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 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.