I have grown up in a country where the people have worked hard to build it up from the rubbles of the second world war. In our family we always had to finish our plates because we should be grateful to have something to eat in the first place. “In the war we had almost nothing to eat” we were told. We heard the stories about how our grandfather and grandmother managed to feed my father’s family of 13. For us this fell on deaf ears because we found it perfectly normal that our mum cooked a fresh meal every day. The second world war was something from the history books, the TV and the annual commemorations and independence day. Over the years the ‘finish your plate ritual’ changed with the argument that some children in some countries had nothing to eat. The television showing starving children in war battered countries influenced the Hartman family meal. We were young at the time, but it did however make us realise that we were privileged.
My father, the youngest of the family of 13, was only 12 or so during the war and was kept away from the hardship by his parents as much possible, but over the years the stories came through nevertheless. The most obvious story of them all was of course that the German’s stole our bikes, as if that was the worst crime. Strangely enough, we watched German television a lot, were friendly with German tourists and went to Germany on holidays. My parents also had German friends. We even drove a ‘Hitler wagen’ as the VW beetle was called by some. I have never felt the existence of any hatred against Germans from my parents or grandparents. When I asked my father why this was, he replied that today’s Germans had nothing to do with the war and were polite and friendly people. Of course we took the mickey out of them, especially during football tournaments, but we did the same with the Belgians and other Europeans. I also remember my father saying that most young German soldiers that were sent to The Netherlands were actually apologetic that they had to be here against their will and that they didn’t want to do any harm.
Today's political climate
Closer to home we have politicians in the UK blaming their own failing on the EU and making immigration a key part of the Brexit campaign. That the UK would cripple when these migrants weren’t there is ignored. It is funny that a country who hasn’t signed the Schengen agreement and is located on an island, has a greater problem with EU migrants than for instance The Netherlands. Investment in education and social equality simply didn’t create the pull from the labour market for such large amounts of immigrants. The Dutch did take in a large number of refugees though, way more than the UK and this didn’t lead to great problems. Nevertheless also in The Netherlands, a far right, anti immigrant party is leading the opinion polls. Let's hope he will not be part of the future government, because he is as foul mouthed as Trump is (and hasn’t even got any economic or business credentials).
Of course there are many examples of misuse of the Dutch welfare system and area’s of cities in for Instance The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam where policies of integration failed tremendously. Also The Netherlands is victim of its own liberal and tolerant society where ‘political correctness’ seemed more important than listening to the people.
As a Dutchman who lived in England, went back to The Netherlands and subsequently moved to Scotland, it is astonishing to see what is going on in today’s UK politics.
We (should) have learned from the second world war and where discrimination and hatred can lead us. The public ignorance led to the biggest tragedy in human history and it is therefore understandable that Angela Merkel who is herself from Eastern German origin, reached her hand to the refugees who were knocking on Europe’s doors. It was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately the bad handling of the great numbers of refugees led to problems and extremists slipped through as well. This played in the cards of the right wing ‘Alternative für Deutschland’, a right wing anti-immigration political party. What Angela’s elitist political party underestimated, is the fear of thousands of normal Germans, living both rural areas and cities. They are simply afraid of foreigners that look different, don’t speak German, have different eating and drinking habits, religions etc. Previously Germany has been flooded by people from both the middle east as well as from Eastern Europe, and for a large amount of Germans, enough was enough.
Although the AFD’s support is growing, the vast majority of Germans still want to help people in need. I find it totally out of order that Trump blames Merkel of ‘the mess Europe is in’ and that he is using the fight against terrorism to justify his latest travel ban. The refugees come here because of the mess the Americans made themselves by destabilising the middle east.
To put things in perspective, you can class me as a right of centre liberal that supports the Dutch D66 (liberal democrats) and the VVD (conservative or republican from an economical point of view). I have been a chairman of the JOVD, the youth department of the VVD (although we denied that at the time). I have always voted VVD to support the free market and to balance the over regulated bureaucratic and socialist society.
In comparison to The Netherlands, the UK is still very much a class society where extravagant wealth lives next to poverty in completely different worlds. This was very noticeable in Northampton where we used to live, but up here in Falkirk, it is rather shocking. What I like about the UK is that the economy and labour market is not as regulated as it is in The Netherlands, making the economy way more flexible to adapt to changing markets (and we will need that over the next coming years..). General taxation is lower, but so is public spending. I also have the impression that the efficiency of public bodies is in need of some improvement. This together with an island mentality and the typical British ‘slow response to change’ and 'short term profit thinking', make parts of the UK look like former Eastern Europe. And that is in my opinion unacceptable for one of the richest countries in the world. In England the NHS is under great pressure to cope with demand and it is said to be underfunded. In Scotland children from poorer families will not get into higher education, ⅔ of the population is overweight and the people in poorer area’s struggle to become older than 50 in good health.
So you would expect that politicians had better things to do than putting all their energy in Brexit and in the Independence movement. But no, it seems that, that is all that matters. The English Tories blame their own failing on the EU and the Scottish SNP blame it all on the English. What a mess! I would say, get your acts together, unite and start working in a positive way and invest in the future. But hey, I am not a politician.
A few months ago, I was honoured to be invited by a PR company to a public affairs event in Edinburgh. One of the speakers was the Scottish Government’s Finance secretary Derek MacKay of the SNP. He told an audience of business leaders, public bodies and other organisations of the threat of Brexit. No word about the 15 billion deficit on his own budget of course. He did see opportunities in an independent Scotland, however. I didn't quite understand that, so after the talk (I didn't have the guts to ask it publicly) I had a chat with him and asked why he saw Brexit as a threat and Independence as an opportunity. I have read and heard a lot about the subject in the months that I have been here and couldn't quite grasp the economic thinking behind it. So I was very much looking forward to be finally enlightened. Derek is a nice guy, very approachable and first of all he wanted to make me feel comfortable by saying that I could stay in the country after Brexit. That was of course very kind of him, although the Scottish government has no say in this.
Expecting an economic answer from a finance secretary seemed logical but I quickly learned why I didn't pursue my career in politics. He said: “you're Dutch aren't you?” I replied of course with 'YES'. To his subsequent question I was totally unprepared: “Do you wanna be ruled by Germany?” And I answered: 'NO'. I know a lot of Germans personally and how much I may like them, I don't wanna be ruled by them. I don't want to be ruled by anybody else than my own elected Dutch government.
In politics you need to be prepared for unexpected questions and need to be able to reply quickly, otherwise you're done. I wasn't trying to make a point however, I just wanted to understand the argument. How naive I was! It took me over 10 minutes and a glass of wine to think of a reply, but by then Derek was in conversation with others.
I like the Germans, I even like the French, but I don't want to be ruled by either of them. And that is exactly what is the case in the EU, as it is now. I have therefore great sympathy for the Brits who voted for Brexit. But trading-in the rule of Westminster for the bureaucrats of Brussels? That is a step to far! If Scotland wants to be independent, well fair enough. It has been a sovereign state until over 300 years or so ago, so if that is what Scotland wants, fine. It is not for me to say or decide, but Scotland please do yourself a favour and don't join the EU.