JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) — In an age when Western civilization is facing acute challenges, Tony Blair said westerners must continue to hold strongly to their beliefs in freedom, democracy, the rule of law and equality.
“These values are what make our nations great,” the former British prime minister said Oct. 3 at Union University’s 14th annual Scholarship Banquet. “It sustains them now and will sustain them in the future. They are the things that make our way of life worth standing up for and worth believing in.”
Blair, who served as Great Britain’s prime minister from 1997-2007, was the keynote speaker for the annual event, which drew some 2,000 people to the Carl Perkins Civic Center and raised about $500,000 for student scholarships.
In his first visit to Tennessee, Blair listed some of the challenges facing the United States and Europe — issues such as financial crises, job insecurity, technological change, security, radical Islam and the rise of China.
“The 20th century definitely belonged to us,” Blair said. “But will the 21st century belong to someone else? Are we in the West, you in the United States, like an empire whose glory is fading?”
Western culture, Blair said, is not in decline but is suffering from a temporary lack of self-belief and self-confidence that needs to be recovered. He stressed the importance of credible deficit reduction plans, de-regulation of businesses and the value of education in creating a healthy, financially sound society.
“The best modern form of welfare today is high-quality education,” Blair said. “It’s the best long-term economic policy. It’s the best social policy. It’s the best policy for individual fulfillment…. I really do believe that education is the thing that unlocks the future for us.”
Blair cited the education that takes place at Union University and the institution’s commitment to service driven by faith as an example of what’s right with American values and beliefs.
“You are driven to do this because you believe in the power of education inspired by faith to do good in the world, and that’s what it’s about,” he said. “It’s not just about increasing our material prosperity…. It’s also about saying, ‘There is something in the way of life that we have that is based on a profound belief in God’s purpose and fulfilling God’s purpose through the work that we do.'”
In his opening remarks, Blair praised Union University President David S. Dockery.
“Even on the short acquaintance that I’ve had with the president of the university, David Dockery, I have to say that he’s one of the more remarkable people that I’ve met,” Blair said. “Sixteen years he’s been leading this university. Sixteen years at the top, and he’s still popular. I had about 10 years, actually, and they were quite ready to get rid of me at the end, but he’s still going strong.
“When I look at what he’s done with this university with your help, I think it’s a remarkable tribute to him, but it’s also a remarkable tribute to the way God’s power is able to work in a human being.”
Blair told about a conversation he had with his 11-year-old son just before he left home for his trip to Jackson. His son was sitting at the kitchen table and asked Blair where he was going.
“America,” Blair told him.
“Not Washington again,” his son said.
Blair told him he was actually going to a place called Jackson, Tenn.
“Dad, I think you may be about to see the real America,” his son said.
Since the end of his tenure, Blair has continued to be active in public life, especially relating to the Middle East. Blair currently serves as the quartet representative for the United States, United Nations, Russia and European Union, working with the Palestinians and Israelis to achieve peace.
The annual Scholarship Banquet is Union’s primary fundraising event for its student scholarship fund. Previous speakers have included George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Condoleezza Rice, Mikhail Gorbachev, Laura Bush, Rudolph Giuliani and Colin Powell, among others.
All told, Union’s Scholarship Banquets have generated more than $5 million for student scholarships.
Prior to Blair’s address, Dockery announced a $10 million matching gift to Union University from the Bill and Carol Latimer Foundation for construction of a new library on campus.
Tim Ellsworth is director of news and media relations at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.