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"We have to organise the intellectual acuity within our party"
On 1 November 2014, the Van Mierlo Stichting welcomed its new Chairman, Mr Jan Willem Holtslag. Idee spoke with him at length about the role of a think tank, the main challenges ahead of us, and his ambitions for the Van Mierlo Stichting.
By Mark Snijder
The invitation for an interview was quickly accepted. But the date had to be confirmed later, dependant on his schedule for taking care of his grandchildren. Although he is retired, Jan Willem Holtslag (66) is still a busy man, acting as a chairman and board member for various organisations. He has had a long career in government service. At the age of 27, he started working for the Ministry of General Affairs (the Prime Minister’s ministry). After twenty years, he moved to the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, acting as a director general and, then, for the last eight years, as the secretary general, the most senior civil servant in the ministry. He finished his career at the Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid, WRR
), where he led two research projects on the future of public administration and on labour migration in the European Union. His professional fields of interest are reflected in an impressive library in his apartment in the small village of Warmond. While talking, he often refers and points to certain books in various corners. This illustrates his approach to grounding political ideas on a thoroughly intellectual basis.
How would you describe your own career?
My level of curiosity is enormous. I read a lot and always try to be well informed. So I worked on many policy areas during my career. I graduated in political science, and after finishing my military service, I applied for a job at the Ministry of General Affairs. I stayed in government service for almost forty years.
First I performed junior tasks, like taking notes at the council of ministers. I still benefit from that experience. After six months, I was assigned to the policy areas of foreign affairs, defence and kingdom relations. That position offered me fantastic opportunities. I participated in nato summits and joined the Prime Minister on his visits to three presidents of the United States. Later on, I was directly involved in the formation of new cabinets, including the one with D66 in 1994. And then I worked at the Ministry of the Interior, where I dealt with many issues of public governance and administration, safety and security. In sum, I feel privileged to have worked in such diverse spheres.
In what ways have you been involved in D66?
In 1966, on the day I received my student grant, I bought a copy of the Appèl
[public appeal to support the foundation of D66, ed] in a local bookstore. And I participated in the very First congress in Amsterdam. I was an active member of the local branch in Amsterdam. Putting up posters, distributing flyers, walking around with a sandwich board and being harassed, I did it all. I was member of the local board in Amsterdam, and for a short time I joined the national board. But when I started working for the ministry in 1975, I stopped being active in D66. I only worked on one chapter of the 2010 election programme.
What should be the role of the Van Mierlo Stichting in your opinion?
In recent years, the Van Mierlo Stichting has worked hard on the richtingwijzers
[guiding principles], as the starting point for thinking about the political ideas within our party. Obviously there was a need for them, and they are well balanced and thought out. But I’ve always been a little sceptical about whether it is possible to translate these richtingwijzers
into concrete policy measures. In my view, methodologically, you always need to confront yourself with reality, to be able to translate the abstract into the concrete. My approach has always been to create a feeling, as robust as possible, of the near future, based on scientific analyses. What developments will we face in the coming decades? What issues will be at stake in future elections? And what choices will we have to make? In my view, a political party does not derive its identity from its ideological differences with other parties, but from wellconstructed and thought-out analyses about the (near) future. I think D66 needs a think tank which is a bit closer to its classic role: giving research-based input to the internal debate on the political programme.
In 1982, when employers’ organisations and the labour unions had signed the famous Wassenaar Agreement, our Member of Parliament Maarten Engwirda criticised the proposed measures for early retirement. He analysed perfectly why these measures were not well thought out and why they would have a severe negative impact on the longer term. How? Because he looked towards the future. Unfortunately, we had to wait until this century before the early retirement policy was changed. But we have to start thinking at an early stage. Our role, as a think tank, is to discuss those issues which are not discussed by others. The richtingwijzers
will play a role in this process, but it should be balanced. Yes, we think and act internationally, because it fits so well in our ambition to provide opportunities for the individual. But what exactly do we have to do in order to work on this in the coming years? In our party, pragmatism is an important approach. Basically, this is about doing what will work. If we focus too much on the abstract principles, they might become articles of faith.
So which are the issues at stake in the coming years?
There are two main challenges ahead of us. First, international relations are changing rapidly. I am not happy with our undeserved image as Europhiles dreaming of a European federation. We have put forward important issues for the future of our continent. But we also have to look at the real Europe of today. The real Europe is nice for students on an Erasmus exchange programme. But it’s a different picture for the truck driver who has just lost his job to a Polish driver. That’s the real Europe as well, which provides us with many challenges. Especially since we’re part of the large Eurasian region where things have recently changed dramatically. What will be the impact of our trade sanctions against Russia when we always been have involved with the Russians as much as possible? We make money in China, but how will this be affected by China’s approach towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the East China Sea? I am worried about the absence of these issues in the political discourse. What is changing in international relations, and what does this mean for us?
The second issue is at the national level. In our country, there is a large population of higher educated people in their forties who are currently losing their jobs. They have a mortgage, children, and they just have been informed they have to work until the age of 67. But for the educated middle classes, the labour market doesn’t offer many opportunities. There is also a large group of self-employed professionals, who often do not build their own pensions. In ten or fifteen years, we will face social problems we have never faced before. And this is a large part of the electorate, for whom we need to have a “social story”.
In what way should the Van Mierlo Stichting work on these issues?
My idea would be to draft some short papers, just a few pages. What are the main developments and challenges, how do international and domestic developments relate to each other, and what answers are needed from us? This is not about wide perspectives, but just about things which are needed today. We can publish these papers and discuss them with people inside and outside our party who should tell us why we might be wrong, whether we missed elements and whether we have clearly described the challenges ahead of us. They shouldn’t be PhD theses. But I think we should challenge ourselves with research-based justifications, which can be used later by the party for drafting the political programme. We have to organise a certain level of intellectual acuity within our party.”
Do you see a role for the Idee in this process?
We could make a few issues of Idee
dedicated to the topics resulting from the main challenges, with statistical information and review articles. For example, we could have an issue on redefining the national defence policy, based on the changing international relations. Idee
could picture the situation of today, the challenges ahead, and the possible answers. And then again, we can use the richtingwijzers:
if we want to think and act internationally, what does it mean, and which options do we have?
The former chairman, Mr Joris Backer, started his term when D66 was in a difficult situation, with just a few seats in parliament and a bad standing in the polls. Now, the situation is much better. Does it make any difference for being the chairman of the Van Mierlo Stichting?
It should make a difference for the role of the Van Mierlo Stichting. Currently, D66 is among the larger political parties. More than ever we therefore have to think about what we want to achieve. So far, we have mainly focused on much needed reforms as our political agenda. But we need to continue our thinking, in particular for future elections and the possible formation of a new cabinet. We need more intellectual input to better understand our own and the other parties’ ambitions. So we will have to work hard in the coming years, with limited resources. It’s part of our responsibility now.
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2014: A Divided World
, en is te vinden bij het onderwerp interviews.