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Jelle Zijlstra: the man who was good at getting his way

19 November 2018
Zijlstra as president of De Nederlandsche Bank, 1968

A hundred years after the birth of former prime minister Jelle Zijlstra, a biography has been written about the life of the first Dutch politician who successfully managed to create a political image that was based on his expertise in the field of economics. Historian Jonne Harmsma hopes to be awarded a PhD on 29 November for the research that made this biography possible.

Two brothers from a family of five from Oosterburen in Friesland worked their way to the top of Dutch politics. While his brother Rinse made it to parliament, Jelle Zijlstra became Prime Minister of the Netherlands, president of De Nederlandsche Bank and chair of the club for European central banks (BIS). He was a figure of authority and influence at home and abroad, and managed to build an impressive career in the political and financial world that was based on the lessons of the 1930s.

The expert as a political style

Zijlstra was one of the first politicians in the Netherlands to forge a substantial political image based on expertise in a particular field. As a young, ambitious economist, he became active in Anti-Revolutionary politics and was initially considered left-wing. But when the party as a whole shifted to the left at the start of the 1960s, his expertise was labelled conservative. For all this time, Zijlstra relied heavily on his status as an economist. His expertise gave him an aura of objectivity. Harmsma: ‘Zijlstra often also said he preferred to work in academia, but my book shows another picture. He was ambitious and skilled in the political game right from the start.’

Getting your own way as a weapon

Alongside family members, Harmsma interviewed politicians and colleagues who had experienced Zijlstra from close up in the different periods. A picture emerges from Harmsma’s research of an ambitious, hard-working man who may not have been loved by everyone but whose expertise commanded wide respect. Zijlstra deftly used this to get his own way, but he could also stand his ground until opponents gave up. As an expert, Zijlstra took up a position that was not so much alongside but above others. Honest politics. That this earned him wide trust was illustrated by Wim Kan’s song, ‘Jelle zal wel zien’ (Jelle will see): you could count on his authority.

Secret monetary mission

Zijlstra’s belief in strict rules led him to do his utmost to save the international Bretton Woods Agreement in 1971. As president of the BIS, he was the ideal person to represent Europe in the negotiations with the two American camps that were also deliberating the future of that system. Zijlstra was caught in the middle: the American Central Bank had chosen a pro-European course, whereas the Treasury and White House were up for confrontation. Harmsma: ‘A bit like the White House under Trump now. The mindset was: the Europeans want to screw with us, so we have to screw with them first. That’s what Zijlstra had to contend with.’

Opponent to Den Uyl

Throughout his political career, Zijlstra was the mirror image of PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) leader Den Uyl. Both were economists, had experienced the crisis of the 1930s and had a Dutch Reformed background. However, the difference between the two became increasingly clear, and in the 1970s their thinking was often diametrically opposed. Harmsma: ‘Zijlstra often called Den Uyl a prophet, someone who saw himself as Moses. But Zijlstra himself was a prophet too. Behind his pose as expert, he preached the pragmatic thrift of ordoliberalism.’ More so than Van Agt, Zijlstra as bank president was therefore the mirror image of Den Uyl.

Jonne Harmsma hopes to be awarded his PhD at the University of Groningen on 29 November. His supervisors are Professor Hans Renders and Professor Jan Marc Berk. The commercial edition of his thesis will be published by Uitgeverij Prometheus.

Last modified:19 November 2018 2.16 p.m.
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