“You can talk about anything you like,’ said Radu, a young Romanian academic when he invited me to a conference in Bucharest. The theme was ‘Real liberty or new serfdom?’ marking the anniversary of the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu 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 – ‘The classical liberal case against the EU’ – 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, and… ‘Excellent!’ replied Radu. ‘That’s exactly what we need.’
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. ‘The problem is… we’re looking for something a bit more mainstream.’ Mainstream? But this is broadly the view of 52 per cent of the UK population! ‘Right. It’s just that we had a pro-Brexit speaker once and it all got a bit uncomfortable, a bit… controversial.’ Controversial ideas? At a university? Whatever next?