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Research Biografie Instituut

Frits Bolkestein (1933)

Frits Bolkestein (2011)
Frits Bolkestein (2011)

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Frits Bolkestein dominated the political debate in the Netherlands as leader of the conservative liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). In 1994, he formed the first “purple” coalition government, together with Wim Kok, leader of the social-democratic PvdA and Hans van Mierlo, leader of the progressive liberal D66. For the first time in more than 75 years, the Christian Democrats (CDA) were excluded from the center of power. Bolkestein himself did not join the cabinet but remained a member of the House of Representatives. This way he retained the possibility to express freely his unadulterated view, which contributed greatly to the electoral successes of his party. Under the leadership of Bolkestein the VVD gained a significant amount of votes after a period of election defeats. The VVD even became the largest party at the provincial council elections of 1995; the first time the party got more votes than the CDA and the PvdA.  

After Bolkestein left Dutch politics in 1998, the party ended up in a crisis. At the right wing of the political spectrum arose a vacuum which gave way to populists Pim Fortuyn and later on Geert Wilders, a pupil of Bolkestein. The VVD without Bolkestein lacked a vision and lost at the elections of 2002 by going from 38 to 24 seats in the parliament. Just like the period before Bolkestein, the party ended up as a junior partner in cabinets with the CDA.

The biography of Bolkestein will contribute to the general knowledge of the Dutch political history at the end of the twentieth century and of the political visions of that time. This biography explains how Bolkestein formed his ideas, how he managed to become the leader of the VVD and how he dominated the political debate. Further, the importance of Bolkestein for the VVD and politics in the Netherlands is discussed.

Frits Bolkestein grew up in an intellectual bourgeois environment in Amsterdam-Zuid. After finishing his studies in philosophy, he started to work for Shell in 1960, for which he worked abroad for 16 years. He resigned in 1976 at the age of 43, to focus on a political career.

With this decision he took a large risk, since after spending a long time abroad he did not have any network in the Netherlands. He joined the VVD without knowing a single member of the party. Nevertheless, he was strongly motivated to oppose the cultural revolution of the sixties and the leftist ideas of the PvdA and its then leader Joop den Uyl. With a lot of luck and after a remarkable campaign, he acquiered a seat in the House of Representatives. Initially, he was perceived as a peculiar loner, but over time he gained authoritiy through his erudition, vision and writing skills. After being an underminister for four years and following the elections of 1986, he brutally attacked the party leadership of Ed Nijpels. Doing this he dethroned the ‘king’ of the party, but was not able to take over the command himself and had to settle for a position under the new leader Joris Voorhoeve.

When Voorhoeve resigned four years later, Bolkestein was chosen as his successor in the absence of other candidates. At first, he was seen as a temporary leader: considering his elitary, arrogant and intellectual image he was not thought to have much electoral appeal. However, after a rough start he developed into the national debate leader and the undisputed leader of the VVD. Especially after the formation of the first Kok cabinet his star reached great heigths. He was seen as a probable succeeding prime minister, although he himself did not feel for that function. After the elections of 1998 in which the PvdA remained the largest party and when the formation of the second Kok cabinet was almost completed, Bolkestein unexpectedly handed over the party leadership to Hans Dijkstal. One year later, he was assigned as European Commissioner for Interal Markets and Taxation. This news was perceived with surprise as he was seen as an eurosceptic and deemed unsuitable for the bureaucracy of Brussels.

In his function as European Commissioner he functioned well enough to qualify for a second term, but he declined the offer. He was appointed as endowed professor in intellectual backgrounds of political developments and he published his magnum opus The intellectual temptation: dangerous ideas in politics in 2011. In the last phase of his life, he continued commenting the developments in politics and the world as a public intellectual.

In this biography, the person Bolkestein is interpreted in the context of post war student life in Amsterdam and the cultural climate and political mores of the sixties, seventies and the decades following.

This PhD research is supervised by prof. Gerrit Voerman and prof. Hans Renders.

Dik Verkuil is a historian and writer of history school books for secondary education, and he works as editor-in-chief at the News section of national broadcasting station NOS. He gave an interview on his biographical research to Biografieportaal.nl In 2019, he published the biography De Gedrevene. Joop den Uyl 1919-1987, about PvdA leader and prime minister Joop den Uyl. Email: dik.verkuil nos.nl.

Last modified:10 December 2022 4.12 p.m.
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