Parliaments Politics and People seminar: Harm Kaal, ‘Popular politics: the friendly match between sport and politics in the Netherlands’

Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, reports back on our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar…

Willem Drees Jr, Parliamentary leader of the Dutch party Democratic Socialists '70 (C Nationaal Archief)
Willem Drees Jr, Parliamentary leader of the Dutch party Democratic Socialists ’70 (Copyright Nationaal Archief)

Harm Kaal of Radboud University, Nijmegen, gave a fascinating paper on ‘Popular politics: the friendly match between sport and politics in the Netherlands, c. 1960-1980s’. His analysis of the relationship between politicians and sport, and its representation in the mass media, clearly proved his argument that the study of sport is relevant for political historians. He presented several interesting lines of inquiry into the ways in which politicians have used sport as a means of tapping into popular culture, to which his illustrations of politicians involved in sports ranging from judo to table tennis added greatly.

Examining Dutch politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, his paper looked at the ‘mediatisation’ of politics, with politicians increasingly concerned about the image they presented through the mass media. The sporting world played a part in this as politicians sought to associate themselves with successful sporting celebrities, as part of an effort to appeal to voters, particularly the younger generation and the politically disengaged. The celebrations by the Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl with the national football team after they were runners-up in the 1974 World Cup provided a notable example. It was also interesting to learn that sittings of the Dutch Parliament were occasionally suspended so that members could watch key sporting events on television.

Other politicians took their association with sport a step further, as active participants, and the cycling exploits of the Dutch Prime Minister Dries van Agt made an excellent case study. Among the points raised were the extent to which sport was a means of politicians demonstrating their masculinity, fitness for office and ‘authenticity’ as ordinary people; the role of sports as part of a national or community identity; and the blurring of the line between the public and private spheres, as politicians allowed themselves to be photographed at leisure, and were interviewed about their hobbies rather than their political views. This was influenced in part by the changing emotional landscape of politics in the wake of the Second World War, and also raised interesting questions about women’s involvement in the political sphere.

The final key theme of the paper was an analysis of the use of sporting metaphors in political debate. It was particularly striking that the oppositional language of rival teams, and of winning and losing, was being deployed at a time when consensus politics in the Netherlands had broken down. On the other hand, individual sports such as cycling had a rather different language from team sports such as football.

While many politicians sought to use sports in a positive, image-enhancing way, the paper also considered the concerns which were raised about whether these growing connections between politics and popular culture, and the presentation of politicians in the same way as celebrities, risked reducing politics to ‘politainment’.

Although the paper’s main focus was on Dutch politics, it prompted a wide-ranging discussion, from John Major’s love of cricket to the reasons why Barack Obama might attempt to identify himself with bowling rather than basketball. The useful comparisons and contrasts drawn between British and Dutch politics highlighted the value of taking our ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar beyond the British Isles.


‘Parliaments, politics and people’ returns next week when Philip Loft (University College, London) will speak on ‘Litigation, agency and oligarchy: the impact of the Lords as ‘High Court’, 1689-1720′ full details available here. Hope you can join us!


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