Sajid Javid: Labour, racism, & being 'completely nuts'

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 22 October 2013 in Interview
Family man, tough boss, city boy, responsible capitalist: The new financial secretary to the Treasury is an enigma. Anoosh Chakelian meets the much-promoted Conservative minister who reveals his sympathy for Labour ideas, bankers and people who face prejudice. Photos by Josh Kearns

It is often said with knowing assurance that turning the economy around is a ‘marathon, not a sprint’, and lazy cliché though it is, it certainly seems to be true of the Treasury at present. Very gradually, growth is creeping in. Recovery is crawling out of hibernation like a weary old tortoise who catches a glimpse of lettuce at the finishing line.

But the new financial secretary Sajid Javid is sprinting today. Charging masterfully into his spacious office, he smiles, “It keeps you trim, this job.” He has just dashed back to his department from the Commons, having been summoned to a vote midway through our interview. He returned within 10 minutes, not the least bit breathless. And this isn’t the only speedy side to Javid. He has just been catapulted to the financial secretary post having served as economic secretary, which he rocketed to equally as rapidly last year. The double-promotion is why some Westminster onlookers suggest he’s being lined up for chancellorship – or at least to shadow the role come 2015…

I meet him before his promotion, on the day after the chancellor gives a major speech on economic recovery. Javid is in a very merry mood. Although a garden of greenshoots is not quite within reach, the Treasury – and the government – is looking the most optimistic and gleeful it has done since the coalition was forged.

“In terms of the economic political battleground, I think we’ve struck a decisive blow against the arguments Ed Balls has used. If you remember his phrase ‘too far too fast’ – you don’t hear that any more. Labour also realise they’ve lost the economic argument.”

However, despite this, Javid is uncharacteristically complimentary towards the opposition today, conceding a little praise for their economic plans:

“They’ve got some ideas on use of interventions that in themselves are worth considering and looking at, further measures that can be taken to help with cost of living – but a shopping list of interventions does not add up to an economic policy.”

He does not specify which of Labour’s financial proposals he’d consider, but this is a surprising admission from a minister so self-assured in his department’s austerity plan.

Tellingly, he again mentions the cost of living, a battleground which Labour has so far made its own, and admits that economic growth alone won’t be enough to secure a Tory majority in 2015. 

“No, I think it’s an important part in convincing the electorate, but there’s a lot more to do. What matters to the electorate are real issues that affect them daily, such as jobs, therefore growth that will lead to jobs, the quality of jobs, and ordinary pressures that they face on their cost of living… Jobs are very important and we’ve got to make sure we keep doing whatever we can to make sure that the rate of job creation, which is one of the best the country’s ever seen, continues.”

The Tory MP for Bromsgrove since 2010, who was made Treasury minister two years after his arrival at Westminster, is leaning back comfortably on a sofa spun with red and gold in his department office.

Aside from a bookcase containing a few illustrious-looking tomes and some miscellaneous crockery, his clutter-free desk, and a television in the corner whispering the rolling news, it is a surprisingly bare office. Appropriate, really, for one of austerity Britain’s central engine rooms. It’s well-known Javid’s Treasury staff are worked particularly hard, and there is a constant bustle evident in a mysterious room of flunkies next-door.

Polite and forthright in equal measure, Javid tells me I am always welcome here, addresses the photographer as “Sir” and is a patient subject. A compact figure, his signature wet-shaved hair distinguishes him. Doesn’t he want to opt for a new style now his boss George Osborne has changed his hairdo?

“My dad was folically-challenged, and for a while, he had a wig. I never liked it and my mum always used to tell him ‘you’ve got to get rid of this’. It took a few years, but when he did, he looked a lot smarter for it, and so I’ll follow in his footsteps and stay that way.”

The middle child of a batch of five boys, whom his parents had within eight years, Javid, now 43, grew up in Bristol, and has emulated his father in more than just hairstyles. Both his parents, he explains, passed on a work ethic of “anyone who just wants to get on and work really hard” – now a ubiquitous Tory Party mantra – to him and his brothers.

“No one’s going to give you anything; you’ve got to go out there and earn it.”

And so he did. Hurtling into investment banking, he went on to become the youngest vice-president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, at 24, based in New York. It’s his own experience in the world of global investment banking that has informed his job in the Treasury, and helped provide an insight into these institutions whose shining edifices are often regarded as dripping with villainy, greed and irresponsibility in this post-crashing, banker-bashing age.

Isn’t it awkward for him now being on the other side, high up the pecking order in a government that must now punish the banks for their contribution to the crash?

“No,” he immediately fires back. “The reason is quite simple. I think it’s like anything else – there’s plenty of things out there that are criminal, and I think as long as it’s pretty black and white what you can and cannot do, what constitutes criminal action, then a banker who does the right thing has nothing to be afraid of.”

Although he does insist: “it would be wrong to blame the banking crisis entirely on bad bankers. I think that would be giving a free pass to politicians round the world that also had a responsibility for what happened, what went wrong.”

One of the most popular recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, following the Libor-fixing scandal last year, is jailing bankers for reckless misconduct – something the government has agreed to do. Pleasingly, a siren starts blaring down the road outside the moment we discuss this:

“The industry deserves to know where the government stands on these issues because they’re big issues. When we responded, we accepted virtually all the key recommendations made by the Banking Commission, and one of them was criminalising certain actions by senior executives in banks, and that’s something we’ve accepted.

“We’ve got to lay out in the Banking Bill, which we will do shortly, exactly the detail on that, but it’s something we’re going to press ahead with.”

But will measures like this – and deferring bonuses for up to ten years, another prominent recommendation – really change the culture at these big banks?

“Err, I think they’ll definitely have an impact on behaviour,” nods Javid slowly. “Not just these measures, but there’s another important one that wasn’t covered by the Banking Commission because the government had announced it earlier… what we refer to as a ‘ring-fence’ of retail banking from investment banking – what you might call the high-street from the high-risk.”

He calls this separation of the big-bucks ‘casino’ wing of a bank from its long-suffering high-street cousin “a very sensible way forward,” expressing how his own experience in investment banking at Chase Manhattan in New York led him to this conclusion. He worked there when the Glass-Steagall Act, installing a similar system of separation, was in place.

“It was frustrating,” he admits, revealing sympathy for his formerly fellow financiers. “Because if I’d been able to access the funding directly from my retail bank, I would’ve got cheaper funding, but I understood why it was there.

“I also saw when it was abolished a few years later, the attitude towards risk changed rapidly, almost overnight. The investment bankers were much more willing to take on risky positions. So it did change behaviour for the worse.

“I’ve been there at the coal-face, I’ve seen what it’s like under a separation system, and without it, and that’s what makes me more convinced it’s the right way to go.”

But Javid wearied of shovelling the coal and became a politician instead. After such a successful career, what led to this change? Again, it comes back to his parents’ hard work – so illustrious was his father that he was nicknamed ‘Mr Night and Day’.

“As a very young child, my awakening to politics was probably because of Margaret Thatcher. My dad would always, after a long day’s work, watch what was then the Nine O’ Clock News, and just before Thatcher came to office, 1979, was the first time he voted Conservative.

“When I got to university, I chose to do economics and politics… And at that time, I remember when I was 18 telling my then girlfriend and now wife Laura, I’d like to have a career in finance for 20 years, and when I’m 40, I think I might think about becoming a member of parliament… She thought I was completely nuts. I don’t think she believed me at the time that I was actually serious, and just sort of merried me along.”

And it’s his long career outside politics that makes Javid stand out among many in the government today who have never worked outside of the Westminster bubble. Should there be more diverse a mix than simply these ‘career politicians’ who appear to dominate the top roles?

“Yeah, I think politics should have people… ” he stops himself. “Politicians come from all walks of life, different backgrounds, so it can be different for each person.

“In my own personal case, it was always critically important for me that before I even try to go into public service, that I have a real – not real, real’s the wrong word – that I have a career inside the business world, working outside the world of politics, where you have to earn a living, where you gain experience of having to make, sell products, hit sales targets, go to the boss and explain you haven’t hit the target one week.

“I’ve had experience of hiring people, firing people, managing people. Business is where the vast majority of the population do a similar job, they work outside of public service, so that was very important to me.”

Like his parents, he decided he wanted a big family, and now has four young children with his wife. Family life at this scale is something he had to prepare and save for with a job outside politics, he explains:

“[It was] important to me that I managed to save a bit of money for myself, because my wife and I always wanted a large family… I didn’t want to enter politics and have to have a big change in my lifestyle, frankly because it’s important if we want to attract people into politics from all different walks of life, that it doesn’t require them to drastically change their lifestyle.

“Since I’ve been a politician I haven’t had any other role than my job as an MP or my job as a minister, and that just allows me to really focus on what I want to do for the next 20 years hopefully.”

Javid is candid on these touchy subjects of MPs’ pay and second jobs, clearly seeing politics as a profession that would require a pay-cut for many people – the basic salary of an MP is currently £66,396. A controversial topic, but one he is more justified than most in broaching, as his background is one very different to many of his colleagues.

The son of a bus driver and born to a family of immigrants from Pakistan, he was educated at comprehensive schools and had a relatively normal childhood compared to many of the Etonians and other public school alumni that populate parliament’s frontbenches today.

“I certainly don’t think it’s [my background’s] hindered me,” he muses, “I don’t think it’s necessarily been of help or hindrance. It is different, you’re right, to some people, but I think you want a nice mix in politics; you don’t want people who have all gone to the same types of schools, and hopefully it helps to add to that mix.”

Upon winning his election, he was one of the first two Muslim Conservative MPs, along with Rehman Chishti, and maintains appealing to ethnic minorities is something his party needs to work on:

“We certainly need to do more work in this space… Actually I believe ethnic voters are just like non-ethnic voters; they have the same concerns as anyone else – jobs, growth, family, welfare, immigration…

“When you actually just look at the raw numbers, in granular form, it does seem that a minority of people from ethnic minorities supported the Conservatives in the last general election and before that. I accept it’s an area that we need to do more work on; I don’t think it’s an area where there’s any kind of magic bullet we can find and say ‘this is what’s needed’, I just think it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of effort needs to go into that. And it is. It’s something the PM has recognised… [and] continues to see as an important issue.”

Yet Javid is optimistic about the electorate’s attitude towards multiculturalism, calling Britain “the most open, tolerant society in the world” and asserting his view that “voters are colourblind.”

“When it came to the general election, colour or racial background was not an issue in the slightest. In fact, when I was elected, I got more votes than my predecessor, who was also a Conservative, had in the previous election.

“And since I’ve been elected, it just hasn’t figured in any conversation, any issue, at all. I say that because it’s a constituency… [that is] over 95% white. They’re white British and it’s just not an issue at all.”

However, this wasn’t always the case for the MP. When he was growing up, he did experience some racism in this country, gravely recalling when he was “very young, at primary school, I remember being called a ‘Paki’ a few times.”

He insists he doesn’t think about it anymore, at first reticent on this line of questioning, but reveals, “It does help you. I think one natural reaction is to grow a thick skin. And it helps you understand. I think it helps me empathise with people who face, may face, prejudice, discrimination of any kind. Whether that’s gender, race or anything else.”

And this is another aspect of the Javid enigma. Sympathetic and thick-skinned; hard-nosed financier and devoted family man; tough taskmaster and accommodating subject; candid and cagey. Yet many believe we’ll be getting to know this politician a little better in the future. Wherever he goes, Sajid Javid will be sprinting to get there.

Tags: Issue 63, Sajid Javid

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