I returned to England from the US in 1984 to be one of then prime minister Maggie Thatcher’s “New Blood” university lecturers. With a slight lift in funding for science, I was so damn pleased and proud to be back in my homeland as I walked along Prince Consort Road to the Blackett Laboratory at Imperial College London, where I would be teaching physics.
Living and working in America alongside colleagues who would go on to win Nobel prizes was wonderful, but seeing Britain in BBC programmes rebroadcast on US public television had made me truly homesick. We had a baby born the year before in the US, and the call of home strengthened. I wanted him to grow up in Britain.
So as someone who has loved this country from near and afar, I am sad that some might think that criticism implies disloyalty.
That is, because I want our universities to be truly international, some think that I don’t love England. That because I wanted to stay in the European Union, I don’t love England. That because I want us to stop people dying in the Mediterranean and because I think we should make our share of space for genuinely desperate humanity, I don’t love England.
It is ironic that in a country that claims to prize free speech, and worries about its erosion on campus, speaking truth to power may prove so worrying to some. But before I tell you why I think these things make our country stronger, let me take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask myself: “Do you really love England, Keith?”
“Yes I do!” I answer. “How can you prove it?” I ask back.
I’m tempted to spit back at that. Just because someone wants to keep England for the English does not mean that they are any more patriotic. They may just be interested in their own selfish needs and not the country as a whole. Nationalism can be a means of turning away our eyes from inconvenient truths.
I challenge my own love for England. I came back from a thriving career in the US to be paid less than half the salary and to have a cost of living at least a third higher. Why on earth would I do that? By returning to the UK, our family’s standard of living plummeted, and it was decidedly tough going in those years.
In the decades that have followed, I have turned down several attractive offers to work in the US. Why? Didn’t I like the US? After all, I love America and go there on business and holidays. I feel at home there, and enjoy its diverse people, the culture and the food. But I love England more.
So am I just a romantic, pining for a BBC period-drama view of Britain? After all, I was the guy loudly singing Land of Hope and Glory to a local Communist Party secretary in Shanghai as the university orchestra played Pomp and Circumstance at the UK China Science and Innovation Forum. I may speak Chinese, but I want it to be a bridge between my world and the experience of others. I haven’t lost my original voice.
Being a vice-chancellor may give me automatic membership of the mistrusted liberal international elite, but my personal and university history also takes me to working-class communities that the Whitehall natives rarely enter. I spend a lot of time in Rotherham and at Orgreave, which was once home to a colliery. Not because I’m analysing abuse scandals or reliving the miners’ strike, but because I know the talent of young people there and want to see pride restored in a place that once supplied steel and coal to the world.
It is why our university has committed to working with companies to make an advanced manufacturing research district, and why the proudest achievement of my time as Sheffield’s vice-chancellor is the 550 technical industry-funded apprentices, whose skills are drawing in investors and who are the pride of our nation.
No, love of country is personal, and I have a big stake here. My now grown-up kids are here, and I care about their future and that of any children they may have some day. My family is across Wales and England. And my alma mater, the Greatest of all Universities and the place where I am a fellow of two great colleges, is more dear to me than you might imagine.
So why do I risk the critics who think I should measure my tone or preferably not raise public concern at all about the direction our country is taking, especially in relation to our commitment to be genuinely international and truly open to the world?
It is, in fact, precisely because I love this place that I do not want us to give in to error. I want to grab my beloved nation by the collar and say: “Wake up!”
I didn’t come back to Little Britain.
Isolationism won’t secure our future; it will threaten it. All the evidence shows that a nation’s success at trade is powerfully allied to its willingness to welcome talent from overseas. Relationships are built early and run deep. Some 40 per cent of staff in Greater London institutions are from a non-UK background. They often came as students and postdocs. Alienate them and Britain’s universities will see the erosion of greatness that some assume is inherently ours. They are wrong.
Who is allowed to speak for Britain? Who can question and challenge? Does the expert elite now have to go into hiding because it is at odds with the (current) opinion of the people?
The poet Dylan Thomas warned that we should not “go gently” into the dying of the light. There is a time to rage, and to call for a rethink. Academics have always worried the Establishment. That is our job. If we ever give in to the idea that this is impossible, it will be a sad day indeed.
Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.
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