MER Comment
Tough year ahead, warns Blair

[Daily Mail, UK - Jan 1 2003]

James Lyons, The Western Mail

BRITAIN faces an unprecedented number of "difficult and dangerous" problems in the coming year, Tony Blair warns today.

The threat of war, terrorist attacks and economic uncertainty pose major challenges both at home and abroad, the Prime Minister said in his New Year message.

But Mr Blair insisted, "Britain is well placed to face up to them."

His hard-headed assessment of the 12 months ahead cited the threats posed by Iraq, Al-Qaeda, the Middle East and North Korea.

Those threats will not help the faltering world economy, Mr Blair warned.

"I cannot recall a time when Britain was confronted, simultaneously, by such a range of difficult and, in some cases, dangerous problems," he said.

However, the Government was tackling each problem and would not be deterred by short-term unpopularity, Mr Blair pledged.

"Amid these twin concerns over world security and the world economy my message is this: that though the concerns are real and justified, Britain is well placed to face up to them."

The most dangerous reaction would be to "dismiss the importance of politics and political decision", according to Mr Blair.

"Whether we survive and prosper or decline in the face of this insecurity depends crucially on the political decisions Britain now takes," he said.

On Iraq, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed because failure "would make the world a very dangerous place in the future".

The Middle East peace process must be pushed forward whatever the problems.

No-one should think the UK's leading role in the war on terror marked the country out as a target for Al-Qaeda and their like, said the premier.

"We are a target anyway, as is every country in the world in the eyes of today's breed of terrorist and the only way to stop being a target is to stop the terrorists."

Britain must also continue to play a leading role in Europe, he said.

"This year we will face what may be the single most important decision that faces this political generation - the question of whether to join the euro.

"We see no constitutional bar to joining and the political case for entry is overwhelming.

"But ultimately it is an economic union and it is an economic case that must be made.

"The judgment must be whether it is good for British jobs and industry and for the living standards of British people."

At home, Mr Blair said the public sector investment which will bring tax rises in April must continue.

"This new investment, despite the critics, is visibly improving our schools and hospitals," he said.

Reform of those services will also continue, including the controversial changes to university funding where "without change Britain will lose a vital strategic national asset".

Britain will continue to work to protect the environment and help Africa.

"I believe more than ever before that the central message of the Government is right at home and abroad," Mr Blair said.

"We need measures that combine a tough, hard-headed approach to the economic and security threats we face with a vision of a more equal society."

War with Iraq is entirely up to Saddam, the Prime Minister repeated.

"No-one wants a military confrontation with Iraq but Iraq must be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction.

"By going down the UN route, the international community has given Saddam the chance for peaceful disarmament.

"If he does not seize it he will have to be disarmed by force."

He described Al-Qaeda as a "difficult enemy, loosely organised, operating in many countries, fanatical, extreme, with no respect for human life".

"The threat we face is real but our response must strike the right balance between necessary vigilance against a serious enemy and our determination to preserve our way of life.

"With the world economy, Iraq, terrorism, the Middle East, Africa, the environment, Europe, the euro this is a big and difficult agenda."

However, the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban showed what could be achieved.

Britain leads the world on third world aid, debt and development.

And at home there had been "real progress" in improving the health and education systems.

"That is not to deny the problems: the failures in transport, still an insufficiency of capacity in the NHS; still too many failing secondary schools; poor conviction rates in the criminal justice system.

"But we should set problems and progress in a context that is balanced. And where progress has been made, it has been made because we have held firm to the reform path.

"So that is where we will be in the coming year. A year of challenges, big challenges requiring big decisions, requiring strong leadership and direction. We will do our best to provide it."