Leading article: The retreat from liberalism

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Despite its long-standing reputation as a European outpost of tolerance, the Netherlands has become a distinctly less liberal place in recent years. Since the murder of the anti-immigration activist Pim Fortuyn in 2002, issues of immigration - in particular Muslim immigration - have dominated Dutch politics.

Up until last weekend, it seemed as if the present election campaign was about to break this depressing trend. The focus of the debate between the main Dutch parties had been the performance of the economy. But then - at the last minute - the outgoing government proposed a ban on the wearing of the burqa and other face veils in public places. Islam was once again on the agenda.

The timing of this move exposed a cynically transparent attempt to shift the campaign on to more comfortable terrain for the ruling party. It looks likely to pay off too. If the polls are accurate, the Christian Democrats, led by Jan Peter Balkenende, will emerge as the strongest party after today's general election, although protracted negotiations before a coalition government can be formed are still likely.

The ban on burqas is foolish. This garment is worn by a tiny minority of the country's Muslim women, hardly suggesting a pressing social problem. But even more foolish is the decision of the immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, to justify the decision "on security grounds", irresponsibly linking Muslim dress with terrorism.

Dutch politicians have been all too ready to exploit public fears about Islam in recent years. The murder of the film maker Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist in 2004 should have prompted ministers to attempt to defuse tensions. As well as condemning the killing, the government should have faced down resurgent racist forces in Dutch society. But it did the opposite. Ministers lurched into a policy of demanding instant "integration" of immigrant groups, pandering to the views of the far right.

British-style multiculturalism has come in for a good deal of criticism of late. But we should note that European-style "secularisation" policies have hardly resulted in social harmony. The far right parties of Jean Marie Le Pen, Jorg Haider and Umberto Bossi have, at various times, had a much stronger purchase on Continental electorates than the BNP has ever enjoyed here in Britain. It is true that far-right Dutch parties have declined in popularity in recent years. But this is largely because anti-immigration and heavy-handed policies have been adopted by the political mainstream.

We will know from the outcome of these elections whether the Dutch retreat from liberalism has more distance left to run.

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