How can the 1970s be characterized? And, more in particular, how to define the position of national parliaments and national policy making processes in this decade of increasing global challenges and extra-parliamentary pressure? On Friday 9th June, a group of historians of different nationalities considered these questions during a conference which the Dutch Centre for Parliamentary History (CPG)organised at Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Reassessing the decline of the national political sphere
In their introduction, CPG director Ronald Kroeze and CPG researcher Anne Bos outlined the increasing scholarly attention for the 1970s as a watershed decade in European history. International as well as internal-political developments such as the global economic crises and large-scale extra-parliamentary activism challenged national politicians’ ability to give direction or even get things under control. Did parliamentary politics therefore dwindle in the 1970s?
The findings of a recent CPG study about Dutch parliamentary politics of this period (Grote idealen, smalle marges (Amsterdam 2022)) suggest that this was not actually the case. The volume demonstrates that parliament and state actors were crucial in important policy shifts in this decade, Kroeze and Bos argued. How does this compare to developments in the rest of Europe?
In her keynote lecture, Sonja Levsen (Universität Tübingen) argued that it is indeed too simple to assume that the 1970s were a decade of ‘transnationalisation’ and the nation state’s declining relevance. Recent socio-scientific scholarship has revealed the transnationalism narrative’s limits and pitfalls and the shortcomings of the somewhat simplified idea of a nation-globalisation dichotomy. In reality, the nation has never been a homogenous sphere: it has always been transnationally embedded and overflowing with other spheres as well. And in more recent times, statehood and globalisation have often mutually reinforced each other in various ways. Levsen therefore called upon historians to start asking more precise questions about the relevance of various political spaces (local, regional, national, transnational) for different policy areas and particular historical developments.
Challenges and responses
Subsequently, different aspects of the 1970s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary policies were presented and discussed during four panel sessions. In the first session, Rüdiger Graf (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam) examined how German MPs diagnosed and debated the manifold crises of the 1970s. Sjoerd Keulen (Dutch Court of Audit) and Ronald Kroeze reassessed the ‘parliamentary decline thesis’ (PDT). Discussing several scandals and examples of financial mismanagement and parliamentary initiatives to structurally improve financial accountability, they argued that parliament actively responded to the challenges of the 1970s.
The next two papers shed light on the role of extra-parliamentary activism and protest in the 1970s. Hilde Reiding (CPG) investigated the interaction between Dutch parliament and civil disobedience activists, showing that in spite of mutual condemnations, the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres never truly disconnected. Examining opposition against East-Central European dictatorships, Adéla Gjuričová (Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague) argued that, after the Helsinki Final Act, legalism was a crucial element in dissident thought as well as action repertoires.
The third session kicked off with a presentation by Thorsten Borring Olesen (Aarhus Universitet) about Danish and Swedish politics during the 1970s. Paying attention to similarities as well as differences, he concluded that is not possible to speak of one, consistent ‘Nordic model’. Next up was Dirk-Jan Wolffram (University of Groningen), who presented a paper on the revision of the Dutch Parliamentary Inquiry Act and its meaning as an instrument of inquisitorial democracy. . Ruben Ros (Leiden University) focused on the ways Dutch MP’s spoke about advisory bodies and their advices, of the ideal of political independence, and the development of ‘politicisation by expertise’ in the 1970s.
The last two papers drew the participant’s attention to the role of representations and conceptualisations of citizens. In his paper, Johan van Merriënboer (CPG) traced the origins of the concept of ‘Jan Modaal’ (the Dutch Average Joe) in politics and policy-making: a standard wage earner, put forward as a benchmark for income policy. In the last paper of the day, Solange Ploeg (Radboud University, Nijmegen) explored the role of television shows in shaping and framing the modes of interaction between politicians and citizens in the Netherlands, demonstrating how they provided contested stages for clashing perceptions of democracy.
Narratives and periodisation
Together, the papers provided food for thought and gave rise to interesting discussions. First, many papers stressed the importance of the economic crises of the 1970s, providing a context for political debate and decision-making in different countries of Europe. A second issue that was raised was the question whether it is desirable and possible to develop grand narratives and theories about politics in the 1970s. While some participants thought it was, others tended to be more cautious. Another point of discussion was periodisation: is it fruitful to speak of ‘the 1970s’ or ‘the long 1970s’?
In his concluding remarks, Duco Hellema (Utrecht University) paid attention to these matters. He maintained that the 1970s were a good decade for parliamentarism. Even though there were exceptions and variations, parliaments generally became more professional, more active and more visible. According to Hellema, the 1970s should definitely be seen as a distinctive historical period with specific characteristics, although a number of subphases can be distinguished.
Fons Meijer, researcher of the Centre for Parliamentary History, Nijmegen