Just a month ago it was unthinkable that Mark Rutte would be starting his second decade as prime minister by implementing a second coronavirus lockdown. There was concern in the medical community that daily infections had climbed past the 1,000 mark, having been below 100 at the onset of summer. But Covid-related hospital admissions were low, an earlier mini-surge in August seemed to have petered out and the new increase was heavily concentrated in university cities. There was little appetite in political circles or the country at large for going back into lockdown: the assumption was that the acute danger was behind us. A few targeted measures, like closing bars at 1am and limiting gatherings to 50 people, ought to nip the second wave in the bud.
But if a week is a long time in politics, a month is ten times as long. Since mid-September the Netherlands has soared to the top of the European coronavirus league: only the Czech Republic and Belgium have had more infections per head of population in the last 14 days, and the Czechs have just imposed a full second lockdown. The testing and tracing strategy has come apart at the seams and the tracker app promised at the start of July finally went live, after a series of false starts, in the second weekend of October. The ‘intelligent lockdown’ which seemed so effective in May and June turned out to be a bicycle without brakes.
The coronavirus crisis has brought out the best and the worst in Rutte. The first lockdown was implemented swiftly and decisively, though a week later than it should have been. It comprised practical measures, communicated clearly, and was followed by a carefully managed rehabilitation plan to open up safely. By mid-June it seemed to have worked. The second wave has been an inchoate mess for reasons that at first seem mystifying, but on closer inspection chime with Rutte’s modus operandi. Like many politicians who work on consensus, he is reluctant to depart from a position once it’s been agreed, even if circumstances compel it. The intelligent lockdown worked well when infections were falling, but quickly became obsolete as they started to rise again. The decision to allow football fans back into stadiums, for example, made perfect sense when fewer than 50 cases a day were being reported. But by the time the season got going the figure was 20 times as high – partly, admittedly, as a result of wider testing. A similar reluctance to change tack coloured Rutte’s handling of the decision to abolish the tax on dividends last year: only when Unilever announced they were pulling out of Rotterdam did he ditch one of the most unpopular measures in the coalition agreement.
Pragmatism has its limits
Rutte’s pragmatism has many merits, but the downside is a lack of vision that leaves him struggling to perceive the wider picture. He prefers to follow trends rather than set the agenda and take a conservative view of looming crises. His initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was badly off-key, refusing even to ban hand shaking on the grounds that ‘we live in a free country’. Under his stewardship the Netherlands has lost much of the ambition and self-confidence – but not the arrogance – that drove its postwar reconstruction. It was once synonymous with imaginative social engineering: the tolerance of soft drugs, the licensing of prostitution and the legalisation of medical euthanasia all have their shortcomings, but were admired, copied and improved by other countries. Same-sex marriage is such a mundane fact of life in many parts of the world that it’s easy to forget the pioneering efforts of the Dutch less than 20 years ago.
Rutte’s premiership has been untroubled by big ideas. Investment in society has been tempered by a focus on costs over benefits. The ‘participation society’ announced in King Willem Alexander’s speech to parliament in 2013 aimed to shift the foundations of society from the state to the individual by requiring people to take responsibility for community services from youth clubs to caring for elderly relatives – often voluntarily. Whole branches of government, such as youth care, were devolved to local authorities, leading to administrative fragmentation and dramatic variations in the quality of service. The tax credits scandal that erupted over the summer, where overzealous officials reclaimed huge sums from families who were wrongly accused of fraudulently claiming child support, was partly a consequence of this pervasive bean-counting mindset. It is evident in the cabinet’s culture policy, which has often portrayed the arts as a wasteful indulgence – an odd approach for a nation with such a rich artistic heritage. And in Europe, the prime minister staked a considerable amount of the Dutch reputation for fair-mindedness to demand stringent conditions on financial support for countries such as Spain and Italy as they recovered from the coronavirus pandemic, a stance that made even the Germans wince.
The latter position also reflects Rutte’s response to the challenge that has emerged from the populist right during his 10 years in office. His instinct has been to appease and accommodate it rather than expose its inherent dishonesty. Though Rutte vowed never to work with Geert Wilders again after the Freedom Party leader deserted his first cabinet, it was a decision rooted in practical motives rather than a condemnation of Wilders’s systematic harassment of the Dutch Muslim population. The prime minister’s passivity on racism has held back a conversation that the country badly needs to have with itself and enabled Wilders to hold second place in the opinion polls, despite offering voters nothing more substantial than a stream of egregious tweets and a court case that has become a theatrical masterpiece to rival Soldaat van Oranje.
The same wariness of populism and reluctance to show moral leadership explains the government’s disastrous handling of the question of face masks. Rutte failed to realise that the issue long ago ceased to be about the practicalities of masks and went to the heart of his government’s authority. Whether or not masks made a real difference to the spread of the virus, as long as Rutte declined to mandate or even advise mask-wearing in public, the perception grew that the pandemic was over. Rutte and Hugo de Jonge clung for too long to the belief they could turn the tide by appealing to people’s ‘common sense’, as if they had checked Buienradar in the morning, seen sunshine icons on the screen, observed the rain outside the window and concluded that the sky must be wrong. Only this week did Rutte finally wake up to the need to ‘settle the debate’ and make masks compulsory, but the issue has become so polarised that it may already be too late.
In the spring the Netherlands faced the threat of a virus about which it knew almost nothing. The population was given clear rules, largely complied with them and brought down the infection rate without the need for masks or a full lockdown. The paradox is that we know far more about the virus now but are less well equipped to control it. If the first wave showcased Mark Rutte’s strengths, the second wave has exposed his weaknesses. How well the country navigates the next stage of the pandemic will depend partly on which of the two prevails.