The Women's Institute is a powerful force for good. You take the best of British values and traditions but are as relevant to our national life today as when you were founded in 1915. Looking at the campaigns you have fought and the resolutions you have passed - from domestic violence, to women's pay, from VD in the 1920's to AIDS in the 1980s - is to see the depth of your compassion, the fearlessness in tackling hard issues, and the energy in which you have furthered the cause not just of women but of British society.
When I look at some of the things we have done, the campaigning power of women has played a real role.
I look at Northern Ireland and see not only Mo Mowlam's unique contribution to the peace process, but the pioneering role of the Women's Coalition.
More than ever before, the police are taking domestic violence seriously. More women are coming forward. The police are recording these crimes, investigating them, dealing with them. Exactly as the Women's Institute campaigned for it to be.
I look at the impact Breast Cancer campaigns have had, not just on the debate, but yes, on Government policy - now guaranteed specialist treatment within two weeks of diagnosis.
Or I reflect on the contribution of the mothers of Dunblane who fought not only for a ban on hand guns here - delivered in our first year in office - but are now part of the fight on this issue in the United States, and I am sure many of you support them there too.
In a very real sense, you represent British communities.
At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community. I don't just mean the local villages, towns and cities in which we live. I mean that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world.
The way we do it is to combine the old and the new, traditional British values of responsibility and respect for others; with a new agenda of opportunity for all in a changing world.
Whenever I analyse the world in which my children are growing up, I come back to the spectre of change. Business, work, and with it community and social life are all in the throes of change. The new breakthroughs in genetics of which the controversy over genetic modification is just a part will soon take over from the internet as the next shaker of the ever-turning kaleidoscope of change. The world seems in a state of perpetual revolution.
It is no wonder people feel insecure, frightened for their future. Some have more money than others; some have more luck than others. But we all share the anxieties of today's world: the fear that our child will be bullied or worse offered drugs in the playground. The worry that children are exposed to too much sex and too much violence too young. The struggle of balancing work and family. Lives of honesty, struggle, decency, responsibility. People who have hopes for themselves and high hopes for their children. Lives that cry out for the helping hand of an active community not the cold shoulder, the cruelty, of those who say "you're on your own". A community there for them when they need it, helping them cope with change, supporting their families, making sure their effort is rewarded.
On our own the majority of us are powerless. Together we can shape our destiny. To become the masters of this change, not its victims, we need an active community.
The idea of community is as old as time. What makes it tick are the values of responsibility to, and respect for, others.
These are traditional values, good old British values. But here's the challenge.
The spirit of this age is democratic. We won't rebuild community on the basis of doffing your cap or hierarchy. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: it won't wash any more.
Brain has taken the place of brawn. A meritocratic society is the only one that can exploit its economic chances to the full; and that means exploiting the talent of all its people. Only a one-nation Britain can do that.
Give people the opportunity to get on and make something of themselves, give each of us a stake in Britain and we have the means and the moral authority to demand the responsibility. It is simple but profound. We need to harness change to drive through opportunity.
Opportunity to all and responsibility from all = a community for all.
In this way the new and old are in harmony. We in Government talk often about the "new" - whether the "new" economy, "new" culture, art, "new" NHS, "new" welfare state.
I know this argument from "New" Labour. We re-wrote the Party's constitution, changed its policies, altered our rules. We were accused, in doing so, of abandoning our basic values. But I always regarded it as precisely the opposite: that the "new" was necessary in order to "re-new" the old; that the values - fairness, solidarity, social justice - lost relevance unless applied anew to a changed world.
I believe the same of "community".
My generation stands at the intersection between old and new. We have moved beyond debates about Victorian values or the libertarianism of the sixties. We want a society of rules and order, but not of prejudices.
When I think of the values and attitudes of my parents' generation, I distinguish between the genuine values that underpinned the best of Britain and the attitudes we can safely and rightly leave behind. Old-fashioned values are good values. Old-fashioned attitudes or practices may simply be barriers that hold our values back.
Let me put it even more prosaically. My parents were passionate about good manners. They always said: misbehave inside the family, if you will; but outside, make us proud of you.
Respect for others, courtesy, giving up your seat for the elderly, saying please and thank you.
For my parents crime was unthinkable - and my father was brought up in poverty in a Glasgow tenement. If I was told off at school, I was told off again at home. When my mother saw the teacher, she apologised for me. It would never have occurred to her to complain instead. These seem small things, but are in fact the difference between living in a society and living in a jungle. My mother, doing meals on wheels, saw it quite simply as her duty as well as her pleasure to help in the local community. Caring for and helping others was part of her being. Again, without such acts of kindness, however small, humanity for me has no meaning.
But there are other things from past generations I choose to leave behind. My dad fiercely resisted my mum working. He thinks it odd when I go to church in jeans, not dressed in suit and tie. Some of his generation - though not him - were, let us say, not always fair-minded to gay people.
My generation feels differently: tolerant of different lifestyles, but still intolerant of crime.
And we love British history, Britain's cultural heritage; the British way of life. But we celebrate the fact British actors and film are again leading the world; that we have great modern buildings and art. We applaud the way the revitalised Globe Theatre treats Shakespeare; laugh at Blackadder or Only Fools and Horses but love the productions of Jane Austen or Dickens or more recently Elizabeth. We take the best of the past but we celebrate the new.
Obvious maybe, but necessary to explore because otherwise we impale ourselves on a false choice: either change is seen as an obliteration of our history; or alternatively a call for a society based on values is seen as a retreat into the past, some sort of nostalgia.
The truth is we can rebuild these core values of community; but only by renewing them for the modern world; the old and new together.
And that means breaking down the barriers that hold people back; the poverty; the lack of good education; the waste of ambition and talent. Accept it is a world of frightening change, but that it is a world of opportunity for all the people, not just a few. Give everyone a chance to succeed and you give community a chance to work.
Education has to remain Britain's No.1 priority.
To be fair, a lot of change and hard work is happening. This year for the first time over 70 per cent of all 11 year olds will pass the literacy and numeracy tests. We will have spent almost ??6bn on school buildings. The new specialist schools - comprehensives which offer a subject they specialise in - have seen results go up 12 per cent. Nursery education for 4 year olds is now universal. We are expanding university and higher education places. Teachers' pay reform - which will give almost half of teachers a ??2000 p.a. extra pay rise - is coming in.
But there is a massive task still to do.
And on the debate about widening access to Oxbridge and other top universities, let's hear no more rubbish about class war, as if we had to choose between caricatures of Little Lord Fauntleroy or Karl Marx. Gordon Brown and I believe passionately in extending opportunity for all. But neither of us will have any truck with old-fashioned egalitarianism that levels down. We are unashamed supporters of excellence. But we need to give far more of our kids a shot at it.
And as this Government continues with its programme, let me tell you what I mean by extending opportunity:
* helping the seven million, yes seven million, adults who have trouble with literacy, many of whom can't even read the instructions on a medicine bottle
* helping the half of children who do not get even two hours of sport in school a week
* helping the two million disabled people and one million lone parents written off as unable to work with the chance to find a job
* helping the millions of women who need childcare or who want to start a business with the support and the facilities to make the most of themselves
* helping the three quarters of British people who don't use the internet to get familiar with it and exploit its benefits.
We have got 1 and a half million extra jobs in the British economy. 507,000 fewer on benefit, a saving of ??8 billion. Work is being made to pay through the minimum wage the Working Family Tax Credit which has given 11/4 million working families a real boost to living standards. 1 million fewer children are in poverty.
But there is still a huge way to go. Still 1 million unemployed. Still 3 million children in poverty. Still 50 per cent of our school leavers without five good GCSEs.
But none of it will happen without change and reform.
Take transport. We know we need to plan its improvement. It won't happen by market forces. But it will have to be done in a new way, financed differently; road and rail integrated; cities, as Manchester has with the Metrolink, finding new ways of tackling congestion; and where in rural areas, people depend on their cars, making sure that some at least have the choice of a decent bus service.
Or the NHS. A great British institution, staffed by some of the most decent, hard-working and professional people in this country. We should stay absolutely true to its values. But as I have been finding out in the past few months, working with those in the NHS, it is an institution held back by out-dated practices, old-fashioned systems, where the staff work flat out, but in a system that desperately needs fundamental re-design. In truth, if we do not now make real changes in the NHS, then no matter how much money we put into it the NHS will slowly decline. I am determined not to let that happen. But again, we need the values, embodied in the NHS, given new life by change and reform. That is what the Plan we publish in July will be about.
We need to re-capture some of that post-war spirit of renewing the nation; but apply it afresh to our 21st Century lives.
Put bluntly, Britain is an "under-invested in" nation. If we want to open up opportunity and provide security for people in the world of change, we must invest in the future.
When we came to office, the National Debt had doubled. I know people didn't like the petrol duty rises. They wanted money spent on hospitals, schools quickly. But we had to sort our finances to help inflation and mortgages down.
When we took office, the Chancellor and I decided to place interest-rates under the management of the Bank of England, an institution which goes back to the 17th century but is still sharp as a razor. It has proved a very sensible decision, and the Bank's interest-rate policy is one of the reasons why our economy is so strong.
From 1979-1997, interest rates averaged ten per cent. In the last three years, they've averaged six per cent. For the family with a ??40,000 mortgage, that's a saving of over ??100 per month. With interest rates and inflation down, living standards - or, put another way, how well-off we are - will have risen on average by 10% during this Parliament.
All this is geared to creating economic strength and opening up opportunity for all not just a few to succeed.
Community cannot be rebuilt without opportunity.
But if we provide the opportunity, then these values we hold dear, responsibility, respect for others - must be rigorously re-asserted.
The detestable football hooligans. They don't just commit crimes. They disgrace our nation. They degrade our society.
There will be tougher penalties for crimes of violence, and we have introduced for burglary and rape.
And I tell you in all honesty, if we don't deal with drugs, we don't deal with crime. We can all talk tough on it. It's the cheapest currency in political debate. But unless we face the facts about what is causing crime, none of it will work. Half of all criminal offences are drug-related. We need two things: a massive expansion of drug treatment and rehabilitation; and then the most serious concerted crackdown on every aspect of drug abuse this or any western developed country has seen. We have already introduced mandatory sentences for repeat drug traffickers and referrals and drug-testing orders to force drug addicted criminals to get treatment. Tomorrow the Home Secretary will announce the next steps.
For every new opportunity we offer, we demand responsibility in return.
Responsibility means we no longer hand out social security benefits without conditions. Claimants have a duty to look actively for work and take jobs they are offered. Something for something. David Blunkett will outline our plans later today.
Responsibility from all means parents supporting teachers and head teachers to ensure their children turn up to school each morning, and keep on the right side of the law. The courts now have the power to impose fines on parents whose children truant persistently. I want to see them use this power.
Responsibility means that if you're out of prison on parole and the condition is you stay off drugs, if you go back on drugs you go back inside.
Responsibility means that if you have fathered a child you should help, including financially, in bringing that child up. Our reforms to the child support agency will include provisions for driving licenses to be removed from fathers who deliberately and wilfully default on payments they owe. We are also introducing new powers to allow the courts to conduct DNA tests on men who deny paternity
Responsibility means that if you're claiming state benefits you have an obligation to attend job interviews and not spend your whole life living off society.
Responsibility means not breaking community sentences. Those who do will now lose their benefits.
But responsibility must apply to those at the top as well. Responsibility for business means paying women the same as men for the same job. Treating the staff fairly. Playing by the rules. That is our agenda for responsibility. It is tough. But it will help to restore the values we all want to live by: respect, responsibility and decency.
The forces that used to hold communities together - the family, the Church, respect for elders - have been slowly weakening, and we need to revive them.
Commitment, trust and altruism are what hold the fragile web of community together. Parents' commitment to their children: adults' commitment to their elderly parents; the altruism of the volunteer who helps out in a hospice or a school or who takes meals to old people who live alone; the trust that a neighbour will keep an eye on your house while you are away.
Our Government's responsibility is to help family life: to support children, through things like higher child benefit, or from next year the new child tax credit; nursery education and proper child care; the Sure Start programme.
We should help parents, most especially mothers, balance work and family life: not just through parental leave and maternity rights but through increased flexibility in hours; or if they are lone parents and want to work, they're given the help to do so. And if women, especially when their children are pre-school age, do want to stay at home and look after them, we should help them do so.
Then we have a collective responsibility: as individuals and through the institutions of moral guidance like the churches and other religious faiths to say why we believe stable family life is important; to put the case for marriage and commitment; to explain why responsibility applies in the family as well as outside it.
Now: this is a very tall agenda. Have we as a country got the stomach for it?
It's very traditional in one sense. Tough on law and order. Supportive of the family. Strong on defence. Pro-business. But in another way, radical, tackling unemployment and poverty; investing in state schools and hospitals; fighting discrimination wherever it exists; opening up opportunity.
And all of it needing reform and modernisation to meet the challenge of a changing world.
It's easy to say yes, but let me spell out the hard choices: if we want to invest in education, tax cuts can't come instead of that investment. If we put all the money we are putting into pensions into the Basic State Pension, then we won't help the poorest 2 million of our pensioners, many of whom are elderly women and have no political voice. Let me be even more specific. You have a strong campaign on rural post offices. I want to preserve them too. This month we publish plans that allow people to carry on taking out pensions and benefits in cash; and that will protect rural Post Offices and offer them a new lease of life. Be under no illusion: over the years more people will choose to have money paid into their bank account and all round the world, postal services are going to be revolutionised by new technology and the growth of the internet. So we can give rural post offices a future but I would fail in my duty to you, if I don't also say it has to be a future allied to future reality.
Change is tough. Modernisation, painful; reform, nearly always opposed. But unless we take on the forces of conservatism that hold necessary change back, then the irony is that the old values we seek to conserve, will disappear.
That's life. Adapt to change, to preserve what's dear to us. We know it as individuals. And politics is no different. It is just personal choices writ large for society.
In the last few weeks I've done a lot of reflecting. It is not just that life is in better perspective. There is a renewed sense of purpose. And I think we in Government - and that means me - have to trust people more. We don't need to fight over every headline. We should put more faith in people's desire to engage in a conversation about the future.
When we came to power with a majority of 179, some people said: now you've got a responsibility to do it quickly. My answer was to say: no, now we've got a responsibility to do it properly. For the long-term.
We have to rebuild Britain as a great and powerful nation for the 21st Century. Shaped by the values of opportunity for all and responsibility from all Britain will become stronger, our schools and hospitals better, our communities safer and Britain's families will enjoy living standards that continue to rise.
But it takes time. It takes patience. It also takes optimism; confidence; self-belief. I worry sometimes when I read some of the press, not just about politics but about everything, there's so much destructiveness, cynicism, negativism. We shouldn't run our country down. We've got enormous strengths, rightly envied round the world. Even today a report by the Economist shows Britain the second-best place in the world to do business, ahead not just of France and Germany and Japan but of the USA. But I don't want us second-best in anything. We showed how we could lead the world before. Now let's show how we can lead them again.
Look at yourselves in the WI. The old image, the old ways, cast off and now dynamic, engaged, socially aware, your slogan: a modern voice for women. You haven't betrayed your past. You've renewed it. So with us, as a nation. We must draw on every ounce of strength in our values, our traditions and our history. The British spirit - determined, fair-minded, gentle but immensely powerful and creative when roused - will be what sees us through. But we do need to be roused. The modern world is upon us. Every aspect of it demands our full concentration on the challenges we face.
So I say today: respect the old, for what it still has to teach: respect for others, honour, self-discipline, duty, obligation, the essential decency of the British character. Let us take these old values and blend them with the challenge of the new world to fashion a Britain able to take on the world, strong in new daring and old wisdom, looking to the future while guarding all that is best in the past. That is what we seek, and all of you can help us to find it.