory voting; and
  4. universal male suffrage, with the sex requirement removed from the Constitution, thereby enabling the subsequent statutory enfranchisement of women by a simple parliamentary majority.

This modus vivendi enabled social peace for the next half century, as the leaders of the four communities collaborated for political purposes while refraining from further attempts to win the long culture war. With elections decided proportionally, no one felt altogether excluded from political power, and multiparty coalition governments became the norm rather than the exception. Although Kuyper himself was prime minister for only four years, his ARP/CHU/RKSP coalition would become a powerful force in Dutch politics for decades until the three parties merged at the end of the 1970s to become the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA).

Ironically, as Lijphart was writing, the era of consociationalism in the Netherlands was drawing to a close, with the precipitous decline in church attendance and the arrival of such political parties as Democrats 66, which championed a radical democratizing of the political system and an end to pillarization. Although the Netherlands had stayed out of the Great War between 1914 and 1918, Germany did not respect her declaration of neutrality in 1939 and occupied the country the following year. The war and the ensuing struggle for survival broke down the old pillars to a large extent, while the secularizing trends of the 1960s further eroded the Catholic and Reformed communities, virtually completing the once feared effects of the French Revolution nearly two centuries earlier.

We will look at other countries' stories in future instalments, but it is worth pointing out that consociational arrangements tend to be temporary measures, putting an end to conflict but only for a time, after which conflict either resumes or loses its relevance for the current social mood. The latter is what happened in the Netherlands.

Next: Lebanon

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