Heroes of our time - the top 50

Inspirational - yet worlds apart: there was no doubt about the victor in our readers' survey to find

Inspirational - yet worlds apart: there was no doubt about the victor in our readers' survey to find the heroes of our time. But who could have predicted such strong support for Margaret Thatcher and the Queen? Jason Cowley on the winners and losers

When in our issue of 3 April I invited readers and contributors to nominate their heroes of our time, I thought I had a good idea as to who might feature in our final list of 50. In the event, your response was as surprising in its range and unpredictability as it was overwhelming. Who, for instance, could have predicted that Margaret Thatcher, scourge of trade unions and, more generally, of the liberal left, would be there in our top five as nominated by you? Thatcher, as Alan Quinn, a reader from Aylsham in Norfolk wrote, "brought a major shift in 20th-century politics. The cold war ended and state-controlled dictatorships crumbled. The free-market reduction of state-controlled economics released entrepreneurship and competition across the world. All this in a decade - remarkable!"

Another surprise, and in spite of the New Statesman's commitment to republicanism, was your considerable support for the Queen and Prince Charles. The Queen, wrote Jayne Fisentzides, a reader from Halesowen in the West Midlands, "has reigned through several generations, enduring personal and public difficulties, without once losing her dignity or being sullied by scandal".

And what are we to make of the absence of Gordon Brown, especially when his old rival, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, is in our top 20? Lists such as this may be arbitrary and entirely unscientific, and they may even be at the mercy of manipulation, but they are also indicative of a mood and a climate, and if I were Brown and I were, in the argot, seeking to renew the Labour Party, I'd be disturbed that not a single reader of this magazine considered my work and purpose to be in any sense heroic.

One of the more intriguing nominations was made by Ian Hargreaves, a former NS editor who, despite some reservations about the nature of our exercise, opted for Bob Dylan as his hero. The grizzled rock-poet had other supporters, too, and is the highest-placed artist in our list - if you exclude Bob Geldof, who is obviously not there for his work with the Boomtown Rats.

To recap, our definition of a hero: a man or woman whose actions have been in the service of the greater good and whose influence is national or international; someone who is prepared to act in pursuit of a freer, more equitable and democratic future, without recourse to violence. Though we asked you to consider only the living, Winston Churchill was among several of the great dead to receive multiple nominations, as were Jesus Christ and Marie Curie. Some heroes, it seems, never die.

Among those who just missed out from the final 50 were Roméo Dallaire, the stoical but unfortunate head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide in 1994; Subcomandante Marcos, the philosopher-rebel and one of the leaders of the Zapatista liberation movement in Mexico; the CND activist Bruce Kent; the comedian and birdwatcher Bill Oddie; the young man who defied the Chinese during the Tiananmen Square revolt of 1989 - the "unknown rebel", as readers called him; and, oddly, the American blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen. I was surprised that Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa did not make our top ten. He is such a brave and admirable man, whose sense of compassion and forgiveness are defined by his faith. But perhaps when people think of bravery and moral courage in South Africa they think first, and inevitably, of Nelson Mandela.

There was no doubt about our winner: Aung San Suu Kyi, who received three times as many nominations as even the great Mandela in second place. She has, as Richard Eyre wrote of her in a recent issue, "endured grief, danger and loneliness with extraordinary grace and courage, all the while inspiring resistance to the [corrupt Burmese] regime".

A fitting winner, then, and a true hero of this or any other time.


1. Aung San Suu Kyi - Pro-democracy campaigner
Nobel Peace Prizewinner, under house arrest in her native Burma

The confrontation between Aung San Suu Kyi and the brutish military rulers of Burma (officially known as Myanmar) has the power of myth. At 60, Suu Kyi is still lovely and delicate, like the strings of scented jasmine always looped around her hair. The men in army fatigues and dark glasses who have oppressed her for so long may try to stamp out this flagrantly feminine opponent, but still she rises, unbowed and resolute.

Suu Kyi is the voice of yearning Burmese democrats. Her National League for Democracy party has majority support but is denied power by the military. She is held under house arrest and NLD members are beaten and killed by the junta's thugs. She could seek refuge abroad, where adulation awaits her, but she chooses to stay, even to death.

Death has, paradoxically, been the making of Suu Kyi; it has stalked and claimed her loved ones and supporters. But each tragedy seems only to tighten her grip on life and her cause. The heady idealism of post-colonial liberation sustains her still. Her father, General Aung San, negotiator of Burma's independence from the British, was assassinated by political rivals in 1947, when Suu Kyi was only two. One brother drowned when he was eight. In 1960 her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became the Burmese ambassador to India. There the young Suu Kyi was inspired by Gandhi's credo of non-violent resistance. Her own ideas were developed at Oxford and later in New York, where she worked at the UN. In 1972, she married Michael Aris, a British scholar of Tibetan culture. They had two sons.

I first met her in 1974 at a dinner, where she gently criticised the North Vietnamese forces for their cruelty to prisoners. We anti-Vietnam war hippies were left feeling oddly soiled. Even then, Suu Kyi's uncompromising principles provoked admiration but irritation, too.

Much later, in March 1988, she returned to Burma to nurse her dying mother, and was hurled into the furnace of political chaos and military tyranny. That July the dictator General Ne Win resigned. Popular unrest spread and thousands were killed. Suu Kyi formed the NLD. In September, the junta curtailed freedoms and announced an election. Suu Kyi was under house arrest and yet her party won. Since then she has been a de facto captive of the state, sometimes allowed no visitors for months. In 1995, her husband became ill with prostate cancer but was not allowed into Burma. She has not seen her sons since 1988. To leave would have been to break the promise she made to her people.

They may put Suu Kyi away, but cannot make her go away from the international stage. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she leads without armies, media manipulation or economic might. Naturally, she has her detractors. The junta brands her a foreign stooge, and now leader of a "terrorist" network. Ziauddin Sardar sees a modernised oriental woman who "triggers all the stereotypes associated with oriental sexuality buried deep in western consciousness". Others have more credible reservations. Suu Kyi, like Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi before her, is the beneficiary of family privilege and power. If she had taken power in 1990, her appeal may have dulled by now.

Yet she remains in her tower, inviolate. In this increasingly grubby world of expedient and violent politics, the miracle is not that Suu Kyi survives but that she continues to matter so much. Not since Nelson Mandela's long incarceration has a political prisoner drawn so much and such consistent support from millions the world over.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown


2. Nelson Mandela - First president of the free South Africa
Imprisoned by the apartheid regime for 27 years

He has made such an impact on the whole world simply by wishing to be treated as an equal.
Andrew Barrett, Bedford

I have visited South Africa. I have spoken with many who lived through apartheid. The fact that I encountered everywhere a philosophy of looking towards the future rather than being bitter about the past is largely, I believe, because Mandela set the example.
Anna Lindsay, Cambridge

He is living proof that one man can make a difference.
Kathy Hansen, Sunderland

He inspired other Southern African (Namibian and Zimbabwean) people to continue to struggle to end the evil system of apartheid; he kept his standards even under the oppression of prison life, befriending his jailer, encouraging his comrades, educating, learning, and refining his skills and wisdom. He still inspires the world in the fight to end poverty and other struggles such as that of the Palestinian people in the hope of ending their oppression/occupation. He is above all a warm, forgiving and open human being.
Patricia Bryden, Edinburgh

Labelled a terrorist, he experienced harsh racial hatred and discrimination and was imprisoned for more than 25 years for his political views. Yet, on release, he did not seek revenge; he showed his statesmanship, good grace and humour, and did not reject the white minority that had held millions of his fellow black countrymen as almost non-citizens, almost slave labour. What humility and generosity of spirit. If we are to bring about any form of harmony between the peoples of this planet, he is our role model. He is a giant of a man who humbles us all.
H Glenister, Taunton


3. Bob Geldof - Pop star turned poverty campaigner
Former Boomtown Rats singer; fronted Live Aid in 1985 and Live 8 in 2005

For his fantastic ongoing efforts with Live Aid/8 to draw the world's attention to third-world hunger and poverty. He's made such a huge difference to so many people's lives in the third world, but he is also a true inspiration for people of all walks of life all over the world.
Nanda Braithwaite, Farnborough

Because he says it how he sees it and continues to try to use his position in life to make things better for those who can't do it themselves.
Don Mitchell, London SW15

Band Aid and Live Aid changed people's views on colour, race and charity, as well as saving countless lives.
Emma Bennett, London E11

Because he cares about helping those who are suffering and does something about it. You might question his methods or even his politics - but in his own way, via peaceful means, he's done more than most politicians, pundits and experts combined.
Peter Arrand, Reading


4. John Pilger - Writer and broadcaster
Investigative and campaigning journalist, best known for his war reporting

For giving a voice to millions whose plights would otherwise have gone unreported in the mainstream media; for regularly and willingly exposing himself to mockery and vilification by those who lack his principles and moral courage; and, to put it crudely, for having more balls than the rest of the fourth estate put together.
Tim Russell, Ho Chi Minh City

Campaigns vigorously and tenaciously to expose the hypocrisy and evil in the policies of western governments through his journalism. He is timeless and relentless in championing the underdog, particularly the oppressed people of the third world.
E M Matthew, Alford, Aberdeenshire


She changed everything
5 Margaret Thatcher - British Conservative prime minister, 1979-90
Ice-cream chemist who became Iron Lady; still dominates British politics years after leaving office

When Margaret Thatcher was asked what she had changed about British politics, she answered, with uncharacteristic immodesty, "Everything" - and it was true. She changed the atmosphere of the pre-emptive cringe that successive ministries of both parties and industrial management had exhibited towards the trade unions ever since the Second World War. She changed the sense of embarrassment that Britons felt towards the concepts of productivity and profit. She changed our reliance on manufacturing industry just in time, inaugurating the services and information technology revolutions. She changed the post-Suez attitude of appeasement and post-imperial guilt. She changed British politics so fundamentally that the Labour Party had to drop socialism and change its name and objectives in order to get elected.

Along with her friend and ideological soulmate Ronald Reagan, Thatcher changed the failing policy of détente with communism into the confrontational one that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989. She changed the ownership structure of vast industries, exchanging the nebulous concept of "national" ownership for the more efficient, purer (and ultimately fairer) one of shareholder ownership. She changed the way we financed the European Union budget. Meanwhile, she fundamentally changed for the worse the career paths of Jim Callaghan, General Galtieri, Michael Foot, Arthur Scargill, Neil Kinnock and the IRA activist Bobby Sands.

Those things that she did not change for the better she would have, if she hadn't been knifed by an overambitious cabal of cowards, fools, traitors and - worst of all - Europhiles, who split the Tory party and left it feuding for half a generation, until the advent of Michael Howard in 2003. The 1992 election victory was largely down to her legacy rather than the non-leadership of her absurd successor, John Major.

By encouraging George Bush Sr not to "wobble" during the first Gulf war, she set the international scene that has allowed Tony Blair to finish off the campaign against Saddam Hussein that she started in 1990, further strengthening the "special relationship" with the United States that both she and Blair so fervently believe in.

Margaret Thatcher told it like it was, in a way that so few politicians seem able to do nowadays. When she came to power in 1979 Britain was in a terrible state, with huge areas of our nationalised industries collapsing, a government in craven retreat from the trade unions and the country teetering on the brink of relegation from the second division of world powers. She recognised that only extreme shock tactics and a searing honesty of the type seldom seen in politics could shake the British people out of their torpor.

She was always true to her word. When she said the lady wasn't for turning, she wasn't. When she said the Falklands must be liberated come what may, they were. When she said that people would be allowed to buy their own council houses, they were, too. When she told European politicians that she wanted a rebate on the billions Britain overpaid the Community, she held out until she got one.

There's a downside to all this refreshing candour. The kind of permanent revolution she offered did not suit everyone, and eventually she was overthrown. But she went down fighting for her principles; no one was in any doubt about what she stood for and what she believed in. You might not have agreed with her, but you can't deny that hers was an honesty of the kind hardly ever heard from today's so-called leaders. That, I suspect, rather than her free-market ideology, is why New Statesman readers have finally acknowledged her heroism in this unexpected, if welcome, way.
Andrew Roberts


6. Peter Tatchell - Gay-rights campaigner
Co-founder of OutRage! who attempted a citizen's arrest on Robert Mugabe

For more than 30 years Peter Tatchell has campaigned tirelessly against homophobia, racism and sexism and for civil liberties and social justice. Through direct political action and his writing, he has stood up to and confronted injustice and abuse, often at considerable risk to himself. Despite being attacked, physically and verbally, he has never allowed himself to be bullied into silence.
Daniel Jamieson, Glasgow


7. Noam Chomsky - Writer
Professor of linguistics, critic of US foreign policy, advocate of free speech

How many political activists can also claim to be world-renowned in another field? You can count them on one hand: Chomsky, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Vaclav Havel. Chomsky is the supreme example of this: a linguist of genius who also became one of the most rigorous political analysts of our time. The main reason I admire him is that he deprives Reagan, Clinton, Bush et al of any hope of historical redemption. So often colonial crimes are pardoned because those involved can claim that they "knew nothing" about them (for example, 19th-century industrialists who "knew nothing" about slavery and empire). But Chomsky ensures that America has no excuse. Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq: the truth was not hidden because he revealed it. And it means that millions of us, in the US and the west, who let our leaders get away with murder must either share their guilt, or stand alongside Chomsky and speak out.
Amal Patrick, London N16

He has shown enormous moral courage and been widely reviled for telling the truth. His books and articles are meticulously researched and offer the best summary of US and UK complicity in crimes against humanity.
Geoffrey McDade, Montreal, Canada

An international intellectual figurehead for opposition against American hegemony. The incredible accuracy of his work shows a man who is dedicated above all to the truth. And though the facts may be gloomy reading, Chomsky does remain an optimist. In academic terms, few can rival him as an opponent of imperialism, globalisation and state terrorism. An inspiration from whom we should all draw in our own efforts to make the world a better place.
Morgan Hamilton-Griffin, Beaminster, Dorset


A global success story
8. Bill Gates - Microsoft founder
One of the world's richest men - and one of its greatest philanthropists through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Born in Seattle on 28 October 1955, the son of an attorney and a schoolteacher, Bill Gates had, by the age of 17, sold his first computer program - a timetabling system for the school - for $4,200. At Harvard he teamed up with an old schoolmate, Paul Allen, to write the first computer-language program for a PC. The pair of them established Microsoft in 1975 and, a year later, Gates dropped out of Harvard to run the company. In 1986 they floated it, raising $61m.

Gates was one of the first to spot the value in splitting the software and operating systems from the hardware. "That was a doozy," he once said. "We allowed there to be massive innovation on the hardware side and massive innovation on the software side." On top of this, he had the foresight to understand the importance of owning the dominant operating system in the emerging IT industry. But he hasn't stopped there. He is very aware of the next generation and is constantly pushing for advances and improvements in the Microsoft offering. In an effort to develop software and services for the internet age, the company is investing heavily in research and development, thereby responding to the threat posed by companies such as Google.

Gates is not just a global businessman. He is the "philanthropist-in-chief" on a global basis, and is committed to giving away 95 per cent of his wealth before he dies. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, established in 2000, aims to make health and learning available to all, and to ensure that advances in these areas reach those who need them most. It supports work in more than a hundred countries, with about 60 per cent of its grants going outside the US.

In creating and continuing to develop a global brand that is part of our daily lives, Gates has amassed a personal wealth of $50bn. Impressive in itself. But what makes him so special is that he recognises the potential of the influence he has on businesses and governments (he has recently agreed to advise the UK Treasury on globalisation) and on the lives of people worldwide. He does his best to exploit this influence, not only for his own benefit, but also to inspire a new generation of businesses and emerging economies, as well as to improve the lives of others.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a hero as someone "admired for achievements and noble qualities". There can be no argument that Gates has made monumental achievements in the business world. But it is the way in which he encourages a global approach to both business and charity, and the application of his business brain to his charitable efforts, that mean he should be recognised just as much for his noble qualities - and as a hero of today.
Digby Jones


9. Dalai Lama - Buddhist spiritual leader
Exiled Nobel Peace Prizewinner who campaigns for an independent Tibet

In 1950, when Tenzin Gyatso (known to his followers as Kundun or, in the west, the 14th Dalai Lama) was just 15, Chinese troops invaded Tibet. A panic-stricken Tibetan regency handed over power to the teenage spiritual leader and proclaimed him king. Nine years later, when a spreading rebellion against Chinese rule reached Lhasa, the Chinese responded with force and the Dalai Lama and his entourage escaped over the Himalayas to exile in India.

It is easy to imagine the Dalai Lama's fate had he not fled: he would have spent years in a Chinese prison, accused of crimes against the Communist Party; he would have been dragged out to be ridiculed and abused at mass rallies during the cultural revolution; and, if he survived, he might have been released in old age to live in Beijing on a modest stipend, holding a symbolic post in the state bureaucracy. All of this happened to the Panchen Lama, the spiritual leader - second only to the Dalai Lama in the Gelugpa school - who did not flee.

Today the 14th Dalai Lama is a globally recognised spiritual and moral leader. When he speaks in western capitals, he easily fills the biggest stadiums. His views are sought on issues of global concern. He enters discussions with scientists, religious leaders and politicians. He is a symbol of continuity with the spiritual traditions of Tibet, a symbol of political hope for many Tibetans and, for western admirers, a consistent voice of sanity in an age of violence: not bad for a boy who grew up in a world barely touched by modernity.

His flight across the Himalayas - on horseback - was a journey through time as well as space, an enforced leap into the 20th century. At first, the Tibetans simply needed to survive as a refugee community. Later, the Dalai Lama became the voice of the cultural and political survival of Tibet.

It is an effort now to remember that, in the early 1970s, the figure of the Dalai Lama and the plight of Tibet were relatively unknown. Since then, he has been a tireless traveller and communicator whose moral and spiritual authority has survived years of denigration from Beijing. He has insisted that the government in exile be run on democratic lines. The core of his teachings - tolerance, non-violence, the importance of spiritual life to the achievement of human happiness - has reached far beyond his immediate religious following. He has achieved a remarkable combination of 21st-century global celebrity and global moral authority.

But what is he really like? As a personality, he is funny, optimistic and generous with his time and attention, qualities which ensure that visitors tend to leave his presence more cheerful than when they enter - and which also seem to be communicated to the large audiences that assemble for his public meetings and teachings. He has given countless interviews, patiently explaining Tibet's situation and responding, often with disarming frankness, to questions posed by the curious and, occasionally, the prurient.

He is the object of devotion - and of vilification. China's Communist Party calls him a fake religious leader, the head of an evil clique that plots to "split" the motherland. For his followers in Tibet, these epithets tend to confirm his claim to moral leadership. Mao Zedong may well have joked, as Stalin did of the pope, "How many divisions does the Dalai Lama have?" The answer is none at all. His appeal lies in demonstrating that there are things more powerful and enduring than military force. It is a message that does not seem to date.
Isabel Hilton


10. David Attenborough - Naturalist and broadcaster
Former BBC2 controller and foremost nature documentary-maker

He has worked hard for wildlife and the environment, and he has won the support of millions of people for the cause of conservation. His programmes are committed, invaluable and beautiful. Even now, in old age, his enthusiasm for nature is undiminished, and it connects with people of all ages and cultures.
H Reid, County Antrim


Voice of the people
11 Hugo Chávez - President of Venezuela
Bolivarian revolutionary leader, inspiring the left in Latin America and beyond

Pablo Neruda, in a celebrated poem, envisaged a meeting with the shade of Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century soldier who liberated Latin America from Spanish colonial rule. "I awake every hundred years," Bolívar told him, "when the people awake." The significance of the charismatic Hugo Chávez is not that he is a new Bolívar (although the influence of his "Bolivarian revolution" has spread rapidly through the countries once freed by Bolívar), but that he has been able to promote and "canalise" the great popular tide of rebellion caused by the political awakening of the poorest (often indigenous) section of society throughout Latin America. That awakening is largely the result of the disastrous failure of the neoliberal project imposed on the continent over the past 20 years.

Chávez is a beacon of hope, not so much for what he has managed to do during his seven years in power, but for what he represents. Over the centuries the original inhabitants of South America have been destroyed, enslaved and ignored, ruled over by settler armies and a foreign church, sharing a deep pit of poverty with the descendants of black slaves imported from Africa. Now they have begun to stir and, in the graphic phrase once used by Mao Zedong to describe the revolutionary people of China, they have "stood up". Chávez is their champion and their voice, linking his revolution to that in Cuba half a century ago.

Chávez has been presiding over an unusual revolution, one that takes place in slow motion. This is not an attack on the Bastille or a seizure of the Winter Palace, but a long-drawn-out process of peaceful conflict and change that has brought fresh players on to the stage.

Chávez began with only two political projects: to elect a constituent assembly that would redraw the state to include the poor, and to revive Opec to ensure a higher price for the country's chief income-earner, oil. Both have been successful. More recent political advances have been due chiefly to the idiocies of his opposition. A military coup, a lockout at the national oil company and an electoral attempt to secure his downfall all strengthened his government, and he seems certain to win re-election in December. Extensive educational "missions", medical outreach programmes run by 20,000 Cuban doctors and cheap state supermarkets are examples of what is possible in a third-world country that chooses to direct its resources to the benefit of its people.

Chávez is a kindly, solicitous figure. A natural pedagogue, he never stops talking and it seems he seldom sleeps. He travels all over the country, and increasingly the world. The Americans fear his influence in Latin America, but maybe his ambitions lie further afield. He once asked me about the state of the left in Europe, and I told him the depressing truth. "Cheer up," he said. "Remember how the revolutionaries in Paris in 1830 carried the liberty cap of Bolívar through the streets. Maybe we will be able to come to your aid!"
Richard Gott


12. Tony Benn - Veteran anti-war campaigner
Renounced the Lords to become a Labour MP, retired but still active

He recognised the need for dignity in the lives of others, and respected it as much as his own.
A Barr, Saltburn, Cleveland

A tireless campaigner for social justice and peace within a democratic framework. A true hero of the people.
Andrew McCall, London NW8


13. Mikhail Gorbachev - Last leader of the Soviet Union
Relinquished power to help bring the cold war to an end Gorbachev saw the writing on the wall: he would either have to heap repression on repression, or let eastern Europe off the leash and allow Soviet communism to disintegrate in the process. Most dictators try to keep their hands on the levers of power only to fall in the bloody quagmire they create in the effort to survive. He voluntarily surrendered power and probably saved Russia from greater violence and turmoil.
Jonathan Dimbleby


14. Daniel Barenboim - Pianist and conductor
Reith lecturer who unites Palestinian and Israeli musicians

For his vision and energy in setting up, with Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and his efforts to bring Israeli and Arab youth together in a creative and peaceful mission.
Ann Jungmann, London N10


15. Hans Blix - Former UN weapons inspector
Proved Bush and Blair were wrong about the WMD threat in Iraq

Under considerable pressure, Hans Blix tried to prevent the horror of the past three years by scrupulously carrying out the job he was assigned to do. From its reckless abortion, so much suffering has followed. Tony Blair insists that we may not question the integrity of those involved, only their judgement. Even by that standard, of all the major characters in the drama, only Hans Blix triumphantly survives scrutiny.
David Hare


16. Fidel Castro - President of Cuba
Still defying the US and supporting Latin America's left

He has survived 47 years of onslaught by the various terrorist governments of the US and managed to provide his people with proper education, health and public services, despite an illegal blockade.
Ian Wyles, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire


17. Jamie Oliver - Celebrity chef
Pushed school dinners right up the government's agenda - pukka!

He is idealistic and driven to make a difference where he can - qualities that are lacking in most "celebrities".
Caroline Robeson, London NW4


He has given the Tories hell
18. Tony Blair - British Prime Minister
Architect of new Labour; Labour's longest-serving PM

Like him or loathe him, Blair is a global figure. In the postwar period, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are the only other British prime ministers to have been known across the world. Nationally, too, he has had a formidable impact. The Labour Party probably would have won under John Smith in 1997 - and yet, without the ideological changes Blair pioneered, such a landslide would have been unlikely.

Blair has guided Labour to three successive electoral victories. No previous Labour leader has come even close to that. Moreover, if the party can patch up its internal problems, it has an excellent chance of winning again.

Blair has seen off four Tory leaders. Perhaps more importantly, he has sunk the xenophobic programme that defined the Conservatives for so long. David Cameron has had to try to move on to Blair's ground to have any chance of success. New Labour aimed to make Britain more social democratic, concerned as it was to accept cosmopolitanism, invest in public services and alleviate poverty. The Tories have now accepted that agenda, although they will find it very hard to sell to a large section of their core supporters.

A fundamental part of Blair's approach has been to emphasise the importance of the economy, and it has paid off handsomely. His governments have been the first to be trusted on the economy ahead of the Conservatives, who used to hold this as their trump card. About 75 per cent of the UK labour force is in work, compared to an EU average of 63 per cent. This figure has been achieved with a substantial minimum wage. Britain remains a highly unequal society, but it is the only one in the EU where poverty has markedly decreased over the past nine years.

Blair has made mistakes. But I would defy anyone to find a political leader who hasn't. He has been daring in international relations. He persuaded the US to commit ground forces in Kosovo, preparing the way for a Nato victory. British intervention in Sierra Leone was successful. Peace seems to have come to Northern Ireland, to which Blair gave much personal time.

Iraq is another matter. I don't believe Blair acted in bad faith. The US would almost certainly have invaded whether Britain was involved or not. At this point, everyone - for or against the intervention - has to hope that somehow a decent society will emerge. We will never know whether Iraq would have suffered even more had Saddam Hussein's murderous regime stayed in power.
Anthony Giddens


19. George Galloway - Respect MP
Anti-war campaigner expelled by the Labour Party

He stands up for his principles in the face of consistent opposition from established authorities. He respects a section of the population currently despised and feared - Muslims - and supports campaigns originating from local concerns, rather than top-down, government-led "initiatives".
M Lindsay, London SE17



20. Mary Robinson - Defender of human rights
First female president of Ireland who calls herself the "awkward voice"

Mary Robinson was David to the US government's Goliath, challenging its assault on democratic rights in the "war on terror". As the UN high commissioner for human rights, she fought the idea of a trade-off between security and civil liberties. She was among the first to urge prisoner-of-war status for Guantanamo detainees. She chastised the US and UK for actions that would make others believe they had "a green light to pursue repressive policies". Her courage brought about her departure from the post in 2002. Her passion for justice undeterred, she is now chair of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, which she set up after leaving the UN.
Shami Chakrabarti


21. Moazzam Begg - Guantanamo detainee
Held for two years before being released without charge

Some heroes are invited to Buckingham Palace where honours are heaped upon them. Moazzam Begg can expect to be hounded by people with power for the rest of his life. The Bush administration's PR machine is still intent on proving he is an Islamic extremist. On his return to the UK, the government took his passport, based on what the US military tortured out of him. As so often, Bush and Blair are wrong. Moazzam is an extremist all right - he believes passionately in charity and justice for all. In 2001, he wanted to help the destitute in Afghanistan. Before 9/11, this would have been admirable. Instead, it earned him a cage in Bagram. He spent almost two years in an isolation cell the size of your toilet, in Guantanamo, where I first met him. He lives his beliefs, and made friends with his guards, so that those taught to despise him ended up sharing their e-mail addresses. Moazzam refuses to hate even those who tortured him.
Clive Stafford Smith


22. Muhammad Yunus - Banker to the poor
Founder and general manager of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh

Dr Muhammad Yunus has changed the lives of many millions of people in dozens of countries by giving them the chance to secure financing for their small businesses. There are now some 10,000 microfinance institutions in the world that follow the Grameen example.
Jacques Attali


23. Richard Branson - Billionaire entrepreneur
Founded the Virgin brand, now rocketing into space

For his creativity and pioneering spirit.
H Rathbone, Congleton, Cheshire


Nothing has stopped him talking
24. Mordechai Vanunu - Israeli whistle-blower
Persecuted for exposing his country's nuclear weapons programme

Mordechai Vanunu served 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement, for revealing to the Sunday Times the truth about Israel's atomic weapons. Heralded abroad as a prisoner of conscience and a courageous voice for peace, he is still widely regarded as a traitor at home in Israel.

For many Israelis, underpinning the scorn is another kind of treason: Vanunu has turned his back not only on the Jewish state, but also its religion. His father was a rabbi; the family of 12 children emigrated from Morocco to Israel in 1963. In 1976, Vanunu began working as a technician at the Dimona nuclear plant, in the Negev Desert, where he became increasingly troubled by the nuclear weapons programme. Nine years later he was laid off from the plant and travelled to the Far East and Australia, where he became drawn to Christianity and converted.

It was in Sydney that he met the Sunday Times journalist Peter Hounam. At this meeting began the fateful journey that ended with Vanunu being abducted in Italy by the Israeli intelligence services before the story he had to tell about the Jewish state's nuclear weapons programme was even published.

When Vanunu left prison in 2004, he did not walk free. "I am Mordechai Vanunu," he said. "I am proud of what I did. I have no more secrets." The state said otherwise and imposed a gagging order forbidding him to have contact with foreigners or leave Israel. This did not stop Vanunu talking.

Almost immediately he appeared on BBC TV and before long he was regularly chatting to foreign journalists at parties. They soon discovered what the state had known all along - that he had little new to add.

After Vanunu's release in 2004, the Israeli authorities made public the recordings of him being interrogated. "I am neither a traitor nor a spy," he said. "I only wanted the world to know what was happening. We don't need a Jewish state. There needs to be a Palestinian state. Jews can, and have, lived anywhere, so a Jewish state is not necessary."
Chris McGreal


25. Germaine Greer - Academic and broadcaster
Author of the celebrated feminist work The Female Eunuch, published in 1970

For telling it like it is. Other women have done so and equally well - Alice Walker, Erica Jong, Joan Smith and so on - but Greer stands out. Her forthright views have helped change society's views about "a woman's place".
K Pritchard, Ludlow, Shropshire


26. Richard Dawkins - Evolutionary theorist
Eminent British popular science writer and atheist

The cool, consistent voice of reason in an increasingly superstitious age.
Jean Elliott, Upminster, Essex


27. Simon Weston - Falklands war veteran
Won the OBE for helping fellow burn victims through his charity Weston Spirit

He has turned a personal tragedy into a platform for helping other people triumph over their difficulties, and is an excellent role model for young people.
Margaret Wickenden, London E4


28. Tim Berners-Lee - Inventor of the worldwide web
Oxford graduate who transformed modern life through the internet in 1989

The inventor of the worldwide web has opened up the paths to information throughout the world while eschewing personal gain, as no patent was created and no royalties were asked for. The influence of the web is truly international and can only help create a more equitable world through the dissemination of information. I applaud Berners-Lee's selfless magnanimity and modesty as much as his life-changing invention.
M Jablkowska, London W9


29. Amartya Sen - Nobel laureate
Award-winning economist and writer on poverty, welfare and development

Amartya Sen has had a profound impact on the global understanding of the economics of poverty. A Nobel prizewinner, he is also an example of someone who broke out of his familial and economic circumstances to come to study in Britain - studies that in turn have changed people's lives. His fame and success have never divorced him from his roots; he remains an accessible and exceptional humanitarian. He is a polymath whose expertise ranges from the origins of Indian cuisine, through gender studies, public health and moral philosophy, and beyond to the economics of peace and war. Top 50? Amartya Sen is in my global top ten.
Jon Snow


30. Bono - Rock-star activist
Lead singer of U2 and vocal campaigner for developing-world debt relief

For raising awareness of charities from Amnesty International to the Chernobyl Children's Project, and for helping reduce developing-world debt through earnest campaigning and discussions with heads of state.
Len Hoggan, Falkirk

He uses his fame bravely. He has brought attention to so many distressing situations in the world. He is the voice for those whose voices are not heard.
Patricia Penley, Amsterdam


31. Brian Haw - Peace campaigner
Protesting in Parliament Square against the Afghan and Iraq wars since 2001

He stands alone, but he represents everyone who regards this government as too repressive. By changing for the worse, this government has given in to the terrorist threat and threatens its own citizens.
John Hudson, Keynsham, Somerset


32. Desmond Tutu - Anti-apartheid cleric
First black leader of the Anglican Church in South Africa

For as long as I can remember, Desmond Tutu has stood out as a man of honour: straightforward, honest, fearless in the face of the apartheid regime. He inspires us all to hold true to what we know is right and to have the courage to speak out when others are silent. - H Sims, Smethwick, West Midlands


33. Elizabeth II - Queen
Crowned 53 years ago, she is the most travelled head of state in history

She has reigned through several generations, enduring personal and public difficulties, without once losing her dignity or being sullied by scandal.
Jayne Fisentzides, Halesowen, West Midlands

Her Majesty is now in her 80th year of absolute dedication to her subjects, and the Commonwealth at large. She possesses in good measure all the qualities you are seeking.
Robert Carmichael, Kirk Ella, East Riding


34. Lesley Abdela - Champion of women's rights
Expert adviser to governments, NGOs and the private sector

Lesley Abdela has spent the past 30 years striving every day to advance the world's women towards equality, at the expense of her own personal advancement and even in danger of her life. In 1980, putting aside her own promising political career, she founded the UK all-party 300 Group for women in politics/public life. In the 1990s, she extended this work throughout the former Soviet Union. In 1999, she became a great advocate for more women in post-conflict reconstruction, working on this in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq - only leaving Iraq in 2005, when her three main co-workers were murdered.

Over the past two years, she has begun to ensure that women in the developing world have a chance to seek equality and authority, undertaking commissions in Kenya, Swaziland, Ukraine and Suriname.
Tim Symonds, Burwash, East Sussex


35. Shami Chakrabarti - Civil liberties campaigner
Trained as a barrister, now director of the human-rights group Liberty

For upholding the concepts of human and civil rights against the political odds and governmental arrogance. A strong voice in a weak world.
A Dorn, London N8

Media-savvy, young and passionate, she has placed all of our liberties - and our awareness of what we could lose - centre stage in the political arena.
L Homayon-Jones, Blackburn


36. Bill Clinton - US president, 1993-2001
Democrat who did wonders for Northern Ireland, as well as Monica Lewinsky

He made a better job of running the world's most powerful country than his predecessor or his successor, and still had time for a little fun!
Alan Little, Lamington, Lanarkshire

The friendly face of America - they need the PR at the moment.
Erica Price, Oldbury, Gloucestershire


37. Bob Dylan - Singer-songwriter
One of the most influential musicians ever, who has remained true to himself

Bob Dylan is the most significant artist of my lifetime, in terms of his engagement with my own concerns, perceptions and dreams. Yet more than that, he has eluded the bondage of celebrity to remain forever himself.

There's an integrity to Dylan that has survived many changes in artistic direction: in his own words, "to keep on keeping on like a bird that flew". Also, in his mid-sixties, he's still on the road and thumping at his typewriter: the poet of the pensions crisis.
Ian Hargreaves


38. Clive Stafford Smith - Human-rights lawyer
Has saved many from the death penalty and supported Guantanamo prisoners

His opposition to the death penalty in the United States, through years of dedicated pro bono work to overturn the verdicts of death-row inmates, is an inspiration to us all to use our skills and talents for the benefit of others, and not just to enrich and reward ourselves.

He has set in motion a genuine crusade for American law students who also want to make a difference. And he continues to campaign for, and support, those British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay who have so illegitimately been denied their rights.
S Lloyd, Bristol


Willing to sacrifice all for the truth
39. Anna Politkovskaya - Russian journalist
Brave enough to report the realities of war in Chechnya

In children's magazines you get prizes for finding differences. In Russia you could be severely punished. Anna Politkovskaya has been punished more than once for speaking up about what she has seen and heard in Chechnya. She has had to hide away abroad or, when at home in Moscow, keep looking over her shoulder. Several Russian officers who served in Chechnya, gaining reputations for their extreme cruelty, promised to kill her for naming them in an article.

Since 1999, Politkovskaya has spent a great deal of time in the danger zones of the northern Caucasus, trying to inform the world about a war that Russia would rather was ignored. She never knows how her hazardous journeys to the front line and beyond will end. Some Russian officers have helped her, others have arrested and threatened her. She has been willing to sacrifice all in order to document the reality and consequences of this most bloody tragedy.

War correspondents are usually considered the most courageous of journalists, but it requires even more courage to be an anti-war correspondent in the middle of hostilities between your own enormous country and one of its smaller peoples. That only two or three journalists in all of Russia have refused to toe the official line on this war underlines just how brave Politkovskaya is. Through her efforts, more than 100 elderly people were evacuated from an old people's home in Grozny and relocated in homes across Russia. No one except Politkovskaya took any interest in the plight of these abandoned people. And no one except Politkovskaya wrote about how a senior-school picnic in Chechnya was fired upon by a Russian helicopter after military action had officially ceased.

Politkovskaya's fellow journalists have begun competing to see who can fire the best shot in the media war against her. They have taken to calling her the "anti-Kremlin project" of Boris Berezovsky and the western secret services, and accuse her of discovering a new money-spinner for journalists - earning human-rights protection prizes. Articles have been dedicated to calculating exactly how much she has made through her "anti-Russian activities".

In all her books and articles, Politkovskaya asks the same question: "Where are you going, Russia?" And she asks not for the sake of drawing the Kremlin's wrath, but so that the people of Russia might start to take an interest in questions they have never considered. What is the price of a Russian citizen's life? How much is the word of a Russian politician worth? When will the Russian government finally start to think less about its prowess and more about its own people?
Andrey Kurkov


40. Helena Kennedy QC - Leading British lawyer
Uses many public platforms - including the Lords - to argue for social justice

At a time when our government increasingly regards individual civil rights as merely an administrative inconvenience, to be ignored wherever possible, her moral bravery and strong voice are a true beacon.
K Salway, Lechlade, Gloucestershire


41. Jimmy Carter - US president, 1977-81
Founded the Carter Centre, which is dedicated to alleviating poverty

For monitoring free elections worldwide, securing the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, building houses for the homeless through Habitat, and fighting disease.
Giselle Hakki, Scarsdale, NY


42. John Carr - Internet safety expert
Advises charities on protecting children from the dangers of the web

The person who has single-handedly done the most to make the internet a safe place for children.
Emily Dearden, London W7


43. Ken Livingstone - Mayor of London
Socialist politician who defied Labour to achieve his position

He is uncompromising in standing up for what he believes is right and does not stand on pleasantries.
Pete Hewitt, Oldham


44. Lech Walesa - Unionist-turned-president
Founder of Solidarity and leader of Poland, 1990-95

Lech Walesa is (or was) a working-class hero. To the shipyard workers at Gdansk in 1980, he was "one of us" - a jobbing electrician with all the human weaknesses, who was adored for his cheek and cunning but who never asked to be trusted unconditionally. His instinct for audiences made him a superb, shameless manipulator. I once heard him change policy three times in one speech as he felt that opposition was gathering.

Walesa delighted in being confrontational, winding up Communist ministers by suddenly challenging their probity, or staggering the Soviet ambassador by demanding the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. But his real delight was horse-trading, making rapid deals and compromises behind the scenes. The trouble is that such deals then had to be sold to an often dazed following, whether to workers on strike or - as in the Round Table negotiations of 1989 - to a whole political movement.

Lech Walesa was conceived in a Nazi labour camp, where his father was so badly starved and beaten that he died shortly after being released. In 1967, he moved to Gdansk to work in the shipyards. There he met and married his wise and valiant wife, Danuta, started what was to be a large family and gained a reputation in the yards as a man with the courage to fight for the rights of his mates. When the shipyards of the Baltic coast rebelled against price rises in December 1970, only to be met by gunfire, he was one of the Gdansk leaders, but nearly lost his reputation by trying to broker a pact with the police. Sacked for agitation in 1976, he made contact with underground groups hoping to organise free trade unions, and was repeatedly arrested for trying to raise a monument to the dead of 1970.

A new strike wave began in Poland in the early summer of 1980. The free trade union group in Gdansk planned a strike in the Lenin Shipyard and, on 14 August, Walesa hopped over the yard fence to join and, as if at once, to lead the strikers. His tactics - to occupy workplaces instead of marching in the street, to proclaim demands that were widely political as well as local workers' grievances, and to join forces with Poland's mutinous intellectuals - forced the regime to give way. "Solidarity" was born, and the so-called self-limiting revolution (which did not directly challenge Communist political leadership) began.

In December 1981, General Jaruzelski's putsch suspended Solidarity and arrested thousands of its members, including Walesa. But Poland continued to simmer. In 1983, Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and, in 1988, a fresh outburst of strikes allowed him to edge the regime into Round Table talks in early 1989 on Poland's future. The result, that year, was a semi-free election that led to the first non-communist government in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe.

This was the end of Walesa's heroic period. He was now a politician rather than a rebel, but he soon quarrelled with the new democratic government and helped Solidarity to disintegrate as a political force. Elected president in 1990, he behaved erratically and, at times, dictatorially. He quickly lost public respect. In retirement, he has become a genial, wisecracking figure who still occasionally re-enacts his past, appearing in Kiev to support Ukraine's "orange revolution" in 2004.

Poles like to argue that the victory of Solidarity in 1980 dealt the whole Soviet imperium a mortal wound. Others, however, see the Solidarity revolution as a "stirring prologue" to communism's collapse, rather than as its cause. Walesa's courage was beautiful as his workmates carried him shoulder-high. But his later career suggests that perhaps there are no heroes, only hero-worshippers who can rapidly disperse.
Neal Ascherson


45. Neil Armstrong - Astronaut
First human ever to set foot on the moon in 1969

The astronaut Neil Armstrong is the best-known representative of a whole class of visionaries, scientists, engineers, pilots, teachers, entrepreneurs and consumers who are inching forward our expansion into space. Without the opportunities for growth in space, on the Moon and Mars and beyond, global civilisation will certainly disintegrate. Armstrong and his 21st-century successors are creating a new sense of purpose and meaning for the human species, one that connects us to our cosmic origins in a way no religion can match. Onward to Mars!
Stephen Ashworth, Oxford


46. Prince Charles - Eldest son of the Queen
Heir to the British throne, keen conservationist and organic farmer

Even if his views on issues such as farming, architecture and climate change aren't universally admired, he has made people think about and debate them in a manner that could only produce positive change.
Peter Cleasby, Middlesbrough


47. Rami Elhanan - Israeli peace campaigner
His daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, but he supports reconciliation

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli graphic designer living in Jerusalem. On 4 September 1997, his daughter Smadar, aged 14, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

"There is no moral difference," he told me, "between the Israeli soldier at a checkpoint who prevents a Palestinian woman who is having a baby from going through, causing her to lose her baby, and the man who killed my daughter. Just as my daughter was a victim of the Israeli occupation, so was the bomber." Rami and his wife, Nurit, are members of Bereaved Families for Peace, which brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones - and includes relatives of suicide bombers. Rami is often abused in Israel for truth-telling. He is a hero.
John Pilger


48. Toni Morrison - Novelist
Pulitzer Prizewinner admired for her depictions of black America

I came to the work of Toni Morrison late in the day. In a way, I think I was trying to avoid it, probably because I knew the impact it would have on me. I needn't have worried. Morrison has invented the voice that all novelists who write about the experience of being The Other use, whether they are aware of it or not. I should correct that by saying that Morrison has located a voice which, before her, had largely been silent. To accomplish this, and then to make it intelligible to the rest of us, to make it beautiful, requires heroic effort. She names what had no name before she came along.
Bonnie Greer


49. Stephen Hawking - Leading theoretical physicist
Holds the Cambridge post once held by Isaac Newton

Pushing science and humans forward.
Nicola Ryall, Bolton

Hawking is one of the great physicists and an inspiration to the disabled.
P Murray Lynas, Liverpool


50. Andrew Flintoff - Cricketer
Helped England win the Ashes in some style last year

A hero if ever there was one . . .
Tim Ellis, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes of our time - the top 50