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175 years of the Constitution: ‘Its dryness makes it a success'

175 years ago, the Netherlands took great strides towards parliamentary democracy with a revamped Constitution. Where does the Constitution stand today?

'Actually, the Constitution in 1848 was a revision of an older law,' Professor Henk te Velde explains the importance of 1848. 'In 1798, the Batavian Republic had already received a state regulation, which functioned as a constitution. When the Netherlands became a kingdom, a new constitution came into force. The 1848 version was an adapted version of it. It’s that precise adaptation that has become iconic because it established ministerial responsibility for the first time, as well as direct elections to the House of Representatives. These are all things that have never changed since.'

Successful through dullness

According to Te Velde, the reason why the Constitution has lasted so long is because of its dryness. 'The Batavian Constitution was a conflict document with a long opening sentence on popular sovereignty, just as the US Constitution has. The current Constitution is more an element of statecraft, full of little rules about which I used to think at school: who cares?'

Many Dutch people seem to share that view and hardly know exactly what the law says. 'You may find it unfortunate that people don’t have an almost romantic feeling about it as they do in America,' says Te Velde. 'People often know just the first articles with fundamental rights that were only placed at the beginning in 1983. There is still the occasional discussion about that, for instance when Pim Fortuyn said he considered freedom of speech more important than the anti-discrimination article, but the rest of the law is mainly a legal tool. As a result, our Constitution rarely raises any commotion.'

Two-thirds majority

According to Te Velde, the Constitution can therefore last a while longer. If you look at the party manifestos for the coming elections, you actually only see two themes that would require revision: the abolition of the monarchy in the GroenLinks (Green Left)/PvdA (Labour) parties and a strengthening of regional politics in Pieter Omtzigt's New Social Contract. It’s almost certain to fail, because you need a two-thirds majority in both the Lower and Upper Houses for that.'

This large majority that’s needed is why we in the Netherlands sometimes keep 'muddling through', Te Velde believes. 'When Thorbecke drafted the constitution, he very deliberately further loosened the link between the local community and national politics by opting for a system with large electoral districts and against the influence of conservative local notables. In 1917, this was reinforced by proportional representation. As a result, people have less of a bond with their MP than, say, in the UK. You can see that politics struggles with that, but also that change is difficult.'

Still, that need not be a sign that the system has to be shaken up, he thinks: 'Brexit in that same UK came about with a minimal majority. Then you might wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to have a substantial majority for fundamental changes.'

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