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Speech Archive

Leader's speech, Brighton 1997

Tony Blair (Labour)

Location: Brighton


On 1 May, Labour had won a landslide victory over the Conservatives and formed a government for the first time in 18 years. This was Blair’s first conference speech since becoming Prime Minister, and he outlined some of the election pledges Labour had already fulfilled. These included increased investment in the public services, the establishment of the Low Pay Commission and referenda on devolution for Scotland and Wales. He then unveiled a comprehensive programme of modernisation that would realise his goal of a ‘New Britain’ characterised by tolerance, respect and social justice.

After 18 long years of Opposition, of frustration and despair, I am proud, privileged, to stand before you as the new Labour Prime Minister of our country. I believe in Britain. I believe in the British people. One cross on the ballot paper. One nation was reborn.

Today I want to set an ambitious course for this country. To be nothing less than the model 21st century nation, a beacon to the world. It means drawing deep into the richness of the British character. Creative. Compassionate. Outward-looking. Old British values, but a new British confidence. We can never be the biggest. We may never again be the mightiest. But we can be the best. The best place to live. The best place to bring up children, the best place to lead a fulfilled life, the best place to grow old.

14 years ago our Party was written off as history. This year we made it. Let our first thanks be to the British people. You kept faith with us. And we will keep faith with you. Thank you to the Party organisation, the volunteers, the professionals who fashioned the finest political fighting machine anywhere in the world. And thanks to those that led before me. To Neil Kinnock: the mantle of Prime Minister was never his. But I know that without him, it would never have been mine. To John Smith: who left us a fine legacy, and to whom we can now leave a fitting monument - a Scottish Parliament in the city where he lived, serving the country he loved and the people who loved him. To Jim Callaghan: who was attending Labour Party Conferences before I was born; and by the look of him, will be attending long after I’ve gone. My own debt of honour to Michael Foot: you led this Party when, frankly, it was incapable of being led and without ever losing a shred of your decency or your integrity. Thank you.

I should also say a final word of thanks to the Tory Party. Let’s be honest, we’d never have done so well without them. So thanks to Michael Howard, to John Redwood, to Peter Lilley, to Brian Mawhinney. Of course, it’s a fresh start now - with Michael Howard, John Redwood, Peter Lilley, Brian Mawhinney. Sorry – ‘Sir’ Brian Mawhinney - knighted for services to the Conservative Party. John Prescott wanted to give him a peerage - for services to the Labour Party.

As for Government, well, it beats the hell out of Opposition. They really do say ‘Yes, Prime Minister.’ You have to learn a whole new language. They’re not in the habit of calling anything a good idea, which given the last 18 years is hardly surprising. When they describe a proposal as ‘ambitious,’ or, even worse, ‘interesting,’ what they really mean is they think it was a stupid idea, dreamed up at the last minute for the manifesto. When they describe it as ‘challenging,’ they mean there's not a hope in hell of making it work. And when they say of a policy ‘that it really is quite a brave proposal Prime Minister,’ it means they’ve got the doctor outside waiting to sign the certificates and they’ve just applied for a transfer to a senior job administering one of our few remaining dependent territories.

It’s not the titles and the cars and the trappings that make government worthwhile. It’s letters like this from 11 year old Emma O’Brien from Ellesmere Port. ‘Summer School was a good idea. I have started to read more books. I have learned more spellings. We’ve had fun. All of us have made new friends. I think you and parliament have done the right thing. I have got a better education.’ Or this one from Mrs Patricia Lewis, of South London. ‘Each afternoon I collected him from school. By the fourth day the change was showing in Stephen. His enthusiasm grew, confidence gained, his ability to read, write, spell, speak, and question politely, was amazing.’ That is why we are here. That is what made winning worth the fight.

Ours was not a victory of politicians but of people. The people took their trust, and gave it to us. I want them to say, this week as they watch us here in Brighton: we did the right thing. I want the British people to be as proud of having elected us as we are to serve them. We won because we are New Labour, because we had the courage to change ourselves, and the discipline to take hard decisions, whilst remaining united. The lessons we learned in Opposition we carry on applying in Government. The moment we stop that is the moment we will stop being in government. Even now, especially now, no complacency.

I know I’m obsessive about this. But I will admit now that I perhaps went over the top when I phoned Millbank Tower on election night to say people were behaving as though it was in the bag. ‘Look,’ I was told, ‘We’ve got 150 seats. The Tories have got 6. It’s hard to persuade the media this thing’s on a knife edge.’ But still, no complacency.

May 1st was the beginning, not the end. We have never won two full consecutive terms of office. Never. That is one more record I want to break. No cockiness about the Tories even now. They’re not dead. Just sleeping.Let their fate serve as a warning to us. What the people give, the people can take away. We are the servants. They are the masters now. To govern Britain is a privilege not a right. Never forget it.

Last year we were talking about what we would do. This year we’re doing it. That ten point contract with the British people - we are honouring.

We said we would get more money into schools and hospitals. We have - 2.2 billion more than Tories planned to spend next year.

We said we’d sign the Social Chapter. We did.

We said we’d restore trade unions at GCHQ. On May 19, free and independent trade unions came back to GCHQ.

We said we’d set up a Low Pay Commission. We have, and the national minimum wage is on its way.

We said we’d legislate to release the money from selling council homes in order to house the homeless. We’ve done it.

We said we’d cut class sizes, by scrapping the Assisted Places Scheme. The law to do it has been passed.

We’ve given the people of Scotland and Wales the devolution referendums we promised, and they have voted: yes, yes, and yes again.

We said we’d reform the Lottery to address the people’s priorities. We have, and today more proposals on how we'll reform it further and get more money to more local projects, the length and breadth of Britain, preparing for the millennium.

We said we’d cut VAT on fuel. We have.

We never said we’d cut corporation tax. But we did anyway, to the lowest level it’s ever been. And we have brought Britain's top business brains right into the heart of Government.

And we said we’d force the water companies to give a better deal to their customers. A few hours of quiet diplomacy by Mr John Prescott did the necessary, and the companies did the business.

We owed a debt to the people of Dunblane. We said MPs would vote to ban handguns. MPs have had that vote. The people have spoken. Parliament has spoken. Handguns are banned. We have honoured our debt.

We said we’d ban landmines. They’re banned in Britain and we’ll keep working until they are banned the world over.

Of all we have done, ask me what has taken the most time, the most effort, it’s probably Northern Ireland. There is no tougher job in Government than Northern Ireland Secretary, and there is no better person to do it than Mo Mowlam. The effort has been worth it. The cease-fire has been renewed. Republicans and Unionists are talking for the first time since 1921. There is a long, long way to go. Every step is fragile. But in the name of humanity, I ask that ancient enmities be put aside. Talking is no treachery. Agreeing is no betrayal. The real betrayal would be to let violence take the place of democracy in Northern Ireland again.

But I want to do more than keep our promises. I sense the British people demand more of us, too. People ask me the highlight of the election. Mine was driving from home to Buckingham Palace, along streets we had driven hundreds of times, past soulless buildings and sullen faces on their way to work. This drive was so different. As we turned into Gower Street, people watching our journey on TV came pouring out of the doorways, waving and shouting and clapping, with an energy and excitement that went beyond anything I imagined would happen. They were liberated. Theirs were the smiles of tolerant, broad-minded, outward-looking, compassionate people and suddenly they learned that they were in the majority after all. As one woman put it to me: ‘We’ve got our Government back.’ And with them I could sense confidence returning to the British people, compassion to the British soul, unity to the British nation, and that all three would give us new-found strength. The people were yearning for change in their country, at a time when they could see we had had the guts to modernise our party. The two came together. The result is a quiet revolution now taking place. Led by the real modernisers - the British people.

The size of our victory imposes a very special responsibility on us. To be a government of high ideals and hard choices. Not popular for one time but remembered for all time. Not just a better government than the Tories but one of the great, radical, reforming Governments of our history. To modernise Britain as we modernised the Labour Party. To build a Britain, not for a few, but for all the people. And it will require change. Hard choices. I know this country can make them if we show how and why.

The British don’t fear change. We are one of the great innovative peoples. From the Magna Carta to the first Parliament to the industrial revolution to an empire that covered the world; most of the great inventions of modern times with Britain stamped on them: the telephone; the television; the computer; penicillin; the hovercraft; radar. Change is in the blood and bones of the British we are by our nature and tradition innovators, adventurers, pioneers. As our great poet of renewal and recovery, John Milton, put it, we are ‘A nation not slow or dull, but of quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point that human capacity can soar to.’

Even today, we lead the world, in design, pharmaceuticals, financial services, telecommunications. We have the world’s first language. Britain today is an exciting, inspiring place to be. And it can be much more. If we face the challenge of a world with its finger on the fast forward button; where every part of the picture of our life is changing. Today I say to the British people: the chains of mediocrity have broken, the tired days are behind us, we are free to excel once more. We are free to build that model 21st Century nation, to become that beacon to the world.

Creative. Compassionate. Confident of our place in the world.

And when people say sorry, that’s too ambitious, it can’t be done, I say: this is not a sorry country, we are not a sorry people. It can be done. We know what makes a successful creative economy. Educate the people. Manage the country’s finances well. Encourage business and enterprise. But each bit requires us to modernise and take the hard choices to do it. We have been a mercantile power. An industrial power. Now we must be the new power of the information age. Our goal: to make Britain the best educated and skilled country in the world; a nation, not of a few talents, but of all the talents. And every single part of our schools system must be modernised to achieve it.

Nearly 40 per cent of 11 year olds can’t read, write or add up properly. 42nd in the world education league. This is the scandalous legacy not just of 18 years of Tory Government but of a country too often content to educate the elite and ignore education for all. Education, education, education. Remember? In just 5 months, we made a remarkable beginning, under the brilliant leadership of David Blunkett. But we will do more.

Equipping our schools

We are publishing today details of agreements involving Government and the private sector, for the biggest public/private partnership in any education system, anywhere in the world, which will mean:

By 2002 every one of the 32,000 schools in Britain will have modern computers, the educational programmes to go on them, the teachers skilled to teach on them, the pupils skilled to use them, connected to the superhighway for free and with phone bills slashed to as low as £1 per pupil per year.

We are setting a new target of £2 billion for this parliament for our school repairs and equipment programme. A list of the first 2,300 schools to benefit is being published today. The money is being allocated today. One of the head-teachers is here with us. By 2002 up to 10,000 schools will have benefited.

Getting the basics right

We are launching the biggest assault on poor literacy and numeracy standards this country has seen. We are setting a target of 80% up to the standard in literacy, 75% for numeracy by the year 2002, and we’ll keep on until every 11 year old in every school in every part of Britain gets the start in life that they deserve. And I repeat the promise I made at the election, that over the lifetime of this parliament, we will reverse the Tory policy of cutting spending on education as a proportion of our national income and raise it once again, beginning with £1billion extra next year.

Nursery vouchers have gone and instead we’ll get nursery places for all four year olds and we’re on the way to places for all three year olds too. The money will be there, but in return hard choices and modernisation. No failure. No muddling through. No second best. High standards. The pursuit of excellence. Discipline and leadership. Support from home. Not for some children in some schools. But for all children in all schools. Each school that needs it, and every LEA, will be set targets for improvement. Failing schools and LEAs will be taken over. Teacher training will be reformed. Head teachers will have a proper qualification. Poor teachers will go.

People say my job’s pressurised. So is teaching. And don’t let anybody think that we are tough on bad teaching because we don’t value teachers. We are tough on bad teachers precisely because we DO value good teachers who need high quality teachers working alongside them. And parents have to play their part. There will be home school contracts for all pupils. Sign them. There will be new measures to tackle truancy and disruptive children, new homework requirements. Support them. When a school disciplines a child, back the teacher. The high ideal of the best schools in the world. Reached through hard choices.

Universities in Britain had their funding cut by 40% per student under the Tories. The science and research base - once the envy of the world - under threat. The Tories put a cap on student numbers. Only 30% of youngsters in Britain admitted to go to university. Fewer not just than France or the USA, but fewer than South Korea. The hard choice: stay as we are and decline. Or modernise and win. Under our proposals, no parent will have to pay more. Low income families will be entirely exempt from tuition fees. All students will repay only as they can afford to.And if we reform, I am going to pledge to you, that by the end of this parliament, we will put resources saved through reform into frontline provision in universities and further education; and the first 165 million pounds is already in next year’s budgets. We will lift the cap on student numbers and set a target for an extra 500,000 people into higher and further education by 2002. Our education system - a beacon to the world.

Within days of taking office, we took one of the hardest choices of all: we gave the Bank of England the right to decide interest rates and take the politics out of mortgages. And in the short term it’s tough. Interest rates have gone up. But I say to people, better to go up now, still only by 1%, than to go back to the days of the last Tory government when mortgages were at 15% for a year, 1 million homes in negative equity, a whole swathe of industry wiped out. We are cutting the Tory deficit too. We are sorting out the public finances. Borrow only for investment. Hold debt down. Earn before you spend. Don’t live on tick. I want this to be the New Labour Government that ended Tory boom and bust for ever.

Twenty years ago, the IMF came to bury us. Now they come to praise us. Yes, new Labour’s got new friends everywhere. I want Britain to be a country of enterprise and ambition where small businesses grow, manufacturing and engineering revive, where we learn the lessons of British industrial relations over the past 100 years. Fairness at work yes. But flexibility will remain. For business, this will be a Government on your side not in your way. And I say to both sides of industry, there is no place for militant trade unionism or uncaring management today. Partnership is the key. That is the only language this New Labour Government will respect.

It’s pretty simple the type of country I want. It’s a country where our children are proud and happy to grow up in, feeling good not just about themselves, but about the community around them. I don’t want them living in a country where some of them go to school, hungry, unable to learn because their parents can’t afford to feed them; where they can see drugs being traded at school gates; where gangs of teenagers hang around street corners, nothing to do, but spit and swear and abuse passers-by; I don’t want them brought up in a country where the only way pensioners can get long-term care is by selling their home, where people who fought to keep that country free are now faced every winter with the struggle for survival, skimping and saving, cold and alone, waiting for death to take them. And I will not rest until that country is gone and all our children live in a Britain where no child goes hungry, the young are employed, and the old are cherished and valued to the end of their days.

But let me spell out some facts. After eighteen years of Tory Government, of cuts and closures, of declining public services, the country was taxed more than under the last Labour Government. This country, any country, will not just carry on paying out more in taxes and getting less. Our new society will have the same values as it ever did. Fighting poverty and unemployment. Securing justice and opportunity. It should be a compassionate society. But it is compassion with a hard edge. A strong society cannot be built on soft choices. It means fundamental reform of our welfare state, of the deal between citizen and society. It means getting money out of social breakdown and into schools and hospitals where we want to see it.

The new welfare state must encourage work, not dependency. We are giving young people and the long-term unemployed the opportunity. A £3.5 billion investment. We are adding today the option of self employment as part of the new deal. But they have to take one of the options on offer. We want single mothers with school age children at least to visit a job centre, not just stay at home waiting for the benefit cheque every week until the children are sixteen. Modern welfare means a better balance between public and private money. We need to invest more as a country in savings and pensions. But government’s role is going to be to organise provision - like new stakeholder pensions not fund it all through ever-higher taxes. And our number one duty is to get help to the poorest pensioners first.

Housing benefit, in some areas, is virtually designed for fraud. It has to change. We will not be that beacon to the world in the year 2005 with a welfare state built for the very different world of 1945. Our tax system should reward hard work. In the 80s the Tories took down high marginal tax rates for high earners. It is time we did the same for Britain’s working poor.

And the same drive for reform applies to the NHS. I’m tired of hearing the NHS described as if it were a relic. It isn’t. It was the greatest act of modernisation any Labour Government ever did. My vision is not just to save the NHS but make it better. The money will be there. I promise you that. This year. Every year. Millions saved from red tape, millions more into breast cancer treatment already. The values will remain. From next April, the two-tier NHS of the Tories will go. And I tell you. I will never countenance an NHS that departs from its fundamental principle of health care based on need not wealth. The hospitals will be built. 14 of them, the biggest hospital building programme in the history of the NHS. It will mean an extra £1.3 billion in 14 towns and cities serving 5 million people. And as of today, it is 15.

But money is not the only problem with healthcare in Britain. The NHS itself needs modernisation and hard choices.We appointed the first Minister for Public Health because the NHS should not lose millions every year because of avoidable illnesses like those from smoking. Barriers between GPs, social services and hospitals must be broken down. Hospitals cannot stand still. Increasingly, general hospitals will provide routine care, supported by specialist centres of excellence in treatment, research and education. GPs and nurses will do more of what hospitals used to do, often working on the same site in partnership with chemists, dentists, opticians and physiotherapists.

New technology offers huge opportunities in healthcare but we haven’t yet begun to seize them properly. We will get the money in. But in return, I want reform. From next April, there will be up to ten specially-funded Health Action Zones set up in Britain. Their remit: to experiment with new ideas in the way healthcare is delivered, so that patients get a better deal from their health service for the 21st century. The NHS was a beacon to the world in 1948. I want it to be so again. It will always be safe with us. But I want it to be better with us.

I say to the country in all honesty. You can have the education revolution, the health revolution, the welfare revolution. But it means hard choices. It means us all getting involved. And it means modernisation. And we need to bring a change to the way we treat each other. I tell you: a decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty. Our duty to each other. To all should be given opportunity, from all responsibility demanded. The duty to show respect and tolerance to others. I make no apology. I back zero tolerance on crime. I back powers to tackle anti-social neighbours; to make parents responsible for their children; to overhaul the youth justice system so that youngsters stop thinking they can commit a crime, get a caution and carry on being a criminal. At every level of the fight against crime - today acting on serious organised crime - this New Labour Government is taking it on. It will take time. And it will be tough. But to those who say it’s all a threat to our civil liberties, I say the threat to civil liberties is of women afraid to go out, and pensioners afraid to stay at home, because of crime and the fear of crime, and we’re going to help them.

And we cannot say we want a strong and secure society when we ignore its very foundation: family life. This is not about preaching to individuals about their private lives. It is addressing a huge social problem. Attitudes have changed. The world has changed. But I am a modern man leading a modern country and this is a modern crisis. Nearly 100,000 teenage pregnancies every year. Elderly parents with whom families cannot cope. Children growing up without role models they can respect and learn from. More and deeper poverty. More crime. More truancy. More neglect of educational opportunities. And above all more unhappiness. I give you this pledge. Every area of this Government’s policy will be scrutinised to see how it affects family life. Every policy examined, every initiative tested, every avenue explored to see how we strengthen our families and there will be a Ministerial group to drive it through.

Don’t think we’re asking everyone to change but not Government itself. We will publish a White Paper in the new year for what we call Simple Government, to cut the bureaucracy of Government and improve its service. We are setting a target that within five years, one quarter of dealings with Government can be done by a member of the public electronically through their television, telephone or computer. Our politics are being reformed. We will deliver the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly after one hundred years of trying, and I say to the House of Lords, before it is reformed, don’t try to wreck this legislation: we have the votes of the people, you’ve got the votes of nobody.

We will have a strategic authority and elected Mayor for London if the people vote for it. I can announce to you we are going to bring forward a Bill to ban foreign donations to political parties and to compel all parties to make contributions above £5,000 public. And we will ask the Nolan Committee to look at the wider question of Party funding. At the next election all political parties will at last compete on a level playing field. And I know some of you are a bit nervous about what I am doing with the Liberal Democrats. Though not half as nervous as they are. Since this is a day for honesty, I’ll tell you: my heroes aren’t just Ernie Bevin, Nye Bevan and Attlee. They are also Keynes, Beveridge, Lloyd George. Division among radicals almost one hundred years ago resulted in a 20th century dominated by Conservatives. I want the 21st century to be the century of the radicals.

We cannot be a beacon to the world unless the talents of all the people shine through. Not one black High Court Judge; not one black Chief Constable or Permanent Secretary. Not one black Army officer above the rank of Colonel. Not one Asian either. Not a record of pride for the British establishment. And not a record of pride for the British Parliament that there are so few black and Asian MPs. I am against positive discrimination. But there is no harm in reminding ourselves just how much negative discrimination there is.

On taking office, we discovered that the last Government planned to cut from £83m to £43m the Home Office section 11 budget and make redundant 7,000 teachers and classroom assistants who help children for whom English is a second language. Today I announce; that Tory cut will not stand. I’ll tell you why. That money is not a cost, it is an investment. And it’s one a civilised nation should make. A nation tolerant and open. Free from prejudice but not from rules. A beacon for good at home and abroad. There is huge interest in Britain now. Because people know that this is a country changing for the better. A go-ahead place. The gates of xenophobia falling down. This Government can be the Government of enlightened patriotism.

Again my vision for post-Empire Britain is clear. It is to make this country pivotal, a leader in the world. To use the strengths of our history to build our future. With the US our friend and ally. Within the Commonwealth. In the United Nations. In NATO. To use the superb reputation of our Armed Forces, not just for defence, but as an instrument of influence in a world of collective security and cooperation. And to lead in Europe again. Not so that we ‘don't get left behind.’ That is a weak reason. It is because for four centuries or more, we have been a leading power in Europe. And we have at times been absolutely critical to the survival of not just Europe but the world. It is our destiny.

And Europe needs us. For we have a vision of Europe. We want a people’s Europe: free trade, industrial strength, high levels of employment and social justice, democratic. Against that vision is the bureaucrat’s Europe: the Europe of thwarting open trade, unnecessary rules and regulations, the Europe of the C.A.P. and the endless committees leading nowhere. But we cannot shape Europe unless we matter in Europe. I know there will be a hard choice to come over a single currency. And our policy, based on the British national interest, remains unchanged. But in or out, we will be affected by it and must remain able to influence the way it works. Next year Britain now takes on the Presidency of the EU and it will do so as, once again, a respected leading European nation. That is an achievement of the new Labour government of which I am proud.

And elsewhere too, new respect and influence. In tackling Third World debt. On the environment. Today in London the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is issuing a report on global warming which I commissioned on coming into government. Read it and you will see why I am so passionate in my commitment to action not just in Britain but throughout the world, which is why we will take that action and get the rest of the world to take that action too. So much to do. So much to change. So hard to do it. But the vision is as old as humanity.

Modernisation is not an end in itself. It is for a purpose.

Modernisation is not the enemy of justice, but its ally.

Progress and justice are the two rocks upon which the New Britain is raised to the heights. Lose either one and we come crashing down until we are just another average nation, scrabbling around for salvation in the ebbing tide of the 20th Century.

That is why we changed the Labour Party. To make New Britain. It is why we will carry on changing. It is why it was right yesterday to take another historic step on the road to reform of our Party so that never again will a Labour government be torn about by divisions between leadership in Parliament and Party in the country. Yes, we are New Labour. Yes, our policies and attitudes have changed. But there are no Old Labour or New Labour values. There are Labour values. They are what make us the Party of compassion; of social justice; of the struggle against poverty and inequality; of liberty; of basic human solidarity; and the day we cease to be those things is the day we keep the name of the Labour Party but lose the reason for its existence. And these are indeed the best of British values too. The point of modern Britain is not to dishonour the past. But to honour it by improving it, by taking the best of it and adding to it. Ours is a simple enough vision. But it will require a supreme national effort. It is a task for a whole people, not just a government.

Great challenges

But great rewards for all of us if we rise to them as we can. As one nation. Held together by our values and by the strength of our character. We are a giving people. In the face of crisis or challenge we pull together, strengthened by unity. It says nothing about our politics. It speaks volumes about our character. You remember how your parents, like mine, used to say to you: Just do your best. Well let’s do our best.

On May 1, the people entrusted me with the task of leading their country into a new century. That was your challenge to me. Proudly, humbly, I accepted it. Today, I issue a challenge to you. Help us make Britain that beacon shining throughout the world. Unite behind our mission to modernise our country. There is a place for all the people in New Britain, and there is a role for all the people in its creation. Believe in us as much as we believe in you. Give just as much to our country as we intend to give. Give your all. Make this the giving age. ‘By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we can alone.’

On 1st May 1997, it wasn’t just the Tories who were defeated. Cynicism was defeated. Fear of change was defeated. Fear itself was defeated. Did I not say it would be a battle of hope against fear? On 1st May 1997, fear lost. Hope won. The Giving Age began.

Now make the good that is in the heart of each of us, serve the good of all of us. Give to our country the gift of our energy, our ideas, our hopes, our talents. Use them to build a country each of whose people will say that ‘I care about Britain because I know that Britain cares about me.’ Britain, head and heart, can be unbeatable. That is the Britain I offer you. That is the Britain that together can be ours.

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