One of the unavoidable side-effects of re-watching ‘The Thick of It’ (as I currently am) is the reinforcement of one’s instinctive cynicism towards politicians and politics in general; as funny as the series undoubtedly is – arguably one of the funniest ever made – one cannot help but suspect satire in this case is merely a smokescreen to disguise the fact we’re actually watching a documentary. I was reminded of the cynicism it generates this week with the canny timing of the spat between the Dutch and the Turks, coming on the eve of the General Election in the Netherlands.

Initially, it appeared the whole saga was a disastrous diplomatic faux-pas guaranteed to boost the prospects of far-right nationalist candidate Geert Wilders, vindicating his opinions of Muslim immigrants in Holland; now, however, with the polls having closed, it would seem the real beneficiary is the incumbent Dutch PM Mark Rutte. By standing up to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rutte earned praise from all sides across the Dutch political spectrum and received an electoral thumbs-up as a consequence. Coincidence?

Erdogan’s idiocy in this particular clash was perhaps something Mark Rutte knew would work in his favour; all he needed was a little winding-up. To label the citizens of a former Nazi-occupied country as ‘Nazis’ themselves was hardly going to go down well; yet this is from a man whose ruthless suppression of his opponents at home following last year’s suspiciously convenient coup attempt has tightened his dictatorial grip to the point whereby the Nazi comparisons are far more applicable to his own regime. He also stirred the shit even further by accusing Dutch troops of carrying out the notorious Srebrenica Massacre in 1995. Although Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for that atrocity, the presence of Dutch UN peacekeepers and their failure to prevent the massacre means the issue remains raw in the Netherlands.

Mark Rutte’s decision to prevent two Turkish Ministers from addressing pro-Erdogan rallies in Holland kick-started the current unpleasantness between the two countries, leading to riots in Rotterdam at the weekend that seemed to play directly into the hands of Geert Wilders, who referred to the rioters with characteristic linguistic eloquence as ‘scum’. That these events should take place in a city that was all-but obliterated by German forces during the brutal conquest of Holland in 1940 seemed to rub salt into the Dutch wounds reopened by Erdogan’s war of words.

The rallies were cancelled under the guise of being a threat to public order, but no doubt the Dutch PM had an inkling what the response from the more strident pro-Erdogan Turks in Holland would be; his swift and decisive action in curbing the Rotterdam riots certainly portrayed him as a strong leader in the eyes of the electorate, which naturally did him no end of favours days away from the country going to the polls. Is it too cynical to view the whole nasty business as a carefully-coordinated incident requiring the kind of leadership that was destined to guarantee an upsurge of votes if carried out correctly?

An estimated 400,000 Turks live in the Netherlands and the rallies in question were intended to show support for a scheduled Turkish referendum designed to extend Erdogan’s powers even further; but what struck me as unusual about events in Rotterdam was that most ex-pats from a country with a regime as repressive as that of Erdogan often contain various dissidents and opponents of it, as happened for years in Florida, with first anti-Batista Cubans and then anti-Castro ones.

Yet with the Turkish President intent on tampering with the defiantly secular constitution of the modern nation founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922, he has a large hardcore following of Muslim immigrants of a Radical bent in numerous European nations who are hardly going to oppose his plans to introduce a stricter Islamic form of governance in a country on the bridge between Europe and Asia. These have been the targets of Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party throughout the election campaign, but the opportunistic hitching of a ride on the ‘populist’ bandwagon by the man with the mad mane appears to have backfired re his Prime Ministerial ambitions.

The Dutch General Election was the first of a trio taking place in Central Europe this year, with Germany and France still to follow. With the rise of the Right on the continent receiving extensive coverage, it was seen as a tester of the post-Brexit climate; but Wilders’ failure to usurp the centre-right WD Party of a PM now looking forward to a third term at the helm – despite the Freedom Party becoming the second-biggest party in the Dutch Parliament – has been seen by some as putting the brakes on what Wilders himself has called ‘a patriotic spring’.

With the largest turnout in 30 years, it would appear fears of the far-right prompted voters to head for their local polling stations in unusually high numbers; Mark Rutte has indicated he will not work with Wilders’ party when it comes to forming the inevitable coalition government, but it’s doubtful Wilders will ‘do a Hillary Clinton’ in the wake of Rutte’s success; although he may spend his waking hours under virtual armed guard for his own safety, courting publicity is a speciality and he will most certainly remain a visible and contentious presence on the European political scene.

Had the spat with Turkey been a purely spontaneous outburst, it should have been precisely the kind of boost Geert Wilders was looking for to hammer home his message; that his centre-right rival benefitted from it does make one wonder just how accidental it was, let alone the timing of it. Then again, maybe I’ve been spending too much time in the company of Malcolm Tucker to judge events in the Netherlands with a sufficiently un-cynical eye.

© The Editor


wildersMuting the volume on the television set is something of a habit. On the rare occasions I happen to be watching a programme on a commercial channel it’s second nature to press the mute button when the ads intrude; for those of you familiar with Virgin’s catch-up service, venturing into the realm of catch-up when searching for a missed show requires another press of mute in order to silence the cacophony of crap trailers on a loop that appear the second you enter that realm. Similarly, if the phone rings, it’s mute that’s called upon again; if it’s a programme I’m watching, I can still see the image albeit without the soundtrack.

This happened the other week when ‘Newsnight’ was about to begin; being distracted by the phone conversation, I looked up at the screen and seriously thought I was seeing a trailer for a new Harry Enfield series; Enfield was playing an unfamiliar suited and booted character being pursued by cameras, possibly a politician, with a bizarre haircut somewhere between boxing promoter Don King and early 60s Brit rocker Heinz. Then I saw the ‘Newsnight’ titles and realised it wasn’t Harry after all, but far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders. It didn’t seem quite as funny then.

Geert Wilders, he of the aforementioned peroxide mane, is the leader and founder of Holland’s Freedom Party, and is hoping to become Prime Minister of the Netherlands when their parliamentary elections take place three weeks from now. He’s made a name for himself by spouting simplistic, rabble-rousing sound-bites that he uses to galvanise the same marginalised natives that both Brexit and the triumph of Trump have been attributed to. His inflammatory opinions are hardly unique in his homeland, but the Dutch no longer have South Africa to act as a more conducive climate for their more extreme and outspoken sons. In 2017, they’re stuck with them. Another colonial enclave, the Dutch East Indies, forms half of Wilders’ lineage as his mother was Indonesian, so it’s true to say he has the old Dutch approach to governance in his blood.

Wilders has paid a price for his controversial public image. He lives surrounded by armed guards 24/7 for his own safety, with perennial death threats the consequence of having made shit-stirring into an art form by referring to Holland’s Moroccan population as ‘scum’ whilst promising to ban the Koran and close mosques should he succeed in his aim; however, the need to campaign has led to him emerging from hiding and adding to his contentious statements. They may garner him a devoted following, but render him a cult figure that has little appeal beyond circles that rarely recognise shades of grey.

Although Wilders describes himself as a right-wing liberal and has claimed his biggest political inspiration is Margaret Thatcher, his stated policies have naturally attracted a far-right following; it’s a wonder he doesn’t take to the stage with the strains of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ as a warm-up tune. Whatever salient points he may have to make about the various failures of mass immigration and assimilation of immigrants into Dutch society are utterly lost in the headline-grabbing cheap shots that are guaranteed to alienate as many as they attract. He advocates freedom of speech, which is laudable, and sees his own virtual imprisonment as evidence it is under threat; yet he contradicts the freedom of speech principle by advocating the banning of the Koran. It’s supposed to work both ways, as Voltaire pointed out over two-hundred years ago.

Wilders made a name for himself outside of the Netherlands with his 2008 film short, ‘Fitna’, which focused on the loathsome agenda of Radical Islam; amounting to fifteen minutes of stating the bleedin’ obvious, the film provoked predictable responses on both sides of the divide that Wilders would clearly prefer to remain intact. The extremist Islamists fell into his trap, as he knew they would, and then he was able to point to their reaction as an example of how he was right about Islam all along. Essentially, the film confirmed what we already knew and offered nothing that could be seen as a positive way out of a miserable cultural cul-de-sac.

A figure such as Wilders is symptomatic of a particular breed of European politician whose views, having been written off as beyond the pale for years, are now suddenly in synch with a Europe-wide craving to topple the ruling elite; but these views are straightforward old-school divide-and-rule tactics that acknowledge a problem without suggesting an alternative from which all concerned can benefit.

It’s hard, as with Marine Le Pen, not to regard Wilders as a cynical opportunist exploiting the current uncertainties in Europe; even if one admits there are genuine problems that excessive immigration can bring into communities, figures such as Le Pen and Wilders seem more content to fan the flames of intolerance rather than attempting to resolve the difficulties that have arisen in many European countries over the last decade. Tackling the latter is a far harder task than simply saying ‘ban the Koran’; much easier to appeal to concerns by adopting a ‘Shock Jock’ persona and telling certain sections of the electorate what they want to hear, opting for simple solutions to complex situations that require more than Wilders is capable of delivering.

© The Editor