Saturday, May 26, 2007

Maxima and minima

The Oranges (bit out of focus) - no halos, no levitation

The Maxima and the Minima

Three royal events took place around the end of April. The Dutch crown prince Willem Alexander turned 40 on April 27th and was celebrated with a special, soft focus profile and much speculation about his readiness to accede to the throne. On the 30th, Queen’s Day was celebrated. Beatrix was actually born on January 31st but because of the unpredictable weather on that date, her party is held on the birthday of her mum, the previous queen Juliana. Then, a veritable army of media descended on Leiden to cover the illness of the newborn princess Ariane.

I didn’t bother with either the profile or the festivities. Apart from spending most of the holiday weekend like a wilted lettuce on the sofa, fighting off a tenacious flu with meningitis-like symptoms, I tend to steer clear of the kind of organized jollity that’s only enjoyable if you have lots of euros to spend on trinkets and knick-knacks and like being surrounded by hordes of drunks getting off on music that at best is an assault on the eardrums. Even in the isolation of my sofa, I could not shut out the racket.

I have qualms about royalty. More precisely, I have misgivings about any form of privilege and any notion of hereditary or otherwise unearnt power, let alone the abuse thereof. It’s an excellent idea in my book to reform the British House of Lords, to do away once and for all with the anachronism of inherited political clout. Nevertheless, I have enormous respect for an institution that despite its own vested interests manages to bring considered and often outspokenly left-wing balance to British affairs. But that’s by the by. The principle of it is wrong. As is the fact that the American actress Jamie Lee Curtis gets a say over British subjects by virtue of marrying a Lord. I also strongly question the idea of blind loyalty, whether to a Monarch, a fictitious line around an area of land called a country or a football team. And I detest with all my heart the celebrity hype that turns us, without whose unflinching adoration there would be no stars and no royalty, into mere sheep. Sheep with wallets, of course.

I’m the first to admit that my stance on the British Royal Family is ambiguous. I don’t mind them all that much. They’re an institution made up of human beings that I like to think do more good than harm. They seem compassionate and clued-up. Charles, if nothing else, is always good for a hefty debate. He’s a man on a mission of organic farming, high quality architecture, standards in education. He puts his money where his mouth is. Diana started out as a kind of Barbie in my view but became a full-blooded woman when she publicly shook the hand of an Aids victim at a time when very little was known about the transmission of HIV. Since fire destroyed much of Windsor Castle in 1992, Elizabeth has been paying tax, has limited the number of royals kept by the taxpayer to herself, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother (now deceased), has opened some of her homes to the public to generate funds for the restoration of Windsor and has given up various ‘treats’ like the Royal Yacht Britannia. Most importantly, the British monarch has been subject to the authority of Parliament since the late 17th century. Which is not to say that nothing is ever quietly whispered into the PM’s ear but formally, at least, the king or queen has no say in the affairs of the state.

The Dutch Royal Family is a different kettle of fish. The Dutch constitution of 1848 may define all citizens as equal but the monarch is not a citizen. Au contraire! The king can do no wrong. And if he or she does anyway, by the standards of our mere mortals, the sovereign is immune from prosecution. It is an offence punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment to insult the monarch – a privilege called lese majesty or, in Dutch, majesteitsschennis. Prime Minister Balkenende actually invoked this law as recently as 2003 when he felt that the makers of a satirical programme called Egoland had displayed insufficient decency in their treatment of the Royal Family who, he said, could not defend themselves. Imagine Spitting Image being read the Riot Act!

The Queen is the Head of State in the strictest sense of the word and has enormous political power, not in the least whether or not to appoint a PM or install a democratically elected government, for example. Which right she has been known to exert during her reign. The crown prince, nicknamed Prins Pils after his exploits during his student days in Leiden, once expressed that ‘the role of the monarchy may be discussed, of course. But if you’re looking for a figurehead to cut ribbons, you’re talking to the wrong person’.

A little history is in order. The Low Countries were Burgundian-Habsburg property up until 1500 something when Charles V of Habsburg (Charles I of Spain) inherited them along with the Spanish possessions. In 1556, the lands passed to Philip II, the very same who sent the armada against England in 1588. Meanwhile, the reformation was in full swing. The German and lutheran William, Count of Nassau and Prince of Orange who was also ‘stadtholder’ of the counties of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, headed and funded an uprising against the Spanish. The initial issue may have been taxation and the practices of the Inquisition but gradually, it became an eighty year war for religious freedom and independence. As early as 1581, the States General renounced the Spanish king and in 1588, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was proclaimed. Power rested officially with the States General but nearly everything was owned by the Oranges and they called the shots. The war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westfalia. William had been killed early on and had been succeded first by his son Maurits, then by his younger son Frederik Hendrik. They continued to be stadtholders who bore the title of Prince. Oddly, they viewed their ruling position in the Republic as hereditary. Several uprisings against them by true republicans were squashed.

Napoleon transformed The Netherlands into the Batavian Republic, in 1795. Stadhouder William V fled to England. In 1806, Napoleon proclaimed Holland a kingdom and installed his brother Louis on the throne. After the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s final defeat, in 1815, the territory became the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. William VI became King William I. As a monarchy, therefore, the Netherlands are a younger nation than the United States. There have been three kings, predictably named William I, II and III and three queens, Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix. None of these have a direct blood line to the original William of Orange-Nassau or, it is sometimes rumoured, to any royal blood at all.

The Oranges may be above the law, their behaviour is far from suprahuman. The most embarrassing Dutch scandal of the last half a century is the Lockheed Affair, in which German Bernhard, member of the Nazi party turned Prince of the Netherlands, spouse of Queen Juliana and Inspector General of the Dutch Armed Forces, was found to have asked for and been given ‘commission’ to the tune of $ 1.1 million from the US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Corporation. Only so he’d choose their fighter planes rather than someone else’s. He wasn’t prosecuted, of course. Founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, he kept a private army in Africa to deal with poachers of big game. But the gamekeeper mercenaries turned poacher themselves
and, worse, are implicated in maintaining apartheid in South Africa. More recent upheaval to the Family has involved the marriages of the crown prince to the daughter of an Argentinian junta minister and of his brother to Mabel, whose juicy past has nothing in common with The King and I and everything with The Godfather.

After the Lockheed Scandal, Bernhard was deposed from his position as Inspector General of the Dutch Armed Forces. Though banned from wearing uniform in 1976, he flouted the ban at the funeral of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. He was buried in full uniform, in military style

Beatrix has an allowance of a cool 4 million smackeroonies, Willem Alexander of 977,000 and Maxima of 863,000. Keeping them in the style to which they are accustomed involves the tidy sum of nearly 100 million of taxpayers’ money. The Oranges don’t pay tax, not even inheritance tax. Though Forbes put their personal wealth at 2.4 billion, Prince Bernhard called this figure “bullshit” and suggested it was more like ‘only’ 250 million.

It is argued that the Queen needs a personal fortune to be able to be truly independent. Ironically, the House of Orange-Nassau to which we owe all manner of innate allegiance is a symbol of our freedom. To me, being born a subject of another person and being made to pay tithes is nothing short of modern day feudalism.

But back to the third royal story, that of the illness of the little princess. In late 2005, the new Health Care Act was debated in Parliament. The left wing parties had calculated that the lowest incomes (called Minima) would be hit hardest by the new law. Prime Minister Balkenende felt that the government had been kind to the minima in recent years and that it was about time they tightened their belts, too. Last week, the Central Bureau for Statistics revealed that a quarter of a million adults – mostly poor Dutch and expats – and some 40,000 children are uninsured. If caught, they will be fined.

At a guess, the newborn princess has the same bug I’ve been fighting off. And while I cannot afford a dose of antibiotic, let alone luxury care like the mammogram I need because my mum has breast cancer, I don’t care about the political power of the Oranges. I couldn’t care less about their privileges or their personal wealth. What I want to know is this – have Willem Alexander and Maxima, with a joint allowance of 150 times that of us Minima, taken out health insurance and if not, will they be fined?


gill1109 said...

I'm not so upset about the Dutch royal family as Michaela. And I was especially struck by singing the Dutch national anthem at the last birthday celebration of my university, Leiden. Founded by Prince Willem of Orange in order to further military science, navigation and so on.The Dutch national anthem is very strangely a song sung by William of Orange saying "I'm of German blood" and "I swore allegiance to the King of Spain". However the point is that the King of Spain betrayed this allegiance by violating justice and truth in this country and William adhered to his higher values. Now the good thing comes: the absolutely not hidden message is "watch out, you Oranges; as soon as you too betray truth and justice we will kick you out". I think that this is quite an original national anthem.

cheesehead said...

Please don't neglect your blog! Your points of view are (in the opinion of this reader) absolutely dead-on and also compelling reading.

As a 'buitenlander' myself, it's most refreshing to note your returnee observations.

I'm looking forward to other observations on Life, the Brave New World and its inhabitants.

Ine said...

Good points overall, but the last paragraph is a bit self-pitying and factually incorrect. If you're sure you need antibiotics and a mammogram, then tell your GP. If he or she isn't convinced, go to another GP.

All these things are completely covered by the state-funded medical insurance that you are so bitter about. The fee per month for this type of insurance (and for which you get a 25% recompensation if you don't earn much) doesn't even come close to covering the real cost of healthcare.

The whole point of our compulsory health insurance is that if you need care, you're going to get it without any extra costs. Including those antibiotics.

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