I want to begin by thanking you for inviting me here today. I can’t help feeling that you may have been surprised that I accepted – I certainly was. When it comes to the press, you have probably guessed that my motto is ‘No news is good news!’
But I wanted to take this opportunity of talking about something that matters deeply to me but which I feel sometimes goes unnoticed, and that is to celebrate what is best about Britain.
Oh yes, I know I will be accused of indulging in nostalgia, of regretting the passing of a time that is gone forever and, some will say, never really existed. But I want to assure you that neither nostalgia nor regret play any part in what I want to talk about. On the contrary, I want to draw attention to the here and now, to British virtues as I encounter them on a daily basis.
I am happy to say that I can begin with something enormously positive. In the last two or three years, there has been a concerted and I think a hugely successful effort to honour and support our armed services. The young men and women who dedicate their lives to defending us come, as you well know, from all walks of life and from every part of the United Kingdom and cannot be praised enough. I have the good fortune to meet and talk to them often and I never fail to be impressed by their decency and integrity. Their commitment to our well-being is - or should be - an inspiration to everyone of us. And it has been encouraging to read in the papers and to see on television honour being paid to their role in society. As examples of what is splendid about our country they cannot be bettered. And there are other outstanding examples of heroism and selflessness - stories that would remain hidden if not for our newspapers’ tradition of uncovering and celebrating the daily triumph of those who battle against the odds - and win. We have only to watch The Mirror’s Pride of Britain and The Sun’s Millies awards to feel humbled and compassionate. These are, of course, events that receive national publicity, but up and down the country local and regional newspapers celebrate success within their communities and campaign for issues vital to their readers.
And when we talk of courage, I want also to pay tribute to the foreign correspondents – to the cameramen and the photographers - who operate all over the world - every minute of the day and night -and often in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. It is they who make us vividly aware of the tragedies and triumphs of those beset by natural disasters or by political upheaval.
Of course, you might expect me to extol the virtues of celebrating our successes. But I also take enormous pride in our ability to question, debate and criticise all aspects of our society. I believe passionately in freedom of expression. I believe freedom of expression, so long as it doesn’t contravene the law, or offend others, to be at the heart of our democratic system. In this, you play a vital, if not pivotal role. But just one note of caution: in our right to speak freely, please let us not become too politically correct, because surely political correctness is as severe a form of censorship as any.
And what about our ability to laugh at ourselves? The British sense of humour has, I’ve always thought, drawn its inspiration from a generosity of spirit. Yes, it can be ridiculous, and cutting, naughty and incisive, affectionate and subversive, but there is a tendency now to publicize only cruel jokes directed at easy targets. We are a tolerant society. We are still renowned the world over for our sense of fair play. We champion the underdog. These are British virtues and virtues that ought now, especially now, to be celebrated.
Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, during these austere times there are opportunities approaching which will provide an ideal platform to launch a sustained campaign to honour our country with pride and without apology. We have already witnessed a huge display of patriotism at a certain wedding the other week, which I am told was watched by 2 billion people all over the world. It provided, I believe, a much needed boost to our sense of well-being and, I’m sure you’ll agree made us proud to be British. And next summer, London will be hosting the Olympic Games when this country will come under relentless scrutiny and you will have the task of making the world even more aware of what is best about Britain - our gift for hospitality - our generosity - our freedom of spirit.
Also next year, an outstanding event of national and international importance when the Queen will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee. It is an anniversary that will be observed not only in this country but also in every part of the world where she is rightly regarded with great affection and held in such high esteem. There can be no greater occasion to express our enormous admiration for her achievements and all that she has done for our country.
There is nothing shameful in expressing pride in our values and accomplishments. And I assure you that I am very well aware that you know far better than I do what makes news and what doesn’t. I do know that dog bites man is not news, but these days we seem to have an awful lot of men biting dogs and that’s simply not British.