In 2012 I moved to the Netherlands to study. 2012 was a tumultuous year for Dutch politics, the Dutch coalition government had collapsed in April and fresh elections were held just two weeks after I arrived in September. Keen to show a commitment to my new host country, I used to watch the news every night with my Dutch flatmates. I didn’t understand much but learnt enough to match faces with names. This was made easier by the location of my campus, just a stone’s throw away from the Dutch parliament.
It became very clear, very quickly that there was less distance between the Dutch public and their politicians than there is in the U.K. This transparency was characterised by the Binnenhof – a 13th century square that houses the Prime Minister’s office, among other government departments. Like Westminster, the Binnenhof is one of the oldest Parliament buildings still in use. However, unlike Westminster, you can walk right through it. Passers-by, tourists and students would shuttle through, occasionally stopping to gawk at the Ministers arriving in their cars.
It was easy to accidentally bump into Dutch politicians. One lunch break I found myself queuing for a cheese sandwich alongside Diederik Samson, then leader of the Dutch Labour party. The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was even easier to track down, he had a favourite café where he could often be found sipping a coffee and reading the newspaper. I think I’m proud of the fact that I was one of the only students on my course not to have asked him for a selfie.
One day, trying to make sense of this brave new world of democratic transparency I’d found myself in, I accidentally triggered a desk war in one of my tutorials when I asked the Dutch students which university most Dutch politicians came from. In the UK the answer would have been simple: “Oxford”. Not in The Netherlands.
“Well Rutte comes from Leiden but Samson went to Delft and the Mayor didn’t go”. “Yeah but Groningen has a good department for Public Administration and Wageningen has a good reputation for International Development”. “(Geert) Wilders has a certificate from the Open University”. “Ok but Balkenende went to Free University Amsterdam”.
I concluded you could study at any Dutch university and still become a Dutch politician. This is borne out by the facts. There have been 15 post-war Dutch Prime Ministers. Between them they have attended 9 different universities.
In stark contrast, the 15 British Prime Ministers since WW2 have mustered a grand total of 2 different universities between them. 11 went to Oxford, Gordon Brown went to Edinburgh; Major, Callaghan and Churchill didn’t attend any university.
The same dominance exists across the British business, legal and media professions. We are run by an interconnected elite who are groomed in one institution. Is it any wonder that we’re living in a chumocracy where a small cabal chuck each other favours? Is it any wonder that our political elite suffer from a permanent group think culture when they’ve been taught by the same people reading the same books? The purpose here is not to bedevil Oxford University graduates but to point out that an economic and political system dominated by them is not a healthy way to run a country in the 21st century. We need to focus more on creating new ladders to power than concentrating on getting more people into Oxford. The strongest argument for Proportional Representation is that it would enable us to pick a much more diverse, representative group of leaders. It’s still the right argument, and we can still win it.
* David Chadwick is a Liberal Democrat member and was the Parliamentary Candidate for North Dorset in 2019.