By Salem Samhoud, &samhoud consultancy
Ed van Thijn (1934), former politician and author of the ‘formatie’ [the making of a coalition], was a guest at &samhoud on 17 september 2010. During a breakfast session, he gave his vision on the role of the coalition negotiator and what he needs to do to create connection between the various political parties. I interviewed Ed van Thijn after his speech: ‘sometimes you have to be able to oppose each other in anger in order to reach the next phase of connection.’
‘I have a war history. It defined my youth and my future. I wanted to achieve a society without discrimination. That has always been my passion. I have fought for it at various levels: on the street, in the municipal administration, at the national political level and at the international level. In that case, it involves treaties between countries.’
You wanted to put an end to discrimination. That means that you have felt pain. What pain was that?
‘As a child, in the war, I was treated like dirt. But the feeling that I had to do something about it only came when I went to study in Paris. I went there to learn how a democracy should function. One day I was beaten up on the street because I was Jewish. That was an eye-opener: you have to take matters into your own hands. For me it was politics.’
The opposite of discrimination is connection. But you first have to get over your grief. How did you do that?
‘I quickly ended up in responsible positions, managerial positions. At a young age, I was chairman of my municipal party, the largest in Amsterdam. That was in the 1960s, when Amsterdam was in turmoil. You have to connect in order to bridge gaps. At one point I was professional chairman and I kept it all together in that role. No one taught me that, I did it myself. In my youth I was hidden at 18 different places, which put me into contact with many different religions and cultures. I was saved by Protestants and Catholics. I always had a lot of respect for people who could live within such a relationship, but I never followed in their footsteps. I was too fragmented. But because of that I have always been able to empathize with various lifestyles, cultures, and beliefs. I always continue to see the positive things and have them melt together.’
You have brought religions together, but you are not religious yourself.
‘Faith fascinates me. For example, the ethics of Judaism intrigue me, but I have never devoted myself to the Jewish religion. Religion has something very positive. It is a source of inspiration. But it also has a negative side, since every religion excludes another. I stand too much on my own two feet to dedicate myself to a religion.’
Which line from the Bible appeals to you the most?
‘Weren’t we all strangers in Egypt?’
What is the relationship between toleration, reconciliation and connection?
You reconcile yourself with adversaries. The Prime Minister of Israel once said, “You make peace with your enemies”. You have tolerance toward people who are different from you. You should never impose your way of thinking on someone else. You always have to seek connection between your background and the background of your opponent. To put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And you have to be able to doubt yourself. If you do not doubt, you always carry the monopoly of being right. If your mission is to impose your justification on someone else, you cannot connect.’
On a fundamental level we are all each other’s fellow man.
‘That’s right, and therefore you always have to have respect for your discussion partner. Otherwise, the discussion is fruitless. And then you also have body language. As mayor, for example, you have to be open to all citizens. However, if you look at them with distrust, they will not accept you. That is empathy. You cannot connect without empathy.’
We are doing a lot of research on connection. It appears that you acquire connection when you show genuine interest, create openness and dare to be critical. You then have empathy, but also sincere appeal. How do you do that?
‘At some point you have to dare to set a boundary and be able to say: now you are going too far. Sometimes you have to be able to oppose each other in anger in order to reach the next phase of connection. That is Hegel’s dialectic: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Connection is preceded by the antithesis. Sometimes you simply have to throw it on the table.’
How do you remain honest in politics?
‘I have always had opponents you can drink a beer with. Take Hans Wiegel, he’s a friend.’
How do you define a friend?
‘I like to meet him, we always have something to talk about, and we are interested in each other. We have already met each other many times, in good times and bad. At some point you become attached to someone. I have more friends outside the party than within. Within the party you have gone through so much rivalry and pushing each other aside that it is easier to deal with an opponent than with a partner. That may be a sad observation.’
How can a party connect with other parties if it is not connected itself?
‘Politics is not only passion, but ambition as well. Sometimes there is ambition without passion. Over the years it has become more. I have been able to serve for 45 years. I’m satisfied as a whole, but not about some situations.’
In the coalition you reach rational agreement and emotional agreement. I believe that the emotional side is not very illuminated. I see it in you as well. When you introduce passion in your story, you not only radiate intelligence, but strength as well. That is what I would like to see in politics as a whole: more passion.
‘One of my weak sides is that my emotion is sometimes involved. However, it also has to do with distrust. During his coalition, Wijffels knew how to forge political opponents into supporters. Ultimately it appears that he was unable to remove the distrust. Wim Kok is another example. He was very mistrustful, also with respect to supporters. And he was proven right, since ultimately it never ends well. I wrote a book about it, about successful politicians who did not end up well. Take Winston Churchill. He may be the most successful politician in history, but in 1945 he was chased away like a dog. Or Helmut Kohl, the longest serving chancellor. He left with a major riot. The secret of politics is also the use-by date: how long can you keep it up?’
Apparently many people do not understand important lessons in life. Everyone comes and goes; it is the same in the business community. It is a given that you come to recognise. But overconfidence is blinding. It happened to Balkenende and actually you also see it happening with Cohen. Who dares to name it?
‘I did it twice, once with Den Uyl and once with his predecessor, Vondeling. But the bearer of bad tidings is subject to decay. You cannot permit yourself too much; otherwise your use-by date will also expire.’
Standing up and speaking out determines your success.
‘I have to tell you, I was also an advisor. I worked on a total of five major assignments. In three cases I had to tell my client that he was the biggest problem. But my assignments also ended quickly. Word gets around: you sign your own death sentence with Van Thijn.’
Rutte, Verhagen, Wilders are not whiz kids; they have an ambition for power. Take Klink. He was openly sacrificed. By a party that felt strongly about Christian values and integrity. And we all think it’s normal. Management boards do not go along with that political circus. But they have their concerns about The Hague.
‘I share that concern. I have always invested a lot in training people. For 8 years I coached newcomers through the Den Uyl Chair. Very little came out of it though. Apparently I fall short on that point. I have never been able to open that gateway. The generation of the 1970s was never succeeded. Little is invested in personal responsibility. Mistrust prevails; people become dull and give up. People are silenced by party discipline. They count up to 76. If you don’t play along you can leave. You take respect out of politics that way. But you also take the core out of the essence of politics. Representatives of the people are independent and have their own responsibility. You cannot discipline them as if they are a herd of voters.’
I received equality from my mother. Discrimination and inequality, that cannot be the goal in life. My question is: how can you connect all the positive strengths in society to rigorously change the political system and develop leaders who can take it on. My form is not political, but the blue ball of connection. And vision. We have developed a vision for the Dutch people, together with a couple of thousand citizens: higher goal, audacious goal and core value. What do you believe are the core values of the Netherlands?
‘Our core values are respect, tolerance and spirit of commerce. They are rooted in our history. We have survived religious strife because we realised that we could not do business if we fought one religion against the other. Tolerance stems from our spirit of commerce. And our spirit of commerce stems from our location. We have never been overrun by the great powers.’