Crime and punishment in the Netherlands

Under the pressure of right wing populism, the Netherlands have been transformed from a country that was a model of humane crime policy to one hung up on security and punishment. The offensive of the populist right has been so effective that even social democrats now repudiate their multiculturalist past and lament over their policy mistakes.  

Merijn Oudenampsen
3 July 2012

“For everyone deserving punishment: punishment!”, reads a telltale campaign slogan of the Dutch conservative-liberal party VVD in 2009. Under the pressure of right wing populism, the Netherlands have been transformed from a country that was a model of humane crime policy to one hung up on security and punishment. How did this happen?

A forceful restoration of the moral order through harsher forms of punishment is a recurring element of conservative discourses. With the rise of Dutch right wing populism at the turn of the century, it comes as no great surprise that law and order issues became one of the principal lines of attack against a political and juridical establishment that was portrayed as too tolerant and lax.

This has been coming for some time. As early as the eighties and nineties, liberal crime policies focusing on rehabilitation and prevention gradually shifted towards a stricter approach encompassing deterrence, security and victimhood. The Dutch police introduced elements of the American zero-tolerance approach and the rate of incarceration has quadrupled since the eighties, as sociologist Loïc Wacquant points out in his book Urban Outcasts. In 2000, social democrat intellectual Paul Scheffer published The Multicultural Drama, an essay which would prove to be a watershed in the public debate. Inspired by the conservative American concept of the ‘culture of poverty’, it warned against the impending doom of Dutch multiculturalism due to the rise of a Moroccan-Dutch ethnic underclass, which could only be contained through a new civilising offensive. Scheffer's analysis came at the same time as the work of English psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple enjoyed wide publicity, and led to a major shift in public perceptions of crime and poverty. The focus on socio-economic conditions in explaining crime, dominant in the seventies, gave way to attention being focused on behavioural and cultural factors.

When right wing populism arrived on the electoral scene, it found the ground already prepared. Whereas before, the gradual shift towards a more conservative approach was consensual, with all parties moving towards the right, the populist right used law and order issues to launch a frontal attack on the left. It didn’t take long for a fully-fledged moral panic to develop which focused on Moroccan-Dutch urban youth and the problems they caused. Social democrats were singled out as the principle cause of mass immigration and held solely responsible for denying the problems of a multicultural society. At the same time, troublesome Moroccan-Dutch urban youth were described as “street terrorists” by Geert Wilders of the Islamophobic Freedom Party (PVV): they became increasingly associated with Islam and the post 9/11 rhetoric of the clash of civilisations.

This populist focus on Islamophobia suits the broader, classically conservative repertoire of a right wing dedicated to reinforcing the police (in Dutch: “more blue on the streets”) and to tougher sentencing. It calls for sterner family discipline and links crime with fears of social disintegration. Threats against ordinary hard working people from thieves and muggers are conjured up as warning signs of a larger problem - the loss of moral authority. The remarkable success of this moral panic can be assessed in the widespread concern over anti-social behaviour (85% of the Dutch population according to a 2010 poll). Though Dutch-Moroccan youth still constitute the principal target of public scorn, such moral panic can easily embrace other marginal groups. Targets of such calls include Antilleans who are to be ethnically registered or sent back to the Caribbean; the white underclass such as Eastern European migrant workers about whom the PVV launched a special website to register complaints; or even the so-called Lonsdale youth (Dutch extreme right kids).

With the idea that exceptional times warrant exceptional means, the restoration of authority is proposed through a militarisation of social policies. When bus drivers stopped servicing a neighbourhood in the provincial town of Gouda, due to problems with Dutch-Moroccan youth, Wilders pleaded for instating a state of exception and for an intervention of the Dutch military. Similarly, Leefbaar Rotterdam (Liveable Rotterdam), a local populist right wing party in Rotterdam, has advocated for extended police powers and a state of emergency in Rotterdam’s troubled neighbourhoods. Under its so-called “Rotterdam Approach”, Leefbaar Rotterdam talks of urban marines, intervention teams, task forces, safe havens and a so-called frontline approach as part as a broader shift from social work to more repressive methods. The appeal to exceptional powers, such as unlimited administrative detention and the deportation of criminal migrants - no matter whether they are first or second generation, and despite the fact that they all hold Dutch passports - figure prominently in the party programme and speeches, but remain legally unattainable. This in turn has resulted in right wing populist pleas for the Netherlands to withdraw from international human rights treaties.

As in many other European cases, a deliberate strategy of provocation and discursive transgression has been key to the success of the Dutch populist Right. For instance, Wilders suggested that a way to handle problem youth would be to allow the police to shoot at them. By deliberately shooting them in the knee, he argued, the police can cripple troublemakers for life, and make them properly scared of the authorities. The populist right has developed a whole utopia of extreme security measures, such as the recurring proposal to launch re-socialisation camps where problem youth would be reeducated with military discipline. Even though this idea has proved to be wholly impracticable, given the lack of legal possibilities to lock up children and the possible costs associated with building these camps, such a fantasy of being able to neatly remove undesirable elements from Dutch society remains attractive to the populist part of the electorate.

What these militarised policy options all oppose is the 'soft' approach to social problems involving dialogue and deliberation with minority groups, and aiming at the social rehabilitation of offenders. The offensive of the populist right has been so effective that even social democrats now repudiate their multiculturalist past, and lament over their policy mistakes. The major problem in the present political climate is not so much the assertiveness of the Dutch far right, as the fact that their initiatives have been met by a dominant culture of acquiescence and accommodation in the political mainstream.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData