Radomir Tylecote finds the differences remarkable and striking.
â€˜You can talk about anything you like,â€™ said Radu, a young Romanian academic when he invited me to a conference in Bucharest. The theme was â€˜Real liberty or new serfdom?â€™ marking the anniversary of the fall of Nicolae CeauÅŸescu 30 years ago. The audience was made up of Romanian undergraduates.
The keynote speaker, a German federalist, was planning on making the classical liberal case for the EU, which made the title of my lecture â€“ â€˜The classical liberal case against the EUâ€™ â€“ a no-brainer. But I was nervous when I told Radu what I wanted to talk about. Thirty years ago, Romanians had been ruled by a man who literally gave his critics cancer. Would fears of criticising the powerful die hard in Bucharest? I waited for the explanation that there had a been a mix up, that my lecture would be cancelled, andâ€¦ â€˜Excellent!â€™ replied Radu. â€˜Thatâ€™s exactly what we need.â€™
A week later I was preparing to talk to a student politics society at Cambridge and I suggested the same subject. Only this time I did get the explanation. â€˜The problem isâ€¦ weâ€™re looking for something a bit more mainstream.â€™ Mainstream? But this is broadly the view of 52 per cent of the UK population! â€˜Right. Itâ€™s just that we had a pro-Brexit speaker once and it all got a bit uncomfortable, a bitâ€¦ controversial.â€™ Controversial ideas? At a university? Whatever next?
He was quite honest about it. It seemed like his societyâ€™s director had introduced a policy of no-platforming Brexiteers. I spared him the thoughts crystallising in my mind about Cambridge as the scholarly heart of the English Reformation and the Parliamentarian struggle against arbitrary power. â€˜Something on China, perhaps?â€™ he suggested. An authoritarian regime that suppresses free speech. Yes, I can see why that would go down better at Cambridge. …
I have long held the theory that the experience of communism in Eastern Europe has inoculated these countries against socialism today. Itâ€™s not that I romanticise these former Soviet satellites. Their political elites are frequently crooked (and often in hock to EU officials). Many of their citizens will likely wait decades before getting a real choice about EU membership. Most read little criticism of Brussels in their newspapers, just the boiler-plate encomiums. But that is beside the point.
The students in Bucharest were doing what students are supposed to do: hearing each side of the argument. They didnâ€™t show any of the symptoms of intellectual decay that I often encounter among students in the Anglosphere â€“ in particular, using someoneâ€™s dissent from progressive orthodoxy to exclude, purge, persecute, or otherwise gain power over them (I mean no-platforming, social-media mobbing or denouncing in an â€˜open letterâ€™). But there is another malady that afflicts so many of our students, and is often indicative of an authoritarian mindset: they are so boring.
In Cambridge there is a continued failure to uphold free speech, or to grasp what it is to be properly liberal. Because if I can make a case against rule by faceless bureaucrats in a former Warsaw Pact dictatorship but not at one of our finest universities, our culture is in serious trouble. By 1975 Saul Bellow warned that â€˜the universities have failed painfullyâ€™ and in the 1980s Allan Bloom pointed out that â€˜the spirit of scientific inquiryâ€™ that used to animate them is slowly dying. In British universities now, you canâ€™t talk about certain subjects. That sounds like the â€˜new serfdomâ€™ to me.