Paul Benneworth: The Dutch look after each other - why can't the British do the same?

North East-born academic Paul Benneworth contrasts the welfare systems in Holland - where he lives - and Britain


My son turned four over the weekend and some family are here in the Netherlands to celebrate the momentous event. For me it marked a point where many clichés suddenly came true, from ‘where’s the time gone?’ to ‘don’t they grow up fast?’

As an expat, you find yourselves doing things like birthdays as a blend of your own childhood traditions together with what you pick up from your local friends and neighbours.

So we had Paddington Bear hats and Cadbury’s Buttons from England along with candles on a Limburg Cream Cake and a chorus of the Dutch birthday song Lang zal hij leven.

He’s started school for the first time this morning, for four days before our holidays start. He’s had ten test sessions at the school before starting properly, and that means it’s not the drastic shock of starting in a single group in September.

As a June baby, he’d have been one of the youngest in an English class and that would have stuck with him throughout his school days. But here, for the next two years, as more and more children turn four and start school, he’ll evolve into one of the oldest in the class.

As an educational system it is a great way of promoting mutual responsibility from an early age, with older children making sure that the youngest ones do not get left behind. This co-operation, negotiation and intense practicality is hard-wired into the Dutch psyche, partly as a consequence of their difficult relationship with the sea.

If half your country is at risk of vanishing under water, then everything has to take second place to pulling together and rallying round the sea defences.

Their welfare state has a practical reason – you all look after each other because without sticking together you will be washed into the sea. And that is true both metaphorically as well as literally: social cohesion gives you a practical resilience to deal with whatever challenges an uncertain global world throws at you.

And it’s a practicality that I find increasingly hard to spot in British political discourse that seems obsessed with championing a naïve individualism.

The Tories have just announced a £12bn cut to social security that is certainly going to hit hardest the poorest and weakest in society as if they are just a burden rather than humans contributing in many different ways to our collective happiness.

The Labour Party seems to be falling over itself to pick the leader most willing to betray the movement’s roots as a collective workers movement and flog off the NHS.

Recent anti-austerity protests were written off all too easily as the whining of losers and the awkward squad rather than as serious attempts to express an alternative vision of the future.

Cheered on by the press, and by a BBC fearing closure from a hostile Tory cabinet, public discussion seems to have forgotten that 60 million souls on a small island are intimately dependent on neighbours near and far for their health, wealth and happiness.

We know where rampant individualism leads us, and it’s not a pretty picture. The American Dream has long deserted the typical hard-working family, and a few big earners pay for little more than hyper-aggressive policing to keep the rest in line and their gravy train rolling.

That’s the unwelcome future that’s staring us in the face it we don’t take immediate action and remember our mutual dependence on our local and national communities.

So it’s time to go back to school and relearn how we collaborate with each other to collectively tackle our mutual problems, and make sure that we aren’t washed away by wider instability lapping at our shores.

  • Originally from the North East, Dr Paul Benneworth is a senior researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.


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