I have over the last few weeks been reflecting on the kind of speech an audience like yourselves might expect me to make. I have a feeling that over the years, as a result of every kind of publicity, I may have been put in a box marked with something like the label 'In Transit', and treated accordingly, although I suspect some people might prefer to see me in a box with the label 'Fragile, Handle with Care', or simply 'Other Way Up'. So ladies and gentlemen, I had been toying with the idea of giving you the benefit of all my unexpurgated views about media affairs - especially as it is not every day I have the advantage of such a captive audience presumably wondering what on earth I am going to say next. But then I realised that this was a gathering of regional newspaper proprietors and their guests, so I had to go back to the drawing board.
The reason for doing so, and I must make this clear from the beginning, was because I have considerable admiration for the crucial role played by regional newspapers in the life of their local communities, and for the overall quality of your work. Perhaps because the view from London distorts the reality of life outside, I think a fair number of people in Britain may agree with me that the tone of much of what is contained in our national press is becoming more and more damaging to the way in which we all view ourselves as British people, and to our national way of life. As regional newspaper proprietors, editors and members of staff, you invariably work very closely with your local communities. By the very nature of your positions, you are probably able to identify and recognise people's concerns more readily than most. I travel round the country quite a lot, leaping out of trains and aeroplanes, usually to find, amongst others, reporters from local newspapers who have been forced to stand around in the rain in order to file a report on the latest royal visit!
I cannot speak for you, but I have sensed over the last few years a mood of introspection throughout the country. It is hard to put a finger on it and I may, of course, be entirely wrong about this, but it could be associated with that nebulous thing called 'morale'. I know very well, of course, how many people have gone through very difficult times in recent years. But it is not just that. It seems to me it is hardly surprising that one gets whiffs of this mood in the air when, at the same time, we tend to be subjected day after day to the most all-pervading cynicism about almost every aspect of our national life. Nothing ever seems right.
There is a persistent current that flows along undermining the integrity and motives of individuals, organisations and institutions. An insidious impression is thereby created that, for instance, the police are corrupt, British justice is flawed, the BBC is moribund and public servants are time-serving wasters of tax payers' money. I do not subscribe for one moment to the view that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But such impressions based on cynicism and disdain, if you are not careful, can take a surprisingly powerful hold of our subconscious and become the source of corrosive prejudice and destructive divisiveness.
There is no doubt that foreigners too have sensed this mood in the air, and assuredly think we must be crazy not to take far greater pride in the notable strengths of the British character and in the things which we perform so remarkably well in this country. Whilst there will always be areas where we can learn some useful hints from the ways other people do things, and adapt them for our own requirements in the UK, there is no doubt that people abroad envy us greatly for the high standards we have achieved in many spheres of our national life. Why else would foreigners want to send their people over to this country to learn from our experience, built up over many years, of attention to detail and to traditions which are based on the highest possible standards?
Of course, there is always room for improvement and, of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. But in the face of an approach to life which appears to seek only to denigrate, to decry, and to destroy, surely it is about time we took pride in the fact we have so many valuable national assets.
If nobody else is going to, then I will!
Let us start with the Armed Forces. In view of the fact that I have been associated with them all my life, I dare say you could accuse me of being biased. But, in the absence of perfection in this life, and considering the possibilities, when compared with the record of some other people's Armed Forces, for confusion, indiscipline and cruelty, we are unbelievably fortunate to have such outstanding military organisations to safeguard British interests one minute and to act as international policemen the next. Considering the intolerable provocation to which the ordinary soldier is frequently subjected on duty - whether in Northern Ireland or in Bosnia - it is an immense tribute, both to the quality of the discipline and to the indomitable British sense of humour, that he invariably resists provocation and does not run amok. To achieve the standards of performance which we have come to take for granted does not happen by chance, but involves a great deal of effort, a tradition of specific human values attached to each man's unit, and considerable expense.
What about the Police? Again, when compared with other people's police forces, are we not incredibly lucky? Do we not expect too much from them sometimes? Personally, I think they have an impossible task, especially in an era when there is so little respect for any authority whatsoever - and particularly when you remember that each policeman or woman is drawn from contemporary society as it stands. Again, there is always room for improvement. But the basic, traditional foundations of policing in this country are remarkably decent ones - especially at a local level. These foundations, surely, have to be nurtured and maintained despite the dictates of fashion and the latest trend. Obviously, our attitude depends on the circumstances in which each of us confronts the police but, on the whole, I should have thought that we ought to take unusual pride in the brave and selfless way that the majority of our policemen and women go about their thankless task unarmed in an increasingly violent environment.
There is no doubt that we have an outstanding reputation for doing many things supremely well in this country - and one of them is a talent for advising our competitors how to organise themselves in certain spheres somewhat better than we have done ourselves! We have an astonishing natural advantage in that we are one of the most inventive nations on earth, and yet we consistently sacrifice that advantage by failing to capitalise on our own inventiveness. We do this to the extent that we let people in other countries develop the ideas of our brilliant engineers and scientists, and turn them into world-beating products in the marketplace. The examples which come to my mind are fibre optics, the video recorder, the liquid crystal display, the biotechnology industry which grew out of the basic DNA research done at Cambridge, the magnetron in all those millions of microwave ovens and, believe it or not, the fax machine which, I was intrigued to discover recently, had actually been thought of and demonstrated by a Scotsman in the 19th century. I could quote you ever more examples of this, but I shan't because it will only frustrate us all. And I am glad that at long last this problem is now being recognised and starting to be addressed.
But we also lead by our example in more selfless ways. Everywhere I go in the world, people admire the pioneering work Britain has done in the field of palliative care, for example, and are keen to learn from our experience in devising such an effective system for the treatment and care of the terminally ill. Our Macmillan nurses are second to none, and it fills my heart with swelling pride when I see at first hand what these remarkable people do. And let us not forget that, in many ways, this nation depends on the selfless enthusiasm of countless volunteers, up and down the country - often unseen and unheard but, nevertheless, frequently the backbone of local communities and a source of genuine moral strength in our society.
I see this in my own local community in Gloucestershire, when the church, or the hospital, or the school, or the old people's home need urgent help. I see it most vividly, perhaps, when carrying out an investiture at Buckingham Palace on behalf of The Queen. There in the space of about an hour and a half, you see a microcosm of the people of these ancient islands filing past to receive their awards. It is only then that you truly appreciate that this nation's success and survival depend upon all these so-called ordinary and extraordinary people playing their part in the continuing drama of our existence. They make their entrance and their exit, but without their individual contribution and, in many cases, their sense of duty or vocation, this country would be nothing.
Standing there, shaking their hands, I cannot help but be aware of the continuing march of history: the Army Corporal wounded in Northern Ireland; the courage of the bomb disposal officer or the police constable on the beat; the unique service of a 90-year-old headmistress, still working voluntarily; a nurse back from Bosnia where she has seen harrowing sights; a captain of industry, a retired lifeboat cox'n; someone who has worked all her life with handicapped people; a well-known sports personality; a star of stage and screen to be knighted; and the lollipop lady who has been doing her job every day for 40 years.
I could quite easily go on for hours, but I just want to say one more thing on this particular subject. One of the greatest strengths of this country has always lain in the way in which our most famous organisations and institutions have evolved the kind of ethos which has made them into a unique form of family enterprise, thereby encouraging a long and loyal service from those who are inordinately proud of the standards and traditions that make each organisation what it is. I am thinking of great British institutions like the BBC, even though it does not please everyone all the time, and especially the BBC World Service which, for 60 years, has been renowned throughout the globe for the remarkable integrity and quality of its broadcasting; the British Council, which for many people abroad has represented the best of Britain; the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose influence in the field of cultural diplomacy has become second to none; the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which has established a unique reputation around the world, but now needs £90 million in order to meet the challenges of the future; the National Theatre and our great orchestras; not to mention our priceless galleries and museums with their huge and unique collections.
All these British institutions have functioned solely on the basis of the quality, the devotion and the pride of their wonderful families of staff. They have done what they have done unbelievably well, often in far from easy circumstances. Whilst we all recognise that such institutions have to adapt to changing conditions, would it not be a tragedy of national proportions if they were somehow to lose their 'soul', that character that gives them their unique and precious identities, which marks them out as peculiarly British? If you lose the 'soul', what do you actually have left? And can you replace it? It just seems to me we need to recognise that, on the whole, these are the people who are preserving the kind of values and traditions which will always matter whatever age we live in.
Ladies and gentlemen, before I depart from the security of this lectern, I want to ask you all a question. What do you think it is that prevents us from making the most of the things we do so well in this country - things which matter because they say so much about the basic spirit of our nation? Is it because of our natural British modesty? Is it because we just take everything for granted, and because the British only really react when there is an obvious crisis?
The point I want to make is this. The excellence I have described says something important about us. It reflects, I think, qualities of understanding, tolerance, judgement and good sense which are now everywhere under attack. They seem to be threatened by pressures in our society which not only undermine these values, but also intimidate the people who hold them. It appears to me that a preoccupation with the fashionable theories and trends of the day is threatening to eat away at the values of our society. There is perhaps an inherent danger from those who love to parade a kind of dogmatic arrogance without listening to the views of ordinary people. All around us we see the evidence, day after day, of the short-lived theories and fashions which can undermine our individuality, undermine our confidence, and take too mechanical or untrusting a view of human nature. The result can be damaging - sometimes devastatingly so - to our confidence and the way we behave.
Some of you may possibly recall a speech I made nearly six years ago in which I argued against the view, held at the time to be unassailable, that violence on television and in videos had no proven effect on the behaviour of our children. At last, there are signs that this fashion is perhaps changing, and we are now being told something which we always knew in our hearts made sense. Think also of those American childcare theorists of the 1960s like Dr Spock, and their novel views of how best to bring up children - or rather, not to bring them up at all. In the end it has been interesting to see those self-proclaimed experts altering their opinions - but at what cost along the way to those countless families who found themselves the victims of the intimidating fashion of the day?
Nowadays in our society there are many powerful pressure groups. Many do much good. Without them, many just and worthwhile causes would not have such vocal and effective champions. But in arguing their case and fighting their corner they can so easily slip into what has tellingly been called single-issue fanaticism. And when that is coupled with a prevailing theory - often untested, unproven, driven by the immediately palatable and by the fashion of the moment - the result slips from intellectual fanaticism to something even worse. This misnamed fashion for what people call 'political correctness' amounts to testing everything, every aspect of life, every aspect of society, against a pre-determined, pre-ordained view, and rejecting it if it does not measure up, so that people feel intimidated and browbeaten, not daring to stand up and disagree, or voice a contrary opinion, for fear of being considered old-fashioned or plain reactionary. And the intimidation is palpable. Any questioning, in a perfectly polite way, of the currrent fashions usually elicits a vitriolic response - whether it is a wish to teach people the basic principles of English grammar, and to rescue the idea that there is a vast difference between good and bad English; or suggesting that in certain circumstances it may be necessary and sensible to administer a smack to your child; or even to suggest that music might have been violated to the point that an obsession with atonalism and discordance causes most of our anguished souls to cry out for harmony, for melody, and for sanity.
But those who question the wisdom of these fashions are invariably accused of being out of touch, eccentric, and wanting to 'put the clock back' - as if we were only allowed to live in a world where the future was the sole reality, and where progress is measured by the extent to which you deny the relevance and lessons of the past. For what it is worth, I happen to be one of those people who believes strongly in the importance of well-tried principles, and of those more familiar things in life, which help to anchor us in the here and now and give meaning and a sense of belonging in a world which can easily become frightening and hostile. That does not mean that I am opposed to what is called the Avant Garde. Far from it. I believe the Avant Garde serves a very important function - to challenge, to tease, to experiment and to protest. That is the sign of a healthy, and free, society. But when the Avant Garde becomes, to all intents and purposes, the Establishment, then by its very nature it can sometimes become over-bearing, arrogant and destructive.
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, this is not some irrelevant or archaic argument. It concerns us all, and the values and inherited wisdom which many of us cherish. Can we, for example, really believe that we cannot trust our school teachers to treat their pupils with care and sympathy without being misunderstood? Of course, society must take firm steps to prevent abuse, but the error surely comes when the associated dogma actually prevents genuine, normal feelings and actions. Can we really believe the fashionable theorists in the English faculties of our universities who have tried to tear apart many of our wonderful novelists, poets and playwrights because they do not fit their abstruse theories of the day? Or should we believe, instead, the judgement of those millions of people who watched Middlemarch recently on television, and bought or re-read George Eliot's novel, because they recognised it - not at all surprisingly - as the wonderful story of human nature as it was then, and still is?
I believe that we do not have to accept any of these fashionable distortions, just as we need no longer accept that people have to live in a brutalised urban landscape where the crucial elements of human scale and craftsmanship have been forgotten. But it does take courage to challenge these fashionable opinions and say that some of those who call themselves experts have got it wrong. If we do not, we shall live forever with the consequences.
Ladies and gentlemen, although I know it may be unfashionable to say so, I just want to emphasise that one of the elements that makes this nation what it is depends, crucially, on those remarkable qualities in the British character, developed over a long period of time, in peace and war, which have manifested themselves in unshakeable standards of public service, of dedication, independence of thought, voluntary effort, of artistic and scientific endeavour, and great good humour. The roots that nurture these qualities are surely worth preserving. But there is also, I believe, a danger that repeated doses of cynicism and constant denigration, if they infect our views of ourselves deeply, could fatally damage our trust in ourselves and our values, and also damage those various qualities that make us special, amd which the rest of the world so admires. That is why I think the work of volunteers within local communities, the unsung heroes of our time, is so important. They preserve and represent so much of what is good in Britain, and so much of what is marvellous about the spirit of this country. Their work deserves to be celebrated. Because you are in touch with people and their real concerns, your newspapers, in my view, fulfil the vital role of helping to reflect the importance of such values by reporting these activities and giving them prominence. I can only pray you will go on doing so. I can think of no better way of explaining why than by reminding you of the very last lines of Middlemarch, which are as true now as they were more than a century ago:
'For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs'."