Killing and Eating Your Prime Minister

Following last week's thoroughly unceremonious dumping of the more centrist Liberal Party prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, a popular meme has made a re-appearance. The meme states "In 1672, a mob of angry Dutch killed and ate their prime minister. Options. Just sayin'." Unsurprisingly enough it does generate some mirth, which is not at all surprising given how far from the average person's life experience most politicians seem to live in. The former Australian Prime Minister was no exception in this regard. Despite a reputation for a degree of social liberalism, such as being a prominent advocate for an Australian republic, he was certainly had very little experience or understanding with the daily economic issues and stresses faced by many Australians. Malcolm Turnbull rejected the need for a royal commission into the banks for more than 18 months, has consistently sought to knobble unions, and has presided over the longest decline in living standards, for twenty-five years.

The meme plays on this experience. When ruled by the incompetent or the dictatorial a point can be reached where a population, having experienced real and demonstrable harm, that the removal of that rulership is necessary. One may refer to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, "in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another", and following this invocation, the justification of when such action is taken, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it". The "ends" in this context being the "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; or, to use the Canadian Charter of Rights, and Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "life, liberty, and security of person". When these rights are violated or prevented by a government, it is considered reasonable that a population should revolt against their ruler.

How does this compare with the subject of the popular meme, Johan de Witt? For starters, the position he held was Grand Pensionary of Holland for some nineteen years, rather than Prime Minister, although that was a similar post. Politically de Witt was a republican and an opponent of the monarchist "Orangist" faction, he nevertheless sought compromises with the latter during the First Stadtholderless Period of the Dutch Republic, which was significant in a period where monarchial absolutism was common. In addition, he supported a more distributed system of power rather than a central authority. Highly educated, he resisted radical Calvinists from within the Dutch Reformed Church and supported religious tolerance (even towards Catholics), and his policies were largely based on political negotiation with surrounding powers, and promoting trade and economic wealth.

Nevertheless, times being as they were, in 1672 the Dutch Republic was simultaneously attacked by England, France, and the prince-bishops of Münster and Cologne. Shortly afterward an assassin seriously wounded de Witt on June 21st, and he resigned as Grand Pensionary on August 4. Nevertheless, he and his brother Cornelis were for arrested for treason. He was tortured but refused to confess guilt. Visiting his jailed brother, both were assassinated by The Hague's civic militia and left to a mob who mutilated the bodies and roasted and ate their livers. The degree of organisation involved in the event leads historians to conclude that this was, in fact, a carefully orchestrated killing.

There is no doubt that Johan de Witt was a person born into wealth and privilege, and held to that class for the entirety of his life. He was a member of the powerful bourgeoise class, which at the time was a relatively progressive class against the reactionary monarchists. He was extremely well-educated, especially in mathematics and law, and made very significant contributions to financial mathematics. His death at the hands of organised reactionaries is not to celebrated but to be condemned. The Dutch Republic lost one of their greatest minds in the event. There may indeed be a time and justification to forcibly depose prime ministers. But the example of de Witt is not one of them.

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