Tony Blair’s Speech in Yale

So: after over 100 years of Class Days, finally you get a British speaker.

What took you so long? Did that little disagreement of 1776 really rankle so much? And why now? Is it because British election campaigns only last four weeks?

For whatever reason, it is an honour to be here and to say to the Yale College Class of 2008: you did it; you came through; from all of us to you: congratulations.

The invitation to a former British Prime Minister to address a college which boasts five former Presidents, many former Vice Presidents and Senators too numerous to mention, is either to give me an exaggerated sense of my own importance or you a reduced sense of yours.

It was Churchill or Oscar Wilde – and there is a difference – who called us two nations divided by a common language and so we are.

Here I am at Yale and set to come back for the fall semester. My old Oxford tutor was, I’m afraid, horrified to hear I had been taken on by Yale. His worries were all for Yale I may say. He said: “I only hope for their sake you are going there to learn rather than teach.”

Now I know you Yale guys are smart. So what can I tell you that you don’t already think you know?

I can tell you something of the world as I see it. Three days ago, in my role as Middle East envoy, I stood in the heart of Bethlehem. On one side of me, lay the concrete barrier which now separates Israel and Palestine. On the other, the historic birthplace of Jesus and the land of Palestine beyond.

A few days before that, I was in Jericho. If you look up from the town centre, to the left is the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus stayed 40 days and nights. To the right, you can see Mount Nebo where Moses looked down on the Promised Land. And right in front of you is the Valley of Jordan.
My guide, a Muslim, turned to me and said: “Moses, Jesus, Mohammed – why in God’s name did they all have to come here?”

But in God’s name they came and for centuries their followers have waged war in the name of prophets whose life’s work was in pursuit of peace.

Today, though the land that encompasses Israel and Palestine is small, the conflict symbolises the wider prospects of the entire vast region of the Middle East and beyond. There, the forces of modernisation and moderation battle with those of reaction and extremism. The shadow of Iran looms large.

What is at stake is immense. Will those who believe in peaceful co-existence triumph, matching the growing economic power and wealth with a politics and culture at ease with the 21st Century? Or will the victors be those that seek to use that economic wealth to create a politics and culture more relevant to the feudal Middle Ages?

Thousands of miles from here, this struggle is being played out in the suburbs of Baghdad and Beirut and the Gaza strip. But the impact of its outcome on our security and way of life will register in the core of our well-being.

In fact, if I had to sum up my view of the world, I would say to you: turn your thoughts to the East. Not just to the Middle East. But to the Far East.

For the first time in many centuries, power is moving East. China and India each have populations roughly double those of America and Europe combined.

In the next two decades, these two countries together will undergo industrialisation four times the size of the USA’s and at five times the speed.

We must be mindful that as these ancient civilisations become somehow younger and more vibrant, our young civilisation does not grow old. Most of all we should know that in this new world, we must clear a path to partnership, not stand off against each other, competing for power.

The world in which you, in time to come, will take the reins, cannot afford a return to 20th century struggles for hegemony.

The characteristic of this modern world is the pace, scope and scale of change. Globalisation is driving it and people are driving globalisation.

The consequence is that the world opens up; its boundaries diminish; we are pushed closer together.

The conclusion is that we make it work together or not at all.

The issues you must wrestle with – the threat of climate change, food scarcity, and population growth, worldwide terror based on religion, the interdependence of the world economy – my student generation would barely recognise. But the difference today is they are all essentially global in nature.

You understand this. Yale has become a melting pot of culture, language and civilisation. You are the global generation. So be global citizens.

Each new generation finds the world they enter. But they fashion the world they leave. So: what do you inherit and what do you pass on?

The history of humankind is marked by great events but written by great people.

People like you.

Given Yale’s record of achievement, perhaps by you.

So to you as individuals, what wisdom, if any, have I learnt?

First, in fact, keep learning. Always be alive to the possibilities of the next experience, of thinking, doing and being.

When Buddha was asked, near the end of his life, to describe his secret, he answered bluntly: “I’m awake”.

So be awake.

Understand conventional wisdom, but be prepared to change it.

Feel as well as analyse; use your instinct alongside your reason. Calculate too much and you will miscalculate.

Be prepared to fail as well as to succeed, and realise it is failure not success that defines character.

I spent years trying to be a politician failing at every attempt and nearly gave up. I know you’re thinking: I should have.

Sir Paul McCartney reminded me that the first record company the Beatles approached rejected them as a band no-one would want to listen to.

Be good to people on your way up because you never know if you will meet them again on your way down.

Judge someone by how they treat those below them not those above them.

Be a firm friend not a fair-weather friend. It is your friendships, including those friends you made here at Yale, at this time, that sustain and enrich the human spirit.

A good test of a person is who turns up at their funeral and with what sincerity. Try not to sit the test too early, of course.

Recently, I attended a funeral and the speaker said he would like to begin by reading a list of all those whose funerals he would rather have been attending, but the list was too long. It was a sweet compliment to our friend.

Alternatively there was Spike Milligan, the quintessential English comic who when he was asked what he would like as the epitaph on his tombstone, replied: “They should write: I told you I was ill.”

There was a colleague of mine in the British Parliament who once asked another: “Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?” and got the reply: “Because it saves time.”

So, when others think of you, let them think not with their lips but their hearts of a good friend and a gracious acquaintance.

Above all, however, have a purpose in life. Life is not about living but about striving. When you get up, get up motivated. Live with a perpetual sense of urgency. And make at least part of that purpose about something bigger than you.

There are great careers. There are also great causes.

At least let some of them into your lives. Giving lifts the heart in a way that getting never can. Maybe it really was Oscar Wilde who said: “No one ever died, saying if only I had one more day at the office.”

One small but shocking sentence: each year three million children die in Africa from preventable disease or conflict.

The key word? Preventable.

When all is said and done, there is usually more said than done.

Be a doer not a commentator. Seek responsibility rather than shirk it. People often ask me about leadership, I say: leadership is about wanting the responsibility to be on your shoulders, not ignoring its weight but knowing someone has to carry it and, reaching out for that person to be you. Leaders are heat-seekers not heat-deflectors.

And luck?

You have all the luck you need. You are here, at Yale, and what – apart from the hats – could be better?

You have something else: your parents.

When you are your age, you can never imagine being our age. But believe me, when you’re our age we remember clearly being your age. That’s why I am so careful about young men and my daughter, “Don’t tell me what you’re thinking. I know what you’re thinking.”

But as a parent let me tell you something about parents. Despite all rational impulses, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what we think you do to us and what you think we do to you – and yes, it is often hell on both sides – the plain, unvarnished truth is we love you. Simply, profoundly, utterly.

I remember, back in the mists of time, my Dad greeting me off the train at Durham railway station. I was a student at Oxford. Oxford and Cambridge are for Britain kind of like Yale and Harvard, only more so. It was a big deal. I had been away for my first year and was coming home.

I stepped off the train. My hair was roughly the length of Rumpelstiltskin’s and unwashed. I had no shoes and no shirt. My jeans were torn – and this was in the days before this became a fashion item. Worst of all, we had just moved house. Mum had thrown out the sitting room drapes. I had retrieved them and made a sleeveless long coat with them.

My Dad greeted me. There were all his friends at the station. Beside me, their kids looked paragons of respectability.

He saw the drapes, and visibly winced. They did kind of stand out. I took pity on him.

“Dad”, I said. “There is good news. I don’t do drugs.”

He looked me in the eye and said: “Son, the bad news is if you’re looking like this and you’re not doing drugs we’ve got a real problem.”

Your parents look at you today with love. They know how hard it is to make the grade and they respect you for making it.

And tomorrow as I know, as a parent of one of this class, as you receive your graduation, their hearts will beat with the natural rhythm of pride. Pride in what you have achieved. Pride in who you are.

They will be nervous for you, as you stand on the threshold of a new adventure for they know the many obstacles that lie ahead.

But they will be confident that you can surmount them, for they know also the strength of character and of spirit that has taken you thus far.

To my fellow parents: I say, let us rejoice and be glad together.

To the Yale College Class of 2008, I say: well done; and may blessings and good fortune be yours in the years to come.


Tony Blair speech to Class Day 2008, Yale University, New Haven, 25 May 2008