You may remember that, in my last letter to you, we examined the strange phenomenon of reducing prisoner numbers in the Netherlands and attempted to explore possible explanations as to why that might be. In this letter, I promised to expand upon that and suggest reasons as to why the Dutch are, comparatively, such law-abiding folk.
Developing on that idea, I’d like to state that I may have given the impression to you, in past letters, that I dislike the USA and, possibly, that I dislike you too. The fact is, on my two trips to the USA, I loved it. I think the USA is a fascinating and amazing country. On a personal level, I dislike some of its politics. It also has a lot of angry people. Angry and unhappy people. It must also be said, in all honesty, so does the UK. The combination of angry and unhappy people is not a successful recipe for a harmonious society.
People who are happy with the society they live in, tend to have more respect and less motive to want to break its rules. So, Blighty, I’d like to examine the reasons why, you particularly, are a far less than happy country and what lessons could be learned from other places (specifically here in Limburg and the Netherlands) to make you a far brighter and content place.
As it turns out, Blighty, you are officially a far less happy place than even the USA. According to the 2016 World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, you are ranked 23rd, exactly ten places behind the USA (and you’re down from last year).
You are, in fact, a more miserable place than such poorer countries as Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica and countries which suffer bitterly cold winters like Iceland, Canada, Norway and Sweden. Funnily enough, it generally seems that the colder the country, the happier its population tends to be. As Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada take the first six places in that order. Then comes the Netherlands in seventh.
Of course, how the report defines ‘happiness’ may not be how either you or I would. For example, there’s no mention of access to affordable good chocolate, ability to watch marathons of ‘Family Guy’ on TV or how sexy a population each country has. Happiness is such a debatable and subjective concept. For the purposes of the report, they take into account a combination of factors, including GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and trust (of officials). This seems a rather narrow set of criteria on which to base a nation’s level of happiness, so I will be referring to this report in relatively loose terms. But it is surely true to say, on balance, that happy people are generally wealthy (in relative terms), supported when the going gets tough (i.e. social security), healthy, free to be who they want to be and live their lives how they choose, living in a giving and generous community, lead by people they can trust. Access to decent chocolate, ‘Family Guy’ and sexy people is probably more of a luxury for people who are already pretty content with their lot in life.
So, for some reason, Bighty, yet again, you score lower than the Netherlands. Why are you a less happy place than one of the flattest places on the planet? My hypothesis is that its because you’re a pretty angry place.
Angry people do bad things. Happy people, on the whole, don’t. And you don’t have to be rich, not to be angry. There are many poor people who ooze happiness. But, again, its all relative.
I made the rather bold claim in my last letter to you, Blighty, that I don’t need to look at any statistics to know that the Netherlands is a far safer place than you are. One only needs to visit here to get that sense. Of course, it is possible that Dutch crime rates are astronomically high, but the authorities are so very efficient at concealing any evidence from the naked eye. However, the statistics do not support this. The Netherlands is a relatively safe place.
After around a dozen visits to the Netherlands, some for extended periods, I am always astounded by several things. Mostly by things that I don’t see. More specifically, things that I don’t see that I would often see in the UK. Now, I’m not saying things that I don’t see never happen in the Netherlands, I’m just stating that I have either never, or hardly ever, witnessed them. Such as:
- I have never seen a fight in a bar. Or in a town centre. Or anywhere, for that matter.
- I have been to many town centres in the Netherlands and never noticed any police presence, not even on Friday or Saturday nights. Of course, I have randomly seen police driving around the country, but never specifically placed in a town centre or outside a club or bar, anticipating the likely on-set of trouble such as is frequently seen in you, Blighty.
- I have never seen groups of rowdy drunk young men or women EXCEPT on two occasions – during carnival time in Limburg and on visits to Amsterdam (the rowdy young people have almost always turned out to be British or Irish).
- I have seen limited amounts of graffiti on trains and on the sides of motorways. But that is all I have seen.
- I have never seen a road accident. They must happen. I know they do. I have seen Dutch news! I have just never seen one or evidence of one having taken place first hand.
- I have never felt threatened by gangs of anti-social young people. Of course, I have seen young people and groups of young people, but never felt threatened or seen them behave in ways that could be deemed to be threatening or anti-social. I have seen and heard some individual boys, on the way home from school, use disrespectful language to taunt their female classmates, but that is all.
- I have never seen a homeless person or encountered a beggar. I am told, by Dutch people, that there are homeless people living in the forests. Not that I ever been on any forages into the Dutch woodland, but I have still seen no evidence in any of the many locations that I have visited. And on the other occasions I ask Dutch people where their homeless population is, they say they are in homes and shelters. Which pretty much makes my point.
Now, the Netherlands has problems, of course it does. Every country has problems. My girlfriend is a social worker and has worked on the front-line helping individuals to deal with these problems. Her last job was in a women’s refuge, so knows only too well the violence and abuse that many of these women suffer at the hand’s of their partners and families. There are also gangs in the Netherlands. Limburg, in particular, has on-going issues with Hell’s Angels-type biker gangs. But, again, it is all relative. It has problems but they are far fewer and far less evident than they are in you, Blighty.
So, why might this be? Why might Dutch people be less angry and less inclined to be anti-social and break the rules? Is it their DNA? Are they naturally a happier and more law-abiding bunch? Have they been drilled and brain-washed in a North Korean-like fashion? Or are they all Philips manufactured cyborgs or implanted with chips in their brains making them comply?
Here are a few explanations I put forward to you:
FEWER LAWS TO BE BROKEN. Firstly, there is perhaps an obvious factor that may account for some of this: the simple fact that there are fewer laws to break. That things that are illegal in many other countries, are not illegal here in the Netherlands. Such as prostitution and smoking cannabis. Some may even argue that the acts themselves contribute to the Dutch level of happiness. Or at least they’re too busy shagging or getting high to be committing crimes. Others, of course, may claim they cause more problems. I’ll let the stats do the talking.
SEX. In terms of sex (seeing as it is an on-going, but relevant, theme in my life), the Dutch maintain a far more open attitude to discussing it with their peers and families alike and to the notion of selling and enjoying it in all its many manifestations. Here in Limburg, people are a bit more conservative, being the mainly Catholic region of the country. But even here, there are sex clubs and shops advertised quite openly. In the larger cities and vicinities, swinger’s clubs and organisations abound. Sex is certainly not something hidden away and shunned. On the whole, most Dutch feel they can pretty much be themselves here and not be judged badly for it, including on a sexual level.
ALCOHOL. Dutch people, like most western Europeans, except the British and Irish, have a healthy relationship with alcohol. The culture of ‘alcopops’ does not really exist here and you will rarely hear groups of young Dutch people expressly say “I want to get really drunk tonight”. It happens, of course. But, on the whole, the Dutch drink to enjoy drinking, not with the expressed purpose of getting completely shit-faced. As a result, A&E departments up and down the Netherlands are generally not clogged up with record numbers of injured (from self-induced accidents or brawls) young people tanked up with dangerous levels of alcohol. The Dutch private health care and insurance-based system may account partly for an individual taking greater responsibility for their health and use of the system. But even in societies with free-at-the-point-of-use health systems, such as Sweden and Denmark, the same is generally true. The culture of getting rat-arsed as quickly as possible to the point of being embarrassingly inebriated is, in Europe at least, generally limited to the British Isles or to any location on the continent frequented by large numbers of young British tourists.
VIOLENCE. Accompanied with the drinking culture in you, Blighty, is very often a nasty, violent streak. While so many young Brits go out with the intention of getting blotto, a smaller group, but still present across the land, of, predominantly males, go out looking for a fight, or are more than eager to get into one should they be presented with the opportunity. God forbid that somebody should happen to look at them, or their partner, in the ‘wrong’ way. Now, I don’t happen to believe that I am particularly attracted to these sorts of people, that any of my friends fit into this category or that I hang out in establishments particularly known for this sort of activity – except for the fact I ever hung out in any bar or club in the United Kingdom. All I know is, that during my 35 years of living in the British Isles, I have seen frequent bar brawls and street fights. I specifically remember driving out of Reading town centre one night, confronted with numerous police riot vans, the scene looked like a war zone. A local told me that that its like that every Saturday night. The truth is, and if you’re British you know it only too well, that in every provincial shit hole, however big or small, up and down the UK, the scene is replicated over and over and over again. In contrast, during my many visits to the Netherlands, I spend many nights in town centres and at clubs and bars as a result of the work I often do over here. I have not once seen a fight. Again, I am not saying they don’t occur, I have absolutely no doubt that they do. But I have never seen one.
OBESITY. If British hospitals aren’t filled every weekend with the sorry and pathetic results of alcohol-binging or drug-fuelled antics or with the battered and bruised corpses of yet another victim of the rather nasty viscous side of British youth culture, the rest of the week they are battling the on-going, and growing, issue of obesity within your population, Blighty. We’ve addressed this issue just a few letters ago. But its worth repeating in the context of happy and safe environments. Healthy people tend to be happier people, for many reasons. While there are those in the ‘fat community’ who proudly claim to embrace their size and be happy with who, and what, they are, the fact remains that living a healthy lifestyle improves your mental well-being and outlook, your physical confidence and self-esteem, your sex life and relationship and its been linked to greater economic success too. Unhealthy people, although driven by multiple factors, tend to suffer from higher levels of depression than their healthier counterparts, or, that is to say, the fact they are unhealthy makes them more depressed. This can lead to a downward scale of depression and self-loathing which can manifest itself in other anti-social activities. On this front, we have already examined the fact that the Dutch are a far healthier bunch than the British and the possible reasons as to why this might be.
HOUSING. This may seem an odd one, but the housing we live in and our environment actually have massive impacts on our sense of self, self-worth and our place in our community.
The first thing I noticed, when visiting the Netherlands, was the size of the windows. Many homes have very large front room windows. This is a rather uniquely Dutch architectural character. The moment you drive into Belgium or Germany, you just don’t see it any more and I certainly very, very rarely see anything like it in the UK. I have spoken to numerous Dutch people and asked why their windows are so big and most respondents are unsure. Although, one claimed it was a government conspiracy to be able spy upon its inhabitants. While I do believe that the Dutch put an enormous amount of thought into the design of many things, I tend not to believe, in this case, it has a motive linked to spying or invasion of individual liberty. Firstly, it lets more light in. Light makes people feel more positive. One also feels more connected to the community around them, an inter-connection, if you like, between their home and the outdoors. In terms of security, while some may see it as a concern because it shows off their possessions more clearly, others will highlight how any intruder in their home can be more easily identified and witnessed due to the size of the window. Again, if larger windows were a massive security risk, this would be reflected in the crime rate, which its not. Too often, I have driven past homes in the UK (particularly new builds) with pokey little windows and wondered how anyone could tolerate such lack of natural light. As if the UK isn’t dark and dingy enough much of the time, maximising on the daylight that we do get shouldn’t be an architectural impossibility, even for the lowest quality housing. Sadly, this is one example of British short-sightedness of cutting corners and saving costs, but in the long-term having detrimental effects on mental health, social behaviour and criminal activity.
My second lasting impression from the Netherlands, re-enforced every single time I am here, is how tidy a country it is. That every house looks like a show home. I can even drive into an area of predominantly social housing (what you call ‘council housing’) and notice no difference. I won’t see any graffiti there, I have never smelt the aroma of kippers in the air, seen boarded up windows, burnt out homes, used shopping trolleys, old bicycles or tyres festering away in over-grown front lawns, been threatened by gangs of anti-social youth smoking or drinking by the bus stop. Social homes are as well maintained, or so it seems to me, as private ones. Dutch people take pride in their homes, whether they own them or not. Now, it is true that a popular TV show in recent years in the Netherlands, called ‘De Tokkies’, chronicled the activities of, what can best be described as, one of the chavviest families around – chain-smoking, shop-lifting, social home residents with foul mouths and fat arses that they would spend much of their time on. The sad thing is that, in the UK, such people would not be an exception, but the rule, for so many communities up and down the land. So, while such people do indeed exist in the Netherlands, I haven’t seen them and I see no evidence or major differentiation of attitudes of those in more affluent, compared to poorer, neighbourhoods. These differences may be starker in larger cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam and while my experience is largely limited to smaller towns in Limburg, my experience of having lived in many towns of similar size in the UK is that there are always stark contrasts and clear evidence of deprivation, crime and anti-social conduct in areas of predominantly social housing. This comparison is worth noting, Blighty.
Most Dutch people do not live in massive homes. Many live in terraced housing like so many of your residents, Blighty. But there is often far more thought put into the design, proportions and use of light (big windows) in these houses than in those of so many local authorities in the UK. So much of you, Blighty, is still dominated by huge ugly sways of 1960s blocks of flats and poorly-considered council housing and even, sometimes, pokey private new builds too. Until recently, that has been largely true for most architecture in the UK, with grim, concrete office blocks and shopping malls slotted in between poorly maintained decaying older buildings. This is improving now. But the Netherlands has been at the forefront of design, in many spheres, for decades. It really does feel that every building has a purpose here and has been carefully considered as to how it will best function for the role it has been created to serve, as well fit into the environment or make a bold statement. In the UK, not so. As long as it has four walls and a few tiny windows, its sufficient. The UK, the land of sufficient. For now. But not for the long-term.
Community building is so important in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging for those who inhabit it. Structures and buildings form a large portion of the communities we reside in. I must be honest and say that I thought the town I grew up in was an ugly shit-hole. So, I treated it as such. At least, I made no real effort to make it a better place. I saw no real future there. Why would somebody invest their time and effort in a place they see no future or feel gives very little back to them? Towns and cities are, of course, living, breathing entities that are both served by, and for, those people who live there. There needs to be give and take on both sides. Its only recently that you have you begun to realise this, Blighty. Sadly, for some, its a little too late.
ROADS. The Dutch have some of the safest roads in the world. The quality is pretty astounding. Having driven here on numerous occasions, I have never seen a pot-hole. I will be so bold as to say they are the smoothest roads I have ever had the pleasure to drive on. Crossing from the Netherlands to Belgium, you notice the difference instantly. Not only that, but the Netherlands uses, yet again, very well thought-out road planning techniques to ensure drivers pay far closer attention to the road and reduce their speed. This is particularly noticeable when off the motorway and in residential areas, where roads are purposefully narrowed and made to share with cycle paths. You must also remember that, over here, cyclists own the roads. Hitting a cyclist will cost you dearly! You must always stay very aware on Dutch roads. As a result, road accidents are far fewer because all drivers are employing the same level of heightened awareness in order to avoid these obstacles. Generally, people who are dead or badly injured from road accidents, tend not to be very happy people. And it certainly means fewer people are breaking the rules on the Netherlands’ roads. Sure, I have seen speeders and been over-taken by people I would love to have given the ‘wanker’ symbol to, but that is the worst I have witnessed. And if that is the worst, it leaves me pretty happy to be a motorist on the Netherlands’ roads.
Its worth noting, while discussing roads, that the Netherlands does have the highest rate of bicycle accidents in Europe. But it also has the highest rate of bicycle use in the whole of the continent too. So, there’s your explanation for that one.
HATE OF THE OTHER. It is certainly true to say that the Netherlands has rich people and it has poor people and, like any society, there is envy, greed and hatred associated with such divisions. And while the Netherlands also shares in common the fact that it has a monarch as its Head of State, there is far less of a noticeable divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ than is evident the UK. There is a vaguely carved out notion of a class system, particularly in the richer parts in the provinces of Holland, but the lines are far more brutally clear and enforced in the UK. Even the Dutch royal family has a more mainstream presence and sense of ‘normality’ about it than the British royals. This long-time entrenched system of upper and lower classes, rich and poor, haves and have nots, continues to breed a deeply held notion of resentment and hatred which is far more prevalent in the UK than it is in the Netherlands. If there is a hatred of those who rule you, there is far less likelihood that those subjected to that rule will respect the rules imposed upon them.
The ‘other’ also extends beyond the borders. The UK, as an island, as a former colonial power, has arrogantly imposed its own rule and influence beyond its boundaries to societies in every continent of the globe. But the moment it feels ‘encroached’ upon by any others, it traditionally attempts to flex it muscles and attempts to expel such foreign elements or recoils in fear. Even when those influences come from its nearest neighbours. The UK has always been very suspicious of ‘Johnny foreigner’, mainland Europeans included. Of course, centuries of war and conflict leaves any country suspicious of the motives and influences of any other, but the Netherlands (which was also a colonial power), due to its geographic location, has had to learn to live with and, sometimes even love, its neighbours – even if one of those neighbours is Germany. As previously mentioned, many Dutch, particularly in Limburg, live in the Netherlands but work in Belgium, shop in Germany, take a day trip to Paris or Luxembourg, fill up their car in Belgium, use a hospital in Germany and so on. Sometimes even their next-door-neighbour is literally on another side of a border. The Dutch are so used to mingling with foreigners (without even taking immigrants into account) and crossing borders, be they physical, linguistic and cultural, that the idea of co-operating with, working for, or even becoming a friend of, someone in another country near to them, is simply part of many Dutch people’s day-to-day existence.
When it comes to immigration, of course, there is tension and there are right-wing movements and political parties capitalising on this. But at least Dutch people have an understanding of the daily interaction with people from, and in, neighbouring countries that island countries such as you, Blighty, will find much harder to appreciate and understand. Assessing how this impacts on criminality (or the lower level of it), I would argue that a society that is content with its place in the world, and feels it has a real stake in, and understanding of, the wider world around it, beyond its own borders, makes for a happier place to be, as opposed to one that lives in continual fear, suspicion and lack of insight of the ‘other’, even when that other is from just down the road (or, in your case, across the water). Of course, this is hard to measure, as Belgium and Germany rank far lower in the Happiness Report than the Netherlands, but those countries do not adhere to some of the other factors I have highlighted here.
So, there you have it. Some of the reasons I believe that the Netherlands is a happier and safer place than you, Blighty. Its possible that all of this comes down to DNA, although I think that’s highly unlikely. Even if it were true, there are still many elements from the Dutch experience you can take lessons from. The biggest being that it really helps to think about the long-term impact rather than the short-term reward.
Of course, nowhere is perfect and no society on the face of the planet will ever escape the evils that plague humanity. I know people in the Netherlands who have been victim of a mugging and of having their home broken into. But, as I continue to stress, it is all relative. Eradication is a utopian goal, not a realistic one. Reduction is the aim. While there are countries, like the Netherlands, that do things better than you do based on results, Blighty, there’s the opportunity to take stock and learn in a hope you might be able to improve.
Best of luck, Blighty!
Until next time,