Blog | Letter from Limburg

Blog | Letter from Limburg

Adam Somerset looks at the first reactions to the General Election from just across the Channel.

June 10th and it is breakfast in Limburg. There is Weetabix on the table but to mark being in the Netherlands I pour fistfuls of chocolate sprinkles over my morning roll. This is a southern part of the country. With the border to Belgium a hundred metres away, quite literally it does not get more southern. Germany is fifteen kilometres away across the hills which makes a region of historical complication, It is also where three languages mix and mingle. The territory is a patchwork of catholic and protestant localities. It is both intensely local in identity but connected. The River Maas is a freight thoroughfare. A bicycle ride over the hills leads to the giant Albert Canal, the transport route that connects the Rivers Maas to Scheldt.

The region is a post-coal economy which has made the successful transition to modernity. A new university inhabits every building in the old city. It jostles on the rim with life science research companies, a major hospital, a European institution or two and offices that carry the names of Ericsson and Medtronic. To be here is to look with curiosity at whatever Britain is up to. The transition of Limburg out of mining has been done via a mix of deftly skilled local politicians and the helpful hand of Brussels behind them. In historical terms Britain’s engagement goes a long way back. Scots were here in sizeable numbers in battle with the Dutch against the Spaniards. Sir Philip Sydney died not far away.

I meet a student heading home for the summer to rural Cambridgeshire. I ask him how it is to study here. “The course is great, the city is beautiful, the fees are two thousand euros. What’s to lose?” One of his flatmates is from Belfast and I mention the new prominence of Northern Ireland in all-British politics. “Just what I came here to get away from,” she says. “Our politicians are not of very high calibre, you know.” Well, no, I don’t know. The average British mainlander has more probably been to Bali than Ballykenny, more likely to have walked the walls of Delhi than those of Derry. Take a million Brits and barely a handful could even name the six counties. I can do five but that last one is elusive. As for the new hand-holding between DUP and Conservatives, says this Belfaster, “If this government survives until 2018 I’d be surprised.”

The Dutch like us and are formidably well-informed. The BBC is standard fare. They seem to know Ruth Davidson from Have I Got News for You. They know the news and the sights but they do not know us in depth. But then, we don’t know ourselves that well. Thursday has left a country in a state of gobsmackedness. But the Dutch are impressed by us. It may have been later than the norm but that black limousine and police motorcade was at the Palace by 1:00 PM. The Netherlands still has no government and their election took place on 15th March. The parties, all twenty-eight of them, talk and talk and fail to get a government. The situation represents everything the cut-and-dried, first-past-the-post political tradition of Britain disdains and fears.

The Netherlands were neutral in the First World War but the first battles were fought just a few miles south of Maastricht. The giant forts at Liège were the first obstacle on the invasion of Belgium. The Germans brought a new weapon for first use. Its place of manufacture, the Krupp works in Essen, was not far distant but its design had prompted questions as to it mobility. The larger version of the new weapon was carried on a gun carriage twenty-four feet long. Its weight was ninety-eight tons and the shell it fired, three feet in height, weighed eighteen hundred pounds. The complement of men needed to fire it was two hundred.

Limburg’s fate in the second war was less harsh than the parts of the Netherlands that suffered famine. I was first here as a twenty-year old hitch-hiker. The men who drove the cars and gave me the lifts were of the war generation. Once it was established where I came from, an expression of loathing for Germany was never far beneath the surface. Of course that has changed. But the paradox of Europe is manifest, political connectedness co-existing with cultural plurality. The students here often live in flats of twelve or thirteen. A shared first home after the parental nest is always a challenge. No-one would ever dream of posting a sign, says one of the students, for a vacancy that says “No Afghans.” But frequently a notice will request a preference for a Dutch-speaker or a German-speaker. “It just works out better that way,” she says. It probably does. It is the contradiction of Europe, the huge economy of hundreds of millions sheltering the social groups of a few hundred within which we actually live.

The valley of the Maas in one respect resembles Cardigan Bay. David Goodhart received much publicity with a post-referendum book this last winter. He anatomised Britain as divided between what he called the somewhere people and the anywhere people. The members of the former group, the larger, live at a near distance to where they were schooled. The latter follow the roads to work wherever they lead and have associations across place with friendships, marriages, across countries.

Take a cycle ride away from the river valley and the terrain becomes swiftly rural. The borderlines between Netherlands, Germany and Belgium follow strange erratic routes around or even through fields. Land ownership here goes back centuries, along with all the associated depth of knowledge and relationships. It was the same relationship, and dilemma, that that Buddug James Jones dramatised in her award-winning theatre piece “Hiraeth.” She opened her play in a place inland from the coastal fringe of Ceredigion with its churn of many comers-and-goers. At a spot outside Llandysul she looked at the slopes around and pointed to domains that had been farmed by Jameses or Joneses for hundreds of years.

Goodhart posited his groups as antagonists. In fact they are complementary. The stayers on the whole make for stability, the civility that is the underpin of civil society. The goers make the urge and change that offset stagnation. I was a launch of Goodhart’s book and asked him how his diagnosis equated with the generational differences in attitude and political choice. His answer was unsatisfactory. The young, he said, in middle age become settled. That is true to an extent but the attitudes of early adulthood stay for the duration. And the somewhere people are not set in stone. Just as in “Hiraeth” they make the children who become the artists in Canton, the quants in Frankfurt, the NGO workers in Nairobi. They rocked the election of two days ago. I too had bought the untested media line that post-referendum England was looking for comfort and a land of grammar schools and church choirs. And June 8th tore it up.

The people that swirl the lovely squares of central Maastricht and throng its cafes are young, multilingual, energetic. The boardrooms and parliaments of the 2040s are going to be theirs. I will not see their custodianship but meanwhile a bicycle is at hand to ride the path that runs along the river-front. The number of cyclist deaths this past year in London at the hands of motorists has reached a shocking number. That is another thing about Europe. The hand at the car or lorry wheel is always in the wrong.