10 politicians who made a difference

With both local and European elections taking place this spring, the Netherlands by Numbers has drawn up a list of 10 Dutch politicians who made a difference.

Willem Drees (1886-1988) introduced the old-age pension in the Netherlands.


Willem Drees joined the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the forerunner of Labour (PvdA), as a young man. He joined the government as social affairs minister after World War II and was prime minister from 1948 to 1958.

He was known for his integrity and simplicity. He had no ministerial car and did not drink or smoke. His cabinets were broad-based coalitions of socialists and Catholics. Drees did a great deal to improve social conditions for the working man and in 1947 introduced pensions for the over-65s. He was a highly popular figure and was known as ‘father Drees’ throughout the Netherlands.


Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002) introduced populism into Dutch politics.


The flamoyant Pim Fortuyn was a Professor of Social Sciences who entered politics in 2001 as leading candidate for the new party Leefbaar Nederland (Liveable Netherlands), winning a famous victory for the party in Rotterdam at the council elections in March 2002.

However, his controversial views on government subsidies for the arts and on the ‘Islamisation’ of the Netherlands caused ructions in the party and Fortuyn set up the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) party ready for the parliamentary election in May the same year.

Fortuyn was shot dead by an animal rights activist on the Media Park in Hilversum on May 6 2002, nine days before the general election. His party went on to win 26 seats. Fortuyn laid the ground for the rise of Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV).


Johan Rudolph Thorbecke (1798-1872) drafted the modern Constitution of the Netherlands.


In 1839, Johan Thorbecke published his detailed criticisms of the Dutch constitution. With many of Europe’s monarchs being forced to revise their constitutions by popular pressure, King Willem II decided to set up a committee and appointed Thorbecke as its head.

The new constitution, virtually all of it written by Thorbecke, included limiting the powers of the monarch, introducing direct elections, establishing liberty of religion and strengthening the powers of parliament. It was proclaimed on November 3 1848.

In 1849, Thorbecke became minister of internal affairs, in effect the Netherlands’ first prime minister. During this cabinet, he devised important laws on elections, municipalities and provinces. His cabinet was forced to resign in 1853 when a Protestant group protested against the re-institution of the Catholic dioceses, which Thorbecke had sanctioned. He was minister of internal affairs again in January 1862.

This second cabinet introduced a new law on secondary education and initiated important works in national transportation. The cabinet fell in February 1866 and Thorbecke resigned.


Hendrikus Colijn (1869-1944) refused to devalue the guilder during the 1930s economic crisis.


This much-decorated army officer served in the Dutch East Indies in both military and government positions before becoming an MP for the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP) in the general election of 1908.  Two years later, he was appointed War Minister and set about reorganising the Dutch armed forces.

When the government of which he was a member fell in 1913, Colijn became a businessman, working for the Batavian Petroleum Company and later for Shell in London, but always retaining his political contacts. In 1922, he became leader of the ARP and editor of its newspaper, De Standaard.

Colijn, noted for his harshness in military life, business and politics, is revered and hated in equal measure for the steps he took as prime minister between 1933 and 1939, when the Great Depression was taking a huge toll on the Netherlands. He pursued a policy of ‘adaptation’ (reducing the general standard of living), refused to devalue the guilder and kept to the Gold Standard long after the country’s trading partners had dropped it.

The problems of the period were so great that Colijn was unable to solve them, but his national influence was so great and his abilities so respected by friend and foe that he is considered one of the finest of Dutch politicians.


Pieter Sjoerds Gerbrandy (1885-1961) kept up the spirits of the resistance during World War II.


Pieter Gerbrandy was a Friesian politician for the Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP). In 1939 he became justice minister in the second cabinet of Dirk Jan de Geer, against the will of his own party. He travelled to London with Queen Wilhelmina and De Geer when World War II broke out.

When Wilhelmina sacked De Geer as prime minister because of his pro-German stance, Gerbrandy, unconditionally against the German invaders, was appointed in his place. He served as prime minister until the war ended in 1945. With his distinctive voice and patriotic messages, he became an inspiration to the Dutch resistance. He continued his political career after the war, but became known for not toeing the party line.


Ruud Lubbers (1939) introduced the idea of managing the Netherlands like a company.


Ruud Lubbers was the youngest Dutch prime minister in history when he took over the position in 1982. This Christian Democrat, who led three successive cabinets until 1994, was considered ideologically close to the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. His motto was: more market, less government.

During his time in office, he launched a series of far-reaching deregulation and privatisation programmes and introduced extensive cutbacks in public spending. In 2000, Lubbers was appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees. During his tenure, the number of refugees worldwide decreased by 22%. He resigned the post in 2004 following allegations of sexual harassment.


Wim Kok (1938) introduced the ‘polder model ‘ to Dutch politics.


The former trade union leader was prime minister between August 1994 and July 2002, leading two cabinets. He is admired for the unity of his coalitions, which were known as ‘purple’ cabinets because of the colour obtained when the party colours of Labour (red) and Liberals (blue) were mixed. Kok inherited a deep recession and his policies were aimed at creating employment, reducing taxation and economising.

To do this, Kok advocated wide negotiations between government, unions and employers. This became known as the ‘polder model’. His second cabinet resigned in 2002 following the failure of Dutch forces to protect the enclave of Srebrenica from Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslavian civil war.

Kok also handled the problem of what to do about former Argentinian junta member Jorge Zorreguietta when his daughter Máxima married the heir to the throne, Willem-Alexander, in 2002. A task he accomplished with great tact.


Joop den Uyl (1919-1987) averted an abdication.

The Labour politican became prime minister in 1973 and was immediately confronted with an oil boycott following Dutch support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. His cabinet implemented fuel rationing and a ban on Sunday driving.

However, his greatest test came in dealing with the fall-out of the Lockheed affair. The Lockheed scandal encompassed a series of bribes made by officials of the American aerospace company Lockheed from the late 1950s to the 1970s during negotiations for the sale of aircraft. One of those suspected of taking bribes was Prince Bernhard, husband of the Dutch Queen Juliana. When this came to light, Den Uyl ordered an inquiry, while Bernhard refused to answer reporters’ questions, saying: ‘I am above such things.’

The results of the inquiry led to a constitutional crisis, with Juliana threatening to abdicate if Bernhard was prosecuted. It was Den Uyl who negotiated with the Queen, resulting in no prosecution but forcing Bernhard to step down from several public positions and forbidding him to wear his military uniforms again.


Pieter Jelles Troelstra (1860-1930) made socialists acceptable in politics.


The Socialist Pieter Troelstra was leader of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) at a time when Socialists and Anarchists were considered one and the same. Troelstra was a good example of this: an anti-monarchist and an activist.

When his party won 18 seats at the 1913 general election, he advised Queen Wilhelmina to form a government from workers’ parties and not, as had been the case for years, from either Liberal parties or Christian parties. When the choice fell on the Liberals, who needed the SDAP to form a majority, Troelstra was against joining the coalition, winning a party vote and keeping Socialists out of power.

In 1918, with the Russian revolution under way, Troelstra called on the Dutch people to begin their own socialist revolution. He failed to ignite a revolution and soon began to pull out of politics. However, in the 1920s Troelstra was advocating a more emollient stance, telling Socialists to accept the monarchy for the time being and to play the political game to win power, and then change society from the inside. The Socialists eventually made it into coalition government in 1939.


Charles Ruijs de Beerenbrouk (1873-1936) saved the Netherlands at the end of World War I.


Charles Ruijs de Beerenbrouk came from a noble family, but he was so socially engaged he became known as the Red Squire. He was prime minister three times between 1918 and 1933.

His first cabinet, just as World War I was ending, was faced with an enormous food shortage, Belgian civilians and German soldiers and their Emperor who had fled to the neutral Netherlands, the Spanish flu outbreak and the threat of revolution from the Dutch population. Two-and-a-half months after the general election, the Queen’s speech in parliament contained the message of swift reforms.

Among these was the Labour Law of 1919 providing employment rights for the working class. Ruijs de Beerenbrouk was praised for his handling of the post-War problems. Unfortunately, his third cabinet coincided with the stock market crash of 1929 and the global economic crisis of the early 1930s. Ruijs de Beerenbrouk found himself having to make savage savings while finding extra money for the unemployed and to subsidise agriculture. Ruijs de Beerenbrouk was forced to hold early elections in 1933.

First published on Netherlands by Numbers.

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