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Prime Minister Tony Blair, speech to Labour Party Conference September 1999

Prime Minister Tony Blair sets out his vision for the new Labour Party and country two years into his first parliament (elected in 1997).

The Full Speech by Tony Blair

Today at the frontier of the new Millennium I set out for you how, as a nation, we renew British strength and confidence for the 21st century; and how, as a Party reborn, we make it a century of progressive politics after one dominated by Conservatives.

A New Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back, to create a model 21st century nation, based not on privilege, class or background, but on the equal worth of all.

And New Labour, confident at having modernised itself, now the new progressive force in British politics which can modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free.

100 years in existence, 22 in power, we have never, ever won a full second term. That is our unfinished business. Let us now finish it and with it finish the Tory Party’s chances of doing as much damage in the next century as they’ve done in this one.

Today’s Tory party – the party of fox hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers: the uneatable, the unspeakable and the unelectable.

There’s only one thing you need to know about today’s Tory Party. Clarke and Heseltine: outcasts. Hague, Widdecombe, Redwood and Portillo in charge.

The only Party that spent two years in hibernation in search of a new image and came back as the Addams family.

Under John Major, it was weak, weak, weak.

Under William Hague, it’s weird, weird, weird.

Far right, far out.

But not far enough for some. Like the letter I got last week from a man who said did I know the Tories had been listening to Britain. They can’t have been listening too hard, he said. They’re still here.

The more useless they get, the more extreme they get.

In the last few months alone, I’ve been compared to Hitler, Mussolini and Milosevic. Maybe they think I should be indicted for war crimes – the crime of leading the Labour Party into government, and disturbing the natural order of things.

By convention, Prime Ministers start with all the good things their Government has done. I want to start where the British people start: with all we have still to do.

More than 1 million still unemployed. Schools and hospitals still needing investment. Pensioners still living in hardship. People still petrified by crime and drugs. 3 million children still in poverty.

A century of decline, 20 years of Conservative Government still not put to rights. Do you think I don’t feel this, in every fibre of my being?

The frustration, the impatience, the urgency, the anger at the waste of lives unfulfilled, hopes never achieved, dreams never realised. And whilst there is one child still in poverty in Britain today, one pensioner in poverty, one person denied their chance in life, there is one Prime Minister and one Party that will have no rest, no vanity in achievement, no sense of mission completed, until they too are free.

So I do not claim Britain is transformed. I do say the foundations of a New Britain are being laid.

After decades of Tory boom and bust, it is New Labour which is the party of economic competence today and for that we can be proud; and proud of our Chancellor too.

Indeed, I can stand here today, leader of the Labour Party, Prime Minister, and say to the British people: you have never had it so … prudent.

As we think back to 1985, and to Neil Kinnock, wasn’t it brilliant yesterday, in this hall of all places, to see a Labour

Chancellor, “scuttling” back from Washington to hand out the best economic news in a generation, to his own party’s Conference.

650,000 more jobs in the economy, long-term youth unemployment halved and – here’s one for us to put back down a few Tory throats – fewer days lost in strikes than any of the 18 years of Tory Government. Who says Labour’s not working now?

All employees with the right to a paid holiday.

Leave for parents to take time off work for a family crisis.

And after 100 years of trying, the right for union members to have their union recognised, not on the whim of an employer, but as a democratic right in a fair and free society.

Maternity grant doubled.

7 million families with the largest ever rise in Child Benefit Britain has seen.

And I say to Britain’s pensioners: I know when you get an extra £100 for every pensioner household this November – not just those on benefits, everyone – it’s not the end of your worries, but it’s £100 more than you got under any Conservative

Government; and they’d take the £100 back off you if they were ever elected again.

Half-way through one Parliament. Nothing like half-way towards meeting all our goals.

And all around us the challenge of change.

A spectre haunts the world: technological revolution.

10 years ago, a fifteen year old probably couldn’t work a computer.

Now he’s in danger of living on it.

Over a trillion dollars traded every day in currency markets and with them the fate of nations.

Global finance and Communications and Media. Electronic commerce. The Internet. The science of genetics. Every year a new revolution scattering in its wake, security, and ways of living for millions of people.

These forces of change driving the future: Don’t stop at national boundaries. Don’t respect tradition. They wait for no-one and no nation. They are universal. We know what a 21st century nation needs. A knowledge-based economy. A strong civic society. A confident place in the world. Do that and a nation masters the future. Fail and it is the future’s victim.

The challenge is how? The answer is people. The future is people.

The liberation of human potential not just as workers but as citizens. Not power to the people but power to each person to make the most of what is within them. People are born with talent and everywhere it is in chains.

Look at Britain. Great strengths. Great history. English, the language of the new technology. The national creative genius of the British people. But wasted.

The country run for far too long on the talents of the few, when the genius of the many lies uncared for, and ignored.

Fail to develop the talents of any one person, we fail Britain. Talent is 21st century wealth.

Every person liberated to fulfil their potential adds to our wealth.

Every person denied opportunity takes our wealth away.

In the 18th century land was our resource.

In the 19th and 20th century it was plant and capital.

Today it is people.

The cause we have fought for, these 100 years, is no longer simply our cause of social justice. It is the nation’s only hope of salvation.

For how do you develop the talent of all, unless in a society that treats us all equally, where the closed doors of snobbery and prejudice, ignorance and poverty, fear and injustice no longer bar our way to fulfilment.

Not equal incomes. Not uniform lifestyles or taste or culture.

But true equality: equal worth, an equal chance of fulfilment, equal access to knowledge and opportunity.

Equal rights. Equal responsibilities.

The class war is over.

But the struggle for true equality has only just begun.

To the child who goes to school hungry for food, but thirsting for knowledge, I know the talent you were born with, and the frustration you feel that it’s trapped inside. We will set your potential free.

To the women free to work, but because they are also mothers, carers, helpers barely know how to get through the day, we will give you the support to set your potential free.

To the 45 year old who came to my surgery a few months ago, scared he’ll never work again, I say: you didn’t become useless at 45. You deserve the chance to start afresh and we will set your potential free.

And to those who have wealth, but who say that none of it means anything if my children can’t play in the park, and my mother daren’t go out at night. We share your belief in a strong community. We will set your potential free.

And it is us, the new radicals, the Labour Party modernised, that must undertake this historic mission. To liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things, that will not do in this world of change. To be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism.

For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism.

They are what hold our nation back. Not just in the Conservative Party but within us, within our nation.

The forces that do not understand that creating a new Britain of true equality is no more a betrayal of Britain’s history than New Labour is of Labour’s values.

The old prejudices, where foreign means bad.

Where multi-culturalism is not something to celebrate, but a left-wing conspiracy to destroy their way of life.

Where women shouldn’t work and those who do are responsible for the breakdown of the family.

The old elites, establishments that have run our professions and our country too long. Who have kept women and black and Asian talent out of our top jobs and senior parts of Government and the Services. Who keep our bright inner city kids from our best universities. And who still think the House of Lords should be run by hereditary peers in the interests of the Tory Party.

The old order, those forces of conservatism, for all their language about promoting the individual, and freedom and liberty, they held people back. They kept people down. They stunted people’s potential. Year after year. Decade after decade.

Think back on some of the great achievements of this century.

To us today, it almost defies belief that people had to die to win the fight for the vote for women. But they did. That battle was a massive, heroic struggle. But why did it need such a fight? Because Tory MPs stood up in the House of Commons and said: “voting is a man’s business”. And that is why we can be so proud that it is this Labour Party that has more women MPs and more women Ministers than any Government before us until our record is bettered by a future Labour Government.

Look at this Party’s greatest achievement. The forces of conservatism, and the force of the Conservative Party, pulled every trick in the book – voting 51 times, yes 51 times, against the creation of the NHS. One leading Tory, Mr Henry Willink, said at the time that the NHS “will destroy so much in this country that we value”, when we knew human potential can never be realised when whether you are well or ill depends on wealth not need.

The forces of conservatism allied to racism are why one of the heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, is dead.

It’s why another, Nelson Mandela, spent the best years of his life in a cell the size of a bed.

And though the fact that Mandela is alive, free and became President, is a sign of the progress we have made: the fact that Stephen Lawrence is dead, for no other reason than he was born black, is a sign of how far we still have to go.

And they still keep opposing progress and justice.

What did they say about the minimum wage? The same as they said right through this century.

They tried the employment argument – it would cost jobs.

They tried the business argument – it would make them bankrupt.

They then used the economic argument – it would cause inflation.

They then resorted to the selfish argument – businesses wouldn’t want to pay it.

Well, businesses are paying it. Inflation is low. Unemployment is falling. There are one million job vacancies in the country.

And two million people have had a pay rise because we believe they are worth more than poverty pay.

These forces of conservatism chain us not only to an outdated view of our people’s potential but of our nation’s potential.

What threatens the nation-state today is not change, but the refusal to change in a world opening up, becoming ever more interdependent.

The old air of superiority based on past glory must give way to the ambition to succeed, based on the merit of what Britain stands for today.

For the last half century, we have been torn between Europe and the United States, searching for our identity in the post-Empire world.

I pose this simple question: is our destiny with Europe or not?

If the answer is no, then we should leave. But we would leave an economic union in which 50 per cent of our trade is done, on which millions of British jobs depend. Our economic future would be uncertain.

But what is certain is that we would not be a power.

Britain would no longer play a determining part in the future of the continent to which we belong. That would be the real end of one thousand years of history.

We can choose this destiny. But we should do it with our eyes open and our senses alert, not blindfold and dulled by the incessant propaganda of Europhobes.

The single currency is, of course, a decision that must be dependent on the economic conditions; and on the consent of the British people in a referendum.

If we believe our destiny is with Europe, then let us leave behind the muddling through, the hesitation, the half-heartedness which has characterised British relations with Europe for forty years and play our part with confidence and pride giving us the chance to defeat the forces of conservatism, economic and political, that hold Europe back too.

There is no choice between Europe and America.

Britain is stronger with the US today because we are strong in Europe.

Britain has the potential to be the bridge between Europe and America and for the 21st century the narrow-minded isolationism of right-wing Tories should not block our path to fulfilling it.

The nation-state is changing.

The Tory policy on devolution left them without a single seat anywhere in Scotland and Wales. Delivering our promise of a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly has strengthened the UK not weakened it, and now having defeated the force of conservatism in granting devolution, let us continue to defeat the separatism which is just the forces of conservatism by another name.

And don’t let the forces of conservatism stop devolution in Northern Ireland too.

Those who are addicted to violence. Those who confuse any progress with selling out. They shouldn’t determine Northern Ireland’s future.

Walk through Belfast. No armed soldiers.

Drive through it. No road blocks.

In the last year, the first time in 30 years, not a single member of the security forces killed. 1996, 8,000 plastic bullets fired. This year 99.

Yes, there is violence and any violence is unacceptable.

But don’t throw away all that has been achieved.

And I ask the Conservative Party: we supported you when you were in Government; don’t make our task harder now because that would be the real betrayal of the children of Northern Ireland.

It would be comforting to think the forces of conservatism were only Tories. But wrong.

There were forces of conservatism who said changing Clause 4 would destroy the Labour Party, when in truth it was critical to our renewal.

Who said a referendum on devolution was a ploy to stop it happening, when I knew it was the only way to make it happen.

Who said that making young people take a job that was offered to them was a denial of social justice, when our attack on youth unemployment is the route to social justice.

The Third Way is not a new way between progressive and conservative politics.

It is progressive politics distinguishing itself from conservatism of left or right.

New Labour must be the new radicals who take on both of them, not just on election day but every day.

People say in our first two years we ran a Tory economic policy. Nonsense. If we had run a Tory economic policy Britain would be in recession by now which is no doubt why they predicted it.

We gave the Bank of England independence.

We cut the borrowing.

We cut unemployment. We are at long last reforming welfare, making work pay more than benefit for hard-working families through the Working Families Tax Credit.

They would scrap each and every one of these reforms.

Slowly the Tory general election strategy is emerging.

To 2 million people given a pay rise through the minimum wage. Tory pledge 1: we’ll cut it.

To 1.5 million families helped by the working families tax credit. Tory pledge 2: we’ll scrap it.

To 250,000 young people getting through the New Deal, Tory pledge 3: you’ll go back on the dole.

I say: roll on the next General Election.

Our reforms are why we are spending £4bn less on interest payments this year.

Saving £2bn by cutting unemployment.

Why, thanks to economic growth, billions of pounds of wealth has been created, not lost in Tory boom and bust.

And as a result, the next three years show the biggest ever investment in schools and hospitals. Not just one year. But the year after and the year after that.

And, if we carry on running this New Labour economic policy I can tell you today we will continue to get more money into schools and hospitals in a way we can sustain year on year on year. We are rewriting some of the traditional rules of politics.

Now after a century of antagonism, economic efficiency and social justice are finally working in partnership together. We are demonstrating that it is possible to cut poverty and run the economy well. At last our historic reputation for compassion is being matched with a hard won reputation for economic competence. From now on people will vote Labour with their head as well as their heart.

The political landscape of Britain has changed forever.

That’s why Prudence’s chastity belt stays on, even for the Liberal Democrats.

And then we open up the UK economy.

Open it up to electronic commerce, so we cut the cost of buying and selling.

Open it up to competition so we can stop the consumer being ripped off.

And private capital alongside public investment. In transport, to read some of the papers you would think John Prescott had created Britain’s transport problems. Thanks to him, and the new Strategic Rail Authority, the next 10 years will see the largest investment in the railways for 100 years. Let’s be honest. When it comes to transport we are all the forces of conservatism. But the real anti-car policy is staying as we are.

Let us take on the forces of conservatism in education, too, the greatest liberator of human potential there is.

No more nursery vouchers.

No return to 11+.

No freeze on student numbers in our universities.

No more Assisted Places Scheme.

Not the right. But not the old Left either: no tolerance of failing LEAs.

No truce on failing schools.

No pupils condemned to failure.

We owe it to every child to unleash their potential. They are of equal worth. They deserve an equal chance.

A failed education is a life sentence on a child.

If we are to succeed in the knowledge economy, we need – as parents, as teachers, as a country – to get a whole new attitude to learning.

What other country in the world sees being “too clever by half” as a fault?

In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you’ll go.

The forces of conservatism, the elite, have held us back for too long.

Why is it only now that we are getting nursery places for all three and four year olds?

Why has it taken this government to realise that 5, 6 and 7 year olds need that extra attention that smaller classes give them?

Why, when we have known all our lives the importance of the 3 Rs, is it only now that we have put in place the literacy and numeracy strategies to get those basics taught properly? And look at the results for 11 year olds: maths up 10 per cent, reading up five per cent, a tribute to our children, to their teachers and to David Blunkett.

Why has it taken this government to set about ending the culture of failure in our inner city comprehensives? Doubling the number of specialist schools; creating 1,000 beacon schools; every run down school getting help with buildings, equipment, facilities from the £5bn modernisation programme: LEAs with a track record of failure taken over and run by people with a track record of success.

Why is it only now, we have lifted the cap on student numbers and 100,000 more will go to university in the next 2 years, 700,000 more to further education. So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.

Why if education is the key to success do we allow so many children to leave school at 16 when we should be doing all we can to get them to stay on. Today we are announcing a smartcard to offer all 16-18 year olds who stay in education cut price deals at shops, in theatres and cinemas and on trains and buses.

Only now can this happen because there is a Labour Government that cares about educating the many and a Labour Party with the courage to reform the system to do it.

And critical to reform are our teachers. I appeal to them.

You do a great job in our schools. We know how important it is for you to work as a team. But if we are to get the real

step change in your pay you and we both want, we have to link it to performance. We have to raise standards, and we have to remove those who really cannot do the job.

And if a Head Teacher transforms a school and so transforms the life chances of our children, aren’t they worth as much as a good doctor, banker or lawyer?

In 10 years we will have transformed our schools. And our NHS too.

And I know the impatience here is at its highest. After all, we created the NHS. It has to be us that rebuilds it.

And yes it needs money. And yes, the first two years were tough.

But the money is now starting. And money is not all it needs.

A predecessor of mine famously said she wanted to be able to go into the hospital of her choice, “on the day I want, at the time I want, with the doctor I want”.

That was Margaret Thatcher’s argument for going private.

I want to go to the hospital of my choice, on the day I want, at the time I want. And I want it on the NHS.

I say in all frankness to the BMA. You want our reforms to slow down. I want them to speed up.

Already: 4,000 more student nurses and midwives.

4,000 more nurses returning to nursing.

27 new hospitals being built.

20 million people now covered by NHS Direct.

And the dreaded Tory internal market finally banished for good.

And over the next 3 years:

There will be 7000 more doctors 15,000 more nurses 37 hospitals built

The whole country covered by NHS Direct.

Every casualty department that needs it refurbished.

And waiting times and waiting lists lower at the end of our time in Government than at the beginning.

And will that be enough?

No. But in time, if we are returned to power:

We will have booked appointments for everyone.

Walk-in NHS centres in all our major towns and cities.

Primary care surgeries that offer you all services on one site.

And everyone with the chance to go back on the NHS to see their dentist.

And just to show you it’s not impossible. Today I can tell you: we will start next year with booked appointments for

cancer and cataract patients.

And working with the British Dental Association, everyone within the next 2 years will be able once again to see an NHS

dentist just by phoning NHS Direct.

So much more to do. But it will be done.

We aren’t just workers. We are citizens proud to say there is such a thing as society and proud to be part of it.

Yet, today, we feel our social fabric torn.

Respect for law and order broken.

My grandfather’s generation was strong on values. Respect for people. Good manners. Horror of crime. But it was a generation also of deference and of prejudices: racial, sexual, social.

The modern world is different. There is less prejudice, less deference, but also less respect.

It is time to move beyond the social indifference of right and left, libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom.

This generation wants a society free from prejudice, but not from rules, from order.

A common duty to provide opportunity for all.

An individual duty to be responsible towards all.

There will be a new Crime Bill in The Queen’s Speech.

With the new DNA technology we have the chance to match any DNA at any scene of crime with those on police records.

Already thousands of criminals are being caught that way. But less than a fifth are on record

I can announce we will provide the extra resources for a database where every known offender will have their DNA recorded, and evidence from any scene of crime will be matched with it.

And I saw that we said on drugs and new powers was attacked by civil liberties groups.

I believe in civil liberties too:

The liberty of parents to drop their kids off at school, without worrying they’re dropping them straight into the arms of drug dealers.

The liberty of pensioners to live without fear of getting their door kicked in by someone thieving to pay for their habit.

The liberty of young people to live a full life, not die young, the victim of the most chilling, evil industry the world has to confront.

Civil liberty to me means just that: the liberty to live in a civil society founded on rights and responsibilities, and in dealing with the drugs menace, that is the society we can help to build.

So when I speak of the need for a new moral purpose and some on the right and left rise up and say this is nothing to do with politics, leave it all to the bishops, I tell you these people know exactly what I’m talking about.

That’s what I mean by fulfilling our potential as citizens as well as workers.

We don’t live by material goods alone.

That’s why today we set out more plans to boost arts, culture, competitive sports in schools. It’s why John Prescott puts his heart and soul in the battle to protect our environment, so we leave to our children a safer, healthier planet than the one into which they were born.

Yes we are three times richer than our grandparents. But are we three times happier?

Ours is a moral cause, best expressed through how we see our families and our children.

To our children, we are irreplaceable.

If anything happened to me, you’d soon find a new leader. But my kids wouldn’t find a new Dad.

There is no more powerful symbol of our politics than the experience of being on a maternity ward.

Seeing two babies side by side. Delivered by the same doctors and midwives. Yet two totally different lives ahead of them.

One returns with his mother to a bed and breakfast that is cold, damp, cramped. A mother who has no job, no family to support her, sadder still – no-one to share the joy and triumph of the new baby … a father nowhere to be seen. That mother loves her child like any other mother. But her life and her baby’s life is a long, hard struggle. For this child, individual potential hangs by a thread.

The second child returns to a prosperous home, grandparents desperate to share the caring, and a father with a decent income and an even larger sense of pride. They’re already thinking about schools, friends she can make, new toys they can buy. Expectations are sky high, opportunities truly limitless.

A child is a vulnerable witness on life.

A child sees her father hit her mother.

A child runs away from home. A child takes drugs. A child gives birth at 12.

If we are in politics for one thing – it is to make sure that all children are given the best chance in life. That the moment they are born, their potential and individuality can sparkle.

That every child can grow up with high hopes, certainty, love, security and the attention of their parents.

Strong families cherished by a strong community.

That is our national moral purpose. So when I pledge to end child poverty in 20 years, I do so not just as a politician, but as a father.

Can I tell you something? And there are only four other people alive who know this – it’s actually a bit odd being Prime Minister.

Everyone has views about you, and no hesitation giving them to you.

You read things about yourself, on a daily basis, that are a complete mystery.

And you find that a lot of strange new people want to be your friend, and lots of other strange people want to be your enemy.

We’re only flesh and blood in the end. Sometimes can’t sleep. Worry about the job. Worry about the kids. Worry about growing old. Worry about interest rates going up. Worry about Newcastle going down.

Then you’ve got these big worries – when’s the health money really going to make a difference? Why are there still people sleeping in doorways? Can’t we turn round failing schools more quickly? How many of our pensioners will go cold this winter?

It’s a big job. A lonely job. The red boxes really do come at you day and night, papers to read, decisions to make.

Sometimes life and death decisions. Often decisions, after all the advice and the consultation, that only the Prime Minister can make.

So it’s a pressure. But it’s a privilege too. There is no greater privilege than serving your country. And there is no greater purpose than realising your potential.

I was lucky. A good education, a loving home, a great family, strong beliefs, a great Party in which to give them expression.

Everyone has talent. Everyone has something to offer. And this country needs everyone to make a contribution.

You’ll see me on the TV, getting on and off planes, meeting Presidents and Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens.

It’s all part of the job. But the part that matters most to me is getting my sleeves rolled up and pushing through the

changes to our country that will give to others by right, what I achieved by good fortune.

Let me read to you the words of someone else who thought ours was a moral purpose, and said this about the people in our Party.

“The men and women who are in it are not working for themselves; they know perfectly well that all they can do is but to create the beginning of a condition of things which will one day bring peace and happiness and freedom and a fuller life for those who are to come after us.”

Our very first leader, Keir Hardie.

But 100 years ago, the circumstances of our birth and our political childhood was such we never realised our potential.

Born in separation from other progressive forces in British politics, out of the visceral need to represent the interests of an exploited workforce, our base, our appeal, our ideology was too narrow.

People were made to feel we wanted to hold them back, limit their aspirations, when in truth the very opposite was our goal.

We were chained by our ideology.

We thought we had eternal doctrines.

When they are in truth eternal values.

Solidarity, social justice, the belief not that society comes before individual fulfilment but that it is only in a strong society of others that the individual will be fulfilled. That it is these bonds of connection that make us not citizens of one nation but members of one human race.

And wouldn’t Keir Hardie have been proud when under Britain’s leadership, this week we cancelled the debt of those

African nations deep in poverty so that their people too can realise their potential, have the hopes and dreams for their children we want for ours?

And wouldn’t Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin have applauded when in Kosovo, faced with racial genocide in Europe for the first time since they fought fascism in the Second World War, it was Britain and this Government that helped defeat it and set one million people free back to their homeland?

And wouldn’t it bring a smile to the faces of all Labour leaders to see how confident our Party is today?

Today we stand here, more confident than at any time during our 100 years, more confident because we are winning the battle of ideas; we are putting our values into practice; we are the only political force capable of liberating the potential of our people.

Knowing what we have to do and knowing how to do it.

Arrayed against us: the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment. Those who will live with decline.

Those who yearn for yesteryear.

Those who just can’t be bothered.

Those who prefer to criticise rather than do.

On our side, the forces of modernity and justice. Those who believe in a Britain for all the people. Those who fight social injustice, because they know it harms our nation.

Those who believe in a society of equality, of opportunity and responsibility. Those who have the courage to change.

Those who have confidence in the future.

The battleground, the new Millennium.

Our values are our guide.

Our job is to serve.

Our workplace, the future.

Let us step up the pace. Be confident. Be radical.

To every nation a purpose.

To every Party a cause.

And now, at last, Party and nation joined in the same cause for the same purpose: to set our people free.

Prime Minister Tony Blair – September, 1999