Amsterdam: the city which tells Britain it is not an island

Amsterdam has influenced Britain for centuries, as its revamped Rijksmuseum shows, and it continues to innovate today. Britain, which in 2014 has been obsessed with nationalism, should start listening again.

Originally published on Beacon.

A model of the William Rex at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
A model of the William Rex at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

In 2014, British politics was obsessed with nationalism. The year’s big event was the referendum on Scottish independence, pushed by Scottish nationalists, and the year’s big story was the rise of the UK Independence Party, who are basically English nationalists.

One major British city was untouched by all this, although it has its own nationalist issues. It hosts what is becoming one of Britain’s most important airports, with direct flights to 18 mainland UK cities – more than Aberdeen, if you discount those to Scottish islands, and far more than Heathrow and Gatwick’s half-dozen each. Like many British cities such as Manchester, it is built on canals and rivers, with grand 19th century brick-built civic buildings complementing older historic ones. It is a bourgeois city of culture that doubles as Britain’s sex and drugs party capital.

True, Amsterdam is not actually in Britain, and never has been. The city’s first language is Dutch – although English comes a close second, routinely spoken by almost everyone a visitor is likely to speak to. But its history and its present are tied up with Britain’s, as a competitor to and a partner of British cities.

Much of what London has done, Amsterdam did first. The Dutch city invented stock exchanges, multinational companies, New York (as New Amsterdam) and non-dictatorial royals. The last was imported from the Netherlands to England through a successful invasion, which took place rather more recently than 1066.

1066 wasn’t all that: Burning of the English Fleet at Chatham, June 1667, by Willem SchellinksOn display in room 2.15 of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
1066 wasn’t all that: Burning of the English Fleet at Chatham, June 1667, by Willem SchellinksOn display in room 2.15 of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In 1667, the Dutch raided the Royal Navy on the Medway in Kent, and captured the Royal Charles flagship. This was audacious, but there was more to come: in 1688, the Dutch stadholder – an elected presidency that had morphed into a hereditary one (like America, just further advanced) – invaded England and took the crown. Prince Willem III of Orange was rebranded as King William III of England, Wales and Ireland (and William II of Scotland). We now call it the Glorious Revolution, which sounds better than the Dutch Invasion. It’s true that he had insisted on being invited; many Britons welcomed William, a Protestant, as a way of deposing the Catholic James II, who was also his uncle, and his wife Mary was second in line to the English throne. But even so – it rather undermines the inviolability of Britain myth.

Captured British crest, on display in Room 2.15 of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Captured British crest, on display in Room 2.15 of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Dutch Sea Power

Countries, like people, prefer to remember the good times. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, one of those grand 19th-century buildings which reopened last year, now has a large room called Power at Sea, just round the corner from the Night Watch by Rembrandt. The room features paintings of the Medway raid including the one above and, over the door where no British culture vulture can miss it, the carving from the stern of the captured Royal Charles, which features Britain’s unicorn and lion crest. The middle of the room is dominated by a 4.6 metre-long model of the Dutch navy battleship William Rex, named after the Anglo-Dutch king (in the top image).

Dutch naval supremacy didn’t last, with overwhelming sea power being another idea Britain learnt from the Dutch and then did better. Since then, Britain in its turn has risen and fallen, and over the last few decades Amsterdam has again been acting as a city ideas incubator.

Perhaps the funniest is that of municipal bicycle rental schemes: the idea was invented as a piece of political theatre in the 1960s. But it has since been adopted for real by many cities, including London.

But there are plenty of Amsterdam ideas that Britain has yet to master. One is, ‘have one airport and try to make it as successful as possible’. London has five passenger airports, with politicians contorting themselves over where to build a new runway, Amsterdam has one: Schiphol. If you want to fly from Southampton on the south coast of England to Tees Valley Airport in its north-east, you can do so in under four hours – by going via Schiphol. Amsterdam is only 220 miles from London, which is much closer than anywhere in Scotland. If Britain can’t make up its mind about building new airport capacity, then we will still get a new hub airport: it will be Schiphol.

Amsterdam, which also pretty much invented bourgeois city living, is now famous as the dopehead capital of Europe – a reputation that no doubt helps to fill all those KLM flights from British cities. In reality, the Netherlands’ legalisation of cannabis was a pragmatic attempt to manage the existing trade, and the last couple of years have seen several US states follow suit. The Netherlands considered banning foreigners from ‘coffee shops’, and has been tidying up the red light quarter, which again exists to manage prostitution rather than promote it.

In business, Britain and the Netherlands team up regularly, through Anglo-Dutch companies including Shell, Unilever and Elsevier. As well as the American chains you expect to find everywhere, Amsterdam has several branches of the British chain Wagamama, which adapts Japanese fast food for Europe; nothing tells you it’s a British company, except the surprising number of British staff. In the other direction, only the name indicates that Randstad, a recruitment firm familiar across the UK, is from the Netherlands – the word is Dutch for ring city, referring to the Netherlands’ main cluster of cities including Amsterdam.

Borders and building regs

It’s hard to spot the border between the Netherlands and Belgium, particularly by train. The high-speed Thalys from Amsterdam to Paris doesn’t slow down, and there is no announcement. However, it is possible to tell that you’ve made the crossing by noting the appearance of the narrower font used on Belgian road signs. Another – the subject of a Document Nederland exhibition at the Rijksmuseum until the end of January – is a major difference in building codes. Hans van der Meer photographed normal suburban streets on both sides of the border, to demonstrate that on one side, house-builders must abide by strict rules, while on the other, design-wise nearly anything goes.

Spot the difference: Belgian and Dutch houses. Top-right is Belgian, two adjoining houses with somewhat differing styles Photos by Hans van der Meer, temporary exhibition in the Riksmuseum, Amsterdam
Spot the difference: Belgian and Dutch houses. Top-right is Belgian, two adjoining houses with somewhat differing styles Photos by Hans van der Meer, temporary exhibition in the Riksmuseum, Amsterdam

At odds with their crazy image, but as may be now obvious, it is the Dutch who enforce regimented design. (According to van der Meer’s droll captions, some architecturally freedom-loving Dutch people choose to live south of the border so they can build their dream homes. Flanders, the north of Belgium, speaks Dutch too.) One wall of 20 photos invites viewers to guess which houses are in the Netherlands and which are in Belgium. It’s hard not to get a high score.

However, the photographer thinks that in time, the differences will lessen – the physical border no longer exists, just changes in sign fonts and building regulations. The Netherlands and Belgium were founder members of Europe’s Schengen open border zone, as of the European Union itself. This works well for Amsterdam, which has always been rather big for its country – now, it can welcome people from across the EU.

Open borders also fit with the reason Amsterdam exists: the opportunities of water. Russell Shorto, in his recent book on the city, points out that in its heyday many residents and their goods could travel around the world, literally from outside their front door. The narrow canals connected to the wider rivers (where they would change boats) then the North Sea. The world flowed to Amsterdam’s doors, and it still does.

Britain too used to see water as a motorway rather than a moat, and that attitude hasn’t gone away. But it’s much stronger in the Netherlands. It had its Golden Age, it declined and suffered terribly under invasion. But while the country has become much more suspicious of immigration – and did so before Britain – it seems to have concluded that it needs to welcome to the world, not hide under the duvet. This year’s events suggest that many Britons are tending towards the latter option – particularly if they can cower under a proper British blanket instead.

Learning from Amsterdam is GREAT

Eurostar, which runs the international trains from London, hopes to start direct trains to and from Amsterdam in two years’ time. But for now, getting back by train requires a change at Brussels, going through the British passport control required by the UK being outside Schengen.

The waiting area after security is currently covered with promotional posters for Britain, all using the tagline ‘X is GREAT’ with ‘Britain’ following in smaller writing. These generally sell Britain as a thrusting, go-ahead kind of place. One, showing the revamped British Museum, (‘Culture is GREAT Britain’) is a reminder that sometimes, Amsterdam follows London, with the latter having led the way in boosting cultural tourism through refreshed museums and art galleries. These two ports, facing each other across a short stretch of shallow water, can learn from each other.

But another poster, Countryside is GREAT Britain, features Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey. It may simply be reflecting the heritage industry, something Britain does well, but it’s not a great fit if you’re trying to convince passengers that they are heading for a modern country.

If Britain was to start learning again from its Dutch enemies, then briefly masters and now friends, this waiting room wouldn’t exist, as the UK would be in Schengen too. But if we’re going to carry on with these posters, how about one for ourselves, featuring the Rijksmuseum’s captured chunk of British warship?

This could be a bit shorter, but here’s a first go at the slogan: Getting over the fact we’re not Top Nation anymore, like the Dutch seem to have managed, is GREAT, Britain.