Over the coming decades Ireland will be facing extreme demographic changes, requiring the nationalist right to move quickly to achieve our political goals. We do not have time to take a wrong step. Strategy is key to winning within the time afforded to us. In this regard, looking to nationalist parties in European countries for lessons learned, and the path forward is essential.
Historically, The Netherlands has been seen as a stronghold against the nationalist right. Famous for being one of the first modern countries for the popular acceptance of homosexuality, drug use, and prostitution. In many ways social liberalism and openness cut to the very heart of the Dutch national self-image. The rise of the political right in the Netherlands offers important insights into how to popularise nationalist ideas in a deeply socially liberal country, and to avoid the pitfalls of earlier nationalist movements.
The first notable radical right party in the Netherlands, the Centre Party, was formed in 1980 by Henry Brookman. Brookman sought to distance the party from the thuggish far-right subculture, and project an image of a professional and educated right-wing party.
Following career pressure, Brookman was forced to hand over party leadership to Hans Janmaat, who would lead the party in the EU elections of 1984, winning 2% of the vote. Despite such a massive achievement for a right-wing party in the Netherlands, Janmaat was subsequently kicked out of the party for his criticism of the party’s growing extremist neo-Nazi faction.
This resulted in an exodus of moderate nationalists from the party, leaving only a core of fascists and extremists. This, coupled with the party’s lack of representation, caused it to go into a death spiral. In 1986, the party became defunct after failing to gather sufficient signatures to stand in the election of the same year.
However, Hans Janmaat went on to form the Centre Democrats, who won 2.4% of the national vote in the 1984 elections, the best result a radical right-wing party had ever achieved in the Netherlands. However, after the election the party underwent intense criticism from the Dutch media, resulting in a decline in the party’s capacity to recruit high level and competent representatives, ultimately leading to the party’s demise in 1988.
The early Dutch far-right parties were stunted in their growth, and ultimately fell apart by their inclusion, and tolerance of extremist factions within their parties. Extremists came to dominate these parties, dissuading moderates from joining due to the high social and professional cost of such affiliations. A party that cannot appeal to moderates, is doomed to political obscurity and eventual demise.
More recently, Pim Fortuyn was central in normalising radical right ideologies, and destigmatising the movement in the Netherlands. Pim Fortuyn was a self-proclaimed communist and homosexual, with a doctorate in sociology. Between 2000 and 2002 he became a household name, a public intellectual, notable for his wit, representing the Livable Rotterdam Party, using a patchwork of left and right-wing populist talking points. Famously, months before the 2002 election he warned of the dangers of Islamification of the Netherlands being an existential threat to Dutch liberalism and liberal values. As a result, he was expelled from the party a week later.
Fortuyn responded by founding the Pim Fortuyn List Party (LPF), but he was assassinated nine days before the election for ‘scapegoating Muslims’. His party went on to take a massive 17% of seats, entering into a government coalition.
However, without the guidance and leadership of Fortuyn, the coalition and the PFL fell apart. Fortuyn’s legacy is discovering what would become a winning model for radical right parties across Europe, opposing immigration, while remaining socially libertarian. His appeals to tolerance and liberal values allowed him to push the boundaries of acceptable political discourse in the Netherlands and to remove the social stigma surrounding membership of the far-right.
After the collapse of the PFL, it wouldn’t be until Geert Wilders that the nationalist right would again surge in the Netherlands. Wilders joined the dominant party in the Netherlands, The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) as a speech writer in 1997. A year later he was elected to the Netherlands national parliament, quickly rising in the ranks of the VVD.
Wilders became an outspoken supporter of the War on Terror. He worked with fellow MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali to raise awareness about the threat that Islamification posed to liberal values, creating ideological tensions between Wilders and the VVD. Despite being tipped to be the next leader of the VVD, Wilders left the party in 2004 to form his own political party – Party for Freedom.
Wilders wanted the Party for Freedom to be a professional and electable party, so he limited membership, preventing extremists from joining and overwhelming the party before it had legitimacy. Free of any repugnant political baggage, or associations and coupled with his political clout, Wilders was able to legitimise the party both in the eyes of the establishment and the electorate.
Wilders reframed political discourse as ‘the people versus a weak ruling class’. This embracement of populism allowed the party to balloon as he spearheaded popular campaigns and called for various referenda. Most importantly, he grounded his anti-immigration talking points in progressive appeals to pluralism, tolerance and secularism. This position was strengthened by Wilders support for euthanasia and gay rights.
This model of opposition to immigration, while remaining socially liberal allowed him to bring more right-wing ideas into the political mainstream. This was then reflected by the gradual drifting of mainstream parties to the political right, such as when the VVD called for deportation of unemployed eastern European migrants.
To Ireland, the Netherlands provides an essential case study and guide in developing our own movement. The Dutch model was successful because of two major strategies. It’s first strength is opposing immigration in defence of liberal democracy, pluralism and tolerance. Framing the debate as Islamism versus Western values and tolerance.
Secondly, Wilders attracted moderates before he attracted nationalists to the party, which gave the party credibility. Earlier Dutch right-wing parties made the mistake of attracting the nationalists first, which ensured heavy stigmatisation. But the respectability conferred to Wilders through his legitimacy and respectability within main stream of politics allowed Wilders to forge an increasingly nationalist party over time.
Contrary to the trend of the closer a far-right party comes to power, the more moderate they get – the closer Wilders comes to office, the more nationalistic the party becomes. And despite this, because of his legitimacy, he is able to drag the Overton window along with him. By the time the Dutch State decided to clamp down on him through hate speech charges, he already had the respectability to push forward. Despite the court finding him guilty, his party was too strong and his credibility too high to delegitimise the movement to the public. In his own words:
“When you judge me, you are not just passing judgment on a single man, but on millions of men and women in the Netherlands. You’re judging millions of people. People who agree with me. People who will not understand a conviction. People who want their country back, who are sick and tired of not being listened to, who cherish freedom of expression.”