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How to say goodbye to politics?

New ministers, new state secretaries and new members of parliament. Around the time of the elections, we often talk about the new faces, but there are also many politicians who leave during this period, sometimes out of necessity. How do you say goodbye to a political career? Henk te Velde, professor of Dutch history, wrote a book, Slotakkoord, about this subject, together with historian Diederick Slijkerman and a number of former PhD students.

Henk te Velde

Great careers that end on a down note

Te Velde's interest in the ending of political careers was awakened by a casual remark. A reviewer wrote about one of his earlier books that former minister Hendrikus Colijn’s political career ended in a peculiar way. 'I gave one of my first lectures in Leiden about that remark,' says Te Velde. 'Partly because of that, I came to the conclusion that great political careers usually end on a down note. Dominant politicians embody their zeitgeist for a while, but eventually lose touch with the times they live in. That fascinates me.’

Years later, it turned out Te Velde was not the only one interested in this subject. ‘Every year, I have dinner with people who I supervised during their PhD. During one of those dinners, the idea was born to write a book about farewells together.’ The attendees each examined the end of a political career, often of the person who had also been the topic of their dissertation. This resulted in Slotakkoord (Final Agreement), a collection of essays about the end of political careers from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Governor versus passionate politician

‘The book has put my dramatic imagination of farewells into perspective,' Te Velde says. ‘Especially the more managerial politicians of the nineteenth century had a fairly normal retirement. Their reputation was not always great, but public opinion often did not bother them much. They found it much more important to have a good relationship with the king. It was only in the twentieth century that politics became a full-time passion and politicians found it more difficult to retire. We also noticed this at the book launch, where we handed the first copy to GroenLinks (Dutch political party ed.) member Bram van Ojik, who is retiring from the House of Representatives for the second time. He stated that politics has addictive elements. Although he was aware of them, they had still gotten a hold of him.'

Three lessons from predecessors

Yet, according to Te Velde, the current generation of political junkies need not despair. ‘The different stories in Slotakkoord show that it helps to realise that you are not indispensable. If you have risen so high, it might be difficult to get back down, but it is your position that is important, not you.' A good story for yourself might also make it easier to say goodbye. 'At the book launch there was a politician present whose career had come to a somewhat unfortunate end. He now said that “it should have happened like this”. It is nice if you can look back on it that way.’

And finally: choose your own moment. ‘It might have been wise of Rutte to leave,' Te Velde thinks. ‘He has now put himself in a difficult position. He can only really leave for an important European position, but all of those positions have just been filled. At the same time, we can see that all parties are moving more towards to the left. The issues that he feels related to are becoming less popular. So there is a chance that a farewell later on will be less pleasant.’ 

On 17 March 2021, the Dutch general elections will be held and we will choose who will represent us in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives). In this short series of interviews we talk to students, alumni and academics of the Faculty of Humanities who are personally involved with the elections.

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