Keith Burnett: British social conscience is a quality worth valuing

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IF you want to discover what your country means to you, there is nothing like thinking about it when you are thousands of miles from home.

Just after I finished my doctoral studies at Oxford I went to Boulder, Colorado. I learned so much from my US colleagues and friends about science and life. Some of those colleagues went on to win Nobel Prizes for their extraordinary work.

But despite the scientific challenge, I did become homesick. I deeply missed my family and friends in Britain. I also missed being in a country with free healthcare. My first encounter with this was having to go to a surgeon as soon as I arrived in the US and before my health insurance kicked in.

Luckily I was treated by Dr 
Christopher Webber, who performed minor surgery on my arm in the first consultation and kept the bill down to less than $40! It taught me a very great deal about what it is like to be an uninsured person – a migrant without access to healthcare.

Even with insurance, it can be tough. The part of the bill for our son’s birth, not covered by insurance, was over $2,500 – about a quarter of my take home salary for the year.

And I was truly homesick, in fact nearly desperate at times, from this separation from my homeland. I became much nostalgic about all things British. Not just the Marmite, brought out by colleague Peter Knight, but almost all things British.

My homesickness was pushed to the limit when the Falklands conflict kicked off. I remember news of the HMS Sheffield being hit by an Excocet missile and had a burst of patriotism which veered uncomfortably close to hatred.

I was in my basement laser lab when my wife Anne rang me to tell me about it. The sense of outrage swelled at the actions of an enemy of my country, even though rationally I was against the war and its consequences. This convinced me, as nothing else did, that patriotism for patriotism’s sake is dangerous and can sometimes override calm consideration. It can overcome our thoughts and drive us to do things that are deeply wrong, and we need to check its excesses or we become something we never meant to be.

After working in the US for five years, and being offered tenure at the University of Colorado, I had the opportunity to return to a lectureship at Imperial College in London. By then I had settled in the US and started to understand why it was such a wonderful place in so many ways. We made deep and lasting friendships that continue to this day.

So why then did I come back to Britain? Was it British values? I had come to realise that the US has a much stronger culture of independence and liberty, but I still needed to return.

No, it was not British values, per se, but what I saw them give to our fellows, I came back to Britain because of what I saw in Britain that I preferred to other nations. The NHS. Free higher education, The BBC. Being close to Europe and all the wonderful culture it brings. Good employment law, with unions to help protect people’s rights. Fewer guns in the hands of children. A well-balanced academic community with less competition for resources. And important to me, a Christian community less strident in its assertions and more open to working with Islam and Judaism.

You may notice that some of these have been taking a bit of a bashing since I returned and some have been lost altogether.

You may ask what is really British about these values? My view was, and still is, that I had been brought up in a country whose social conscience had enabled it to build a caring and liberal society. You can call it British if you like, but “a rose by any other name...”

So to me, the Britain I came home to expresses its values in what it does “by their fruits shall ye know them”. It was not a slogan, it was a way of being which led to action.

So, I say, British values for what? Values are good when they help you build a better society. Values can be awful if they make you separate yourself from others.

We have seen the awful effects of values that separate us from each other, it is terrifying to see people neglecting the teaching of history, or worse still when history is used uncritically as a flag to promote narrow nationalism. And history itself warns us of the deep dangers in this, the costs born by those who find themselves outside a narrow definition.

I have not lost my love for what I missed in the US. I will gladly say “this Jewel set in a silver sea”, as I’m happy with all the proper descriptions of what we are.

But let’s not take a name and turn it into a badge and then a flag of separation. If we do, I will once again think of the US and crave its aspiration of liberty and justice for all.

For in the end, I would rather give up all the things we have in the UK than lose our ability to welcome, and look after, those who came here for the same reasons that I came back to these shores.