Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blair, about to step down, looks back on U.K. lesbian and gay progress

U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair announced today that he will step down 27 Jun 2007. In a valedictory address that he gave before a Stonewall Equality gathering in March, he reviewed progress for U.K. lesbians and gays under his government:

22 March 2007

Prime Minister:

Thank you very much, thank you. Thank you very much indeed. It is a real honour to be with you here this evening at the Stonewall Equality Dinner and to say thank you to Ben for that kind introduction.

Just before I came here tonight, and this is probably a sad reflection on the type of thing you do as you end your time in office, I actually got out one of my old speeches and re-read it. It was a speech back in 1994 on an amendment by Edwina Currie and Neil Kinnock [a well-known Conservative M.P. and a well-known Labour M.P., respectively --LB], interestingly enough, it wasn't a combination that was often found, but they came together to move an amendment on the equality of the age of consent. And the thing that really struck me, re-reading the speech this evening, was just how a whole lot of things that nowadays we would more or less take for granted, you had to start literally from the very first principles, including arguments like: "how do you stop people being persuaded to be gay?" And I was thinking that is an interesting idea. I have got five really good arguments in favour of being gay. And I remember saying to the guy who was on the opposite side afterwards: "You know, I am not gay and I wouldn't be persuaded by five really good arguments." And he said to me: "No, no, of course not, of course not." And I said: "But maybe it is the same the other way round?" He had never thought of it like that at all obviously.

But the interesting thing is that you then fast-forward to last night in the House of Lords and the fact is the vote was won, which is an incredible thing. [The Lords upheld the U.K.'s new Sexual Orientation Regulations anti-discrimination law, which included gay adoption rights without an exemption for church-affiliated adoption agencies. --LB]

And I really just wanted to say two things about the changes that have happened over the past ten years, which you will know very well. And there were a lot of important things, but I think the civil partnership is really the thing that, as I was saying to people earlier, it is a thing that doesn't just give me a lot of pride, but it actually brought real joy. I don't know whether you remember the very first day, and I don't by what bizarre circumstance, the first set of ceremonies were actually in Northern Ireland, but it was just, sort of just so alive, and I was so struck by it. I remember seeing the pictures on television, and it is not often you do a little sort of skip around in my job - I can assure you. But it really the fact that that the people were so happy and the fact that you felt just one major, major change had happened, of which everyone can feel really proud. And now I think we were just saying, was it 16,000 civil partnerships, and what is interesting now is that other countries in Europe are looking at this legislation, and it is very divisive still in Spain and Italy at the moment. But nonetheless it is happening.

The fascinating thing, and this is my second reflection about it all, because you know all the different pieces of legislation and so on, and there is no point in rehearsing them, but what has happened is that the culture of the country has changed in a definable way as a result of it. And here is what I think is really interesting, that the change in the culture and the civilising effect of it has gone far greater than the gay and lesbian community.

In other words, by taking a stand on this issue and by removing a piece of prejudice and discrimination, and by enabling people to stand proud as what they are, it has had an impact that I think profoundly affects the way the country thinks about itself. And I like to think of Britain as a country with an immensely proud history, but it is able today to stand on its own merits and look at the 21st century and say, we have got a great future.

And the one thing that I think is really important about any country that will succeed in the future is that you make the most of the talents and abilities of your people, and if you allow discrimination to fester, that is the complete rejection of that modernising and civilising notion of making the most ... [APPLAUSE]

So that is what has been important about it, and it is why as the day approaches, I mean even I get casual about this legacy business - well I think it is actually part of the last ten years - that certainly I will look back on with a lot of pride.

However, there is one final thing I wanted to say, which is this: it wouldn't have happened without you. I mean some people have been very kind in saying that it took a certain amount of political courage. Well yes it did, but you know I remember back in the early '80s when this type of issue was condemned as political correctness, when this was the loony-left, as it were, engaged in this. Stonewall in my view played a fundamental and often insufficiently recognised part in achieving this.

And I want to tell you why. Because when you are trying to do something that is difficult, divisive, and to be honest about it, as a politician you are doing something that you know is going to be very controversial, you know it is all very well, you say we are going to do this, and you can see some of your people are absolutely up for it, and some of your people are thinking mmm.

And you know what actually matters enormously is that the people from the outside of politics that you are trying to do it with have a sufficient intelligence and sensitivity and what I call, which is really how I define the Stonewall campaigning, I define it as a polite determination. In other words there was a complete you know push and drive to get the thing done, but also a way of doing it that was always looking to bring people on-side, that was always looking to understand sensitivities, that was always looking to say look this is something you know we would like to help get done with you in a sensible and intelligent way. And what Stonewall did, and Angela Mason, who I thought was absolutely fantastic when she was the Head, and now Ben what they did was remarkable and it is a real tribute.

And you seen here we are this evening at the Stonewall Equality Dinner, and the interesting thing is that a lot of the tables from some of the best known names in business and commerce, and this is part of the diversity agenda now of these big companies, and all of that is fantastic. Sometimes people have said to me "well now that all the political parties are in favour of this, you know there is going to be greater competition for the so-called gay and lesbian vote." And I say actually it is a fantastic thing that all the party leaders today, and in the future actually all of them will be, I think, in favour of equality, and that is a sign of how much things have changed and we shouldn't be worried about that, whatever political party we are in, we should be actually glad of it, because it is a great achievement for our country.

So anyway I just wanted to say this evening how deeply grateful I am for what I regard as a real honour in coming along and being able to address these words to you at the start of your dinner tonight. And I would like to thank each and every one of you for participating in the dinner, for helping, you know this has been a good fund-raiser for Stonewall and it will be an important signal that this is part of the mainstream part of our society today and that progress actually does come about, and it comes about because people are determined when they see injustice, to correct it. And that is what you have done through Stonewall, and we have played our part in that.

But I want to say to a lot of people who have been very kind tonight, and said thank you to me, but I want to say thank you to you, because we couldn't have done it without you. And when I do look back on it, with pride, I think I should acknowledge rightly that the pride and the honour is shared with you.

Thank you very much.

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