It was round the family dinner table, as so often, that the reality began to emerge. I was visiting my numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in the Netherlands last December, a few days before Christmas, and one of my cousins had invited the whole clan over for supper. Inevitably, over plenty of wine, the conversation turned towards Brexit, politics and the Dutch elections.
My Dutch family – large, garrulous, outward looking – abhor Geert Wilders, the shock-haired right-wing populist, and everything he stands for. Beyond that, however, they are a fairly heterogeneous bunch, politically speaking. I’ve never asked them how they vote – but my guess is that some would have voted centre-right, centre-left or green.
What was striking when we were talking about the Dutch elections, however, was almost everyone around the table wanted to cast a vote that provided the best guarantee of keeping Wilders out of power. For most, that seemed to point towards supporting Mark Rutte, the affable and skilled Dutch PM, even if they’d never voted for him before.
During the same visit, I went to see Mark Rutte in his modest Prime Ministerial office in the Hague. Not for the first time, I was struck by the refreshing informality of Dutch politics compared to the stuffiness of Westminster. Mark wandered in to his office, without a bevvy of bodyguards, having popped out to the shops on his own to buy some Christmas presents. Munching a typical Dutch cheese sandwich, I told him how some members of my family were inclined to support him for the first time to keep Wilders out.
And so, three months later, it turned out. The polarisation of politics along new lines – no longer left vs right, but now open vs closed – is mobilising voters against right-wing populism. We are witnessing the beginnings of a liberal backlash against the backlash against liberalism. Of course, it wasn’t just Mark Rutte’s VVD which benefited, but other parties too.
D66, the second Liberal party in the Netherlands (lucky Dutch to have two liberal options) did well, surging to almost level pegging in the polls with Geert Wilders and adding seven seats to their tally in the Dutch Parliament. D66 are, ideologically, most similar to the Liberal Democrats in Britain. Alexander Pechtold, their experienced leader, told me when we met how he was going to run an unapologetically pro-European campaign. He was not going to bend to the populist times. His decision paid off handsomely.
So where does this leave the see-saw battle between liberalism and populism across Europe? Well, for a start it shows that the “domino theory” so beloved of Nigel Farage and the right-wing press – that Brexit was the first instalment in a wider triumph of populism – is nonsense. Having ignored Wilders, Le Pen, Farage et al for many years, parts of the media now seem to believe that they will effortlessly sweep all before them. But that was never likely to happen. It cannot be repeated enough that Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by a margin of three million votes, or that Brexit was won on a wafer-thin majority, or that more people voted for Remain last June than have ever voted for a winning party in a general election.
The depiction of an entirely discredited, decimated liberal outlook versus an all-conquering new populist insurgency was always the stuff of media hype and self-congratulatory propaganda from Michael Gove to Aaron Banks. The truth is more subtle. Liberalism is down but most certainly not out. And the populists no longer enjoy the element of surprise. Bit by bit, election by election, mainstream liberal parties are working out how to take on right-wing populists. And win.
Of course, everything could be thrown up into the air if Marine Le Pen wins in the French elections. If she were to become President of France, then Brexit would be the least of the EU’s problems. She would pose a threat to the very survival of the EU – which is precisely why Nigel Farage was cosying up to her this week on his radio show.
But just imagine if Emmanuel Macron, a truly internationalist politician, won instead? And what if Martin Schultz, who unlike Angela Merkel appears to be wiling to entertain radical reforms to strengthen the eurozone, were to win in the German elections in the autumn? Then the assumption of Trump/Farage/Gove that the EU will collapse like a house of cards will look like a spiteful delusion.
What’s more, if the EU were to regroup and reform – sorting out the eurozone, straightening out its external borders – then the balance of power in the Brexit negotiations would shift sharply in the EU’s direction. That, in turn, might prompt some British voters to think again about the wisdom of flouncing out of a club which is successfully standing up to the regressive chauvinism of Trump, Putin and Erdogan.