Global Insight

April 29, 2013 4:55 pm

Global Insight: House of Orange thrives amid Dutch anti-elitism

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Willem-Alexander’s ascension to the throne will be marked by an outpouring of popular enthusiasm

For over a decade, Dutch politics have been roiled by waves of populist anger, with politicians such as the late Pim Fortuyn and the far-right firebrand Geert Wilders thundering against the self-serving greed of the “Hague elites”. Last year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, an international survey of social trust levels, found just 8 per cent of Dutch thought their top government officials acted ethically; for business, the figure was 11 per cent.

Under pressure of public outrage, ministerial salaries have been cut, while bankers have accepted some of the most stringent bonus limits in Europe. Budgets for causes traditionally associated with the bureaucratic ruling class, such as cultural subsidies, environmental protection and development aid, have been slashed.

Yet on Tuesday, the most elite family in the Netherlands, the House of Orange, will celebrate the ascension to the throne of a new king, Willem-Alexander, amid an outpouring of popular enthusiasm. Polls show support for preserving the Dutch monarchy running as high as 85 per cent.

The outgoing Queen Beatrix is beloved; her son Willem-Alexander is seen as a decent fellow, if a bit of a clod, and his wife Maxima is wildly popular. While some questions have been raised about the royal budget, the highest in Europe at €39m per year by one estimate, it remains the one cultural subsidy that has stayed nearly intact in the face of the Netherlands’ austerity measures.

Why has Dutch populism largely spared the country’s most elitist institution?

In many ways, this apparent paradox represents two sides of the same coin. Support for the monarchy is driven by some of the same forces that drive Dutch anti-elitism. The Dutch are anxious over the preservation of their national identity in the face of immigration, globalisation, and the increasing power of the EU. And they are increasingly disillusioned with a political constellation of a dozen parties that has produced five elections in the past 11 years, and has failed to provide a coherent path out of the euro crisis or to reverse last year’s 1 per cent contraction of the Dutch economy.

“The monarchy is a source of identity in a globalising world,” says Paul Scheffer, a leading scholar of Dutch immigration. “With the divided political parties losing legitimacy, the monarchy gains strength because other institutions are weakened.”

“The more people are repelled by day-to-day politics, the more attracted they are by an authority that stands outside of elections,” says Arnout van Cruyningen, a royal historian.

Anti-elitism is not a new phenomenon in the Netherlands, with its egalitarian Calvinist culture, and the royal family has learnt through experience that some modesty is needed.

The Netherlands gained independence in the late 16th century as a republic, with William of Orange and his descendants serving not as kings but as “stadholders” (or lord lieutenants), appointed by the estates-general. They did not become fully fledged monarchs until 1813, when the then-heir of Orange took the title King Willem I in the aftermath of the Napoleonic occupation. To this day the Dutch call the accession ceremony an “inauguration” rather than a coronation, and the monarch does not wear a crown.

In the 21st century, the symbolic issues that once centred on ceremonial regalia have shifted to choices about mass media presentation.

In the Netherlands, the high/low divide falls between the staid nationally subsidised broadcasters, and the racier independent channels that helped the country pioneer reality TV in the early 2000s.

The Oranges have kept their official appearances to the state networks, while benefiting from the attention of independent channels that treat the monarchy as a sort of official reality TV drama. But to maintain control, the monarchy has forced the media to agree not to publish unauthorised photos. Willem-Alexander and Maxima justify this as a measure to protect their three young daughters, but critics charge it is a means to escape critical coverage.

A national contest produced a royal song, or koningslied, that was pilloried for its grammatical errors and mediocre rap. The criticism was in many ways a last-ditch act of elite resistance to mass linguistic and musical tastes--a battle the elite ultimately lost.

So far, Willem-Alexander and Maxima have generally navigated the divide between elite and mass tastes effectively. On several occasions, though, as when Willem-Alexander attempted to justify the construction of a multimillion-dollar vacation villa in Mozambique as a development project, they have lost control, and public affection has rapidly turned to public derision. And this is where the threat to the monarchy lies. Polls show that the voters who backed the populist Mr Wilders in the last election are much less supportive of the monarchy than others. A few embarrassing blunders, and Dutch support for the Oranges may turn out to be less eternal than it now appears.

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