Why the Tories have more in common with the Romanians than they think

It's a sweet irony that Margaret Thatcher is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so.

In the summer of 1992, after two months teaching English at Bucharest University, I asked my students which lesson they had enjoyed the most. In unison, they said: "the one about Margaret Thatcher".

Bucharest was a bit of a mess then, and it was Ceaușescu’s fault. His plans for 'systematizing' Romania’s capital around his grey Palace of the People, the heaviest building in the world, were half complete. He had managed to destroy much of the city's historic centre but not yet replace it with all the blocks of flats he wanted to squeeze people into.

Bucharest was also a mess because of the revolution of Christmas 1989 that finally brought Ceaușescu’s rule to an end. Important buildings, like Bucharest University's library, were destroyed or pockmarked with bullet holes. Temporary wooden crosses marked where people had been injured or killed in the 'Mineriads' of 1990/91, when miners came to Bucharest to attack those protesting at the ex-communists who had seized power.

The west was intruding but in odds ways to begin with. The most visible signs were chewing gum everywhere and a graffiti battle between the local fans of Depeche Mode and Metallica. Seeing a huge mass of men clamouring for sight of something, I joined them to see what the fuss was about. In the middle was a little table with some American pornographic magazines on.

Romania has long been famous for two things: Dracula and the Roma (gypsies). Given that Dracula is fictional (albeit based on Vlad the Impaler) and the Roma live all over the world – with apparently more in the United States than in Romania – that is an inaccurate picture.

In fact, Romania has a bit of everything. Anyone who has criticised the country in recent days without having been there should book a vacation without delay. They'll find skiing holidays, beach holidays and lots of sites of historic interest. Visit Bucharest and you’ll discover why it is still known as the 'Paris of the east'. 

Having lived under such a brutal communist regime for so long, Romanians cherish their freedom just as much as we Britons do. It's not because I taught the lesson on Margaret Thatcher well that they liked it so much. (I didn't.) It was because they genuinely thought she had bought them freedom by challenging communism head on and never giving an inch.

I tried to give my students a fair assessment of Thatcherism (despite being a paid-up Tory). I spoke about the gap between rich and poor, north and south and even played the Morrissey song 'Margaret on the Guillotine'. But they didn't buy it. Whatever I said about the shortcomings paled to insignificance against her anti-communist stance.

It's a sweet irony that the Iron Lady is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so. Yet back in 2007, when Romania joined the EU, both groups also supported the concept of a wider Europe. It is those seeds we are now reaping.

Some of the opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian newcomers arises from the changes they will bring. As the parent of a child starting school in 2014, I understand that. Looking around our local primary schools, I have been astonished by the expansionary pressures they face – even before any new influx. It is the duty of politicians to respond to such problems and absurd to claim they must not be discussed.

But the debate goes wrong when people treat Romanians as an alien species. After all, they understand the fear of change as much as we do. William Blacker's book 'Along the Enchanted Way', published in 2010, shows just how immense the pressures of the new world have been on Romanian villages and gypsy communities. But read it alongside Carmen Bugan's harrowing recent memoir 'Burying the Typewriter' on the treatment of her dissident father under communism to remind you how necessary it was for change to happen.

Life has improved for many but those Romanians coming to the UK will have the same motives as those who voluntarily chose to attend our English lessons soon after the revolution – they want to better themselves. Of course that's not true of all – just as not all British people moving abroad do so for honourable ends – and those camping on Park Lane do pose a challenge for the authorities.

Yet the current furore has missed a key point: Britain is actually less appealing to most Romanians than it was to those Poles who arrived during the 2000s because there are fewer historic links between our two countries. Romanian is a Romance language that has more in common with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese than it does with English. Such things matter as much as benefit rules in deciding where to settle.

As we now start to assimilate those who do arrive, we should spare a thought for the captivating country they come from because every time a skilled person leaves for the UK, their skills shortage gets a little worse and ours gets a little better.

Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

A protester who climbed on a police vehicle waves a Romanian flag on December 21, 2013 during a march commemorating the 1989 Romanian Revolution. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former special adviser to David Willetts 

Getty
Show Hide image

This election is about Brexit - don't kid yourself otherwise

The phrase "taking back control" will come under scrutiny like never before. 

Politicians always say that general elections are important. Usually they say they are “the most important for a generation”. But this time, when they say that they are right.

This election is about power, and about Brexit. It is about the right to negotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union, and to try to shape our relationship with the rest of the world.

But it is also about the right to try to shape our country’s future at home. Because the way Britain works right now is simply not accepted by millions of people. That is the lesson we all should have learnt from last year's referendum.

The message in the referendum was clear enough: British citizens wanted to "take back control". But the meaning has been lost in interpretation. It has become a caricature of itself.

The Brexit vote has been taken to mean that we are a nation obsessed with repatriating powers from Brussels and keeping immigrants out. And yes, it's true that these are the elements of control which many people most readily turn to when asked. Do a quick, surface-level canvass of voters, and you may well take away that message ­– and that message only.

But keep listening, and you will hear something else. You will hear people yearning to gain some purchase on the places where they live, and the forces which shape their lives. You will hear people desperately seeking some way of taking control over the things that matter to them – their work, their homes and the prospects for the people they love.

Even among those who voted Remain last year, almost half think big business and banks have too much control over them. And at least three-quarters of all voters feel they have little or no control over Westminster, their local council, public services, even their own neighbourhood. When faced with that level of malaise, you have to question whether Brexit will deliver the control which people so clearly want.

The dominant narrative would have us believe people are delighted that our long-held protections – in the workplace, in the market, of the air that we breathe – are all up for barter through Brexit. Anything for the parody of control offered by leaving the European Union. In reality, we cherish these rights. The control we seek does not involve throwing them away.

We want real control. That means building power in our workplaces, where new technology is combining with the old power of capital to leave ever more people at the mercy of forces beyond their control. It means greater influence over where we get to live, in the face of a vicious housing market which continues to deny so many of us a decent, affordable place to live.

 It means taking control in our local communities, which are so often overlooked by top-down efforts at regeneration. It means taking control of our essential services like energy, rather than allowing six giant companies to dictate terms to everyone. And it means taking control of our financial system, so that banks can start to serve the public interest and not just their own.

This election is about Brexit. Anyone who pretends otherwise just isn't paying attention. But ask people what they really mean when they say they want control, and you may be surprised by the answers you hear back.

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

0800 7318496