Do institutions matter?

by Elias Blum

Q. What I find remarkable about these sometimes substantive constitutional and operational differences in democratic systems is that the outcome is nevertheless very often the same. E.g., the British system is quite different from the Dutch, but the policies pursued are identical in the ideological sense.


A. I think ‘identical’ is an overstatement. Having lived in the Netherlands for two years now, I’ve noticed lots of policy differences – some things are better in the Netherlands than in Scotland, some worse. Some of the policy differences are slight – a different set of priorities or way of handling things, some actually quite noticeable, reflecting a basic difference of approach. They are all, of course, within the broad spectrum of a capitalist society, but there is a difference. I’m not sure how much of this difference is due to institutions, but it must surely account for some of it.

If we were to imagine for a moment that NL was governed by British institutions, there would be one party majority governments, and the VVD (right-liberals / secular conservatives) would do as they wish. As it is, they have to compromise on all sorts of specific policy matters with PvdA (social democrats) in government, and with a bunch of small ‘friendly opposition’ parties in the Senate.

Likewise, if we were to imagine that the UK were governed by Dutch institutions, then Scotland would have the autonomy of Aruba, and the Wesminster government would be a coalition probably of the Tories and Labour. Even if there’s not much ideological or policy difference between Tories and Labour, there is some (perhaps a non-trivial amount), and that arrangement must shape policy decisions, sometimes in marginal ways and sometimes more fundamentally.

Institutions also change the way policy is developed, how it is introduced and applied. In the UK, the PM wakes up one morning, listens to his special advisor, and says, ‘right, we are doing this!’ – and it is done (badly and hurriedly, with little debate or consultation), and those who don’t agree are left to shout or grumble ineffectively. Then the next day the PM gets a different feeling in his waters, and all of a sudden we are rushing off to the next ill-considered policy initiative. The converation, such as it is, always happens after the decision. In NL, that couldn’t happen, because the decision would require the approval of many participants before being taken – so the conversation always preceeds the decision, decision-making is slower, but generally more people are on-board with the decision when taken, and radical swings in direction are ironed out in the process.

Of course, institutions only translate values, ideas and interests into policy. So while the shape of those institutions will help to influence which values, ideas and interests are heard and which are ignored, the values, ideas and interests themselves are largely (although not entirely) independent of instittuions.

It is in this sphere of values, ideas and interests, I think, that the similarities exist. Because neo-liberalism has for 30 years or so (1979-2008)  been such a hegemonic ideology, its influence is felt in both countries in similar (but not identical) ways.

Also, leaders in both those countries are subject to similar interests that pull and shape them. One of these is the EU, and I do think part of the problem is the centralsiation of power at EU level squeezes out space for diverse policy experimentation, even if there was a desire for it.