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Is this the best speech given by a minister in this government?

16 December 2014

3:00 PM

16 December 2014

3:00 PM

Here’s a challenge for Coffee Housers. Find a speech that beats this one by Culture Secretary Sajid Javid. It is one of the finest speeches from a government minister I have ever read.

The field of fine speeches from government ministers is admittedly not particularly crowded, given ministers often have to give speeches on subjects that are rather technical to audiences who are less interested in wide-ranging or passionate and more interested in the technical details or how long the minister will detain them before the coffee break at the industry conference they are attending. Some ministers make sure the audience knows how thrilled they are to be at the event – my favourite recent burst of enthusiasm came from Patrick McLoughlin, who told the EuroBus Expo in Birmingham in November that ‘it’s a pleasure to be here at EuroBus Expo 2014. One of the highlights of the bus calendar’. Others give the speech knowing that it is supposed to have even less impact than a tree falling in a forest where no-one is present to hear it: a Secretary of State in this government was surprised to receive feedback from Number 10 praising them for absolutely no follow-up to a speech they’d delivered.

So not every speech can be as fine as the one that Sajid Javid delivered this weekend to the Union of Jewish Students’ annual conference. But many more could show the wit, the passion and the sense that the minister genuinely believed what he was saying and that he was sharing what he really thought with the audience. You can read the speech in full here, but here are the elements that make it so good.

The first was that it was funny. Look, not every politician can do a joke. Theresa May’s famous only joke in the Commons was made at the expense of a guy who later defected to Ukip – though her speech at our Parliamentarian awards this year was very funny indeed. But self-deprecation works so well in politics today because we largely expect our politicians to be humourless egotists who cannot possibly find themselves funny and are really rather impressed with their lives. Javid takes the mickey out of himself in this speech, repeatedly.

He starts by telling the students that he was ‘a little younger and a lot hairier’ when he was involved in university politics. Then he moves straight into telling them a story about a fabulous put-down by his wife:

‘I remember when I became an MP four years ago; I was driving home from the count. And I turned to my wife and said “Laura, did you ever imagine, in your wildest dreams, that one day I would actually be a Member of Parliament?” And she looked me in the eye and said: “Darling, in my wildest dreams, you don’t feature at all”.’

The Culture Secretary also tells anecdotes about his previous job title of ‘economic secretary’ being lost in translation at a meeting with a Japanese delegation as ‘cheap typist’, that opponents asked ‘what does this banker know about culture?’ when he was appointed, adding ‘at least I think they said “banker”…’, and manages to give a story about racial abuse a funny punchline:

‘There was one time at school when a classmate called me “Paki” to my face. I did what any cool, calm, future Cabinet minister would do.

‘I hit him.’

Javid hadn’t just come to entertain the students, though. Most of the speech is deadly serious. He launches into an eloquent defence of the importance of culture to the economy, and also spoke forcefully about the dangers of boycotts.

‘As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel. It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why. Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors. I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently.

‘The so-called right to be forgotten, for example. And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists. And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept. Something you support 100 per cent or not at all. That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”

‘The same is true of art and culture. It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…” Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.’

He was also very personal, expanding that fine answer he gave on Question Time to talk about his identity:

‘And I remember when I left university and first went for a job interview at a major City bank. Let’s just say the panel made it pretty clear my face wasn’t going to fit in there. But for everything I experienced, I’ve never tried to hide who I am or where I come from. I know that my background, my culture, my heritage made me what I am today. That’s why, at the start of my of party Conference speech earlier this year, I told the audience that I’m proud to be the child of immigrants. It’s who I am. It’s what I am.’

You get the sense from this speech that Sajid Javid is a man of conviction and that he really believes what he is saying. This shouldn’t be a man bites dog situation in politics, but unfortunately many speeches from ministers don’t manage to convey personal passion and conviction about the subject, which may be because they’ve been appointed to a ministry they previously didn’t have much time for. But even that isn’t a very good excuse, as some of the best informed and most passionate cabinet ministers in place at the moment hadn’t been campaigning tirelessly on the briefs they now hold. If Javid keeps giving speeches like this, he’ll find it very easy to make the case for an even bigger role in his party in the future.

But here’s a challenge for readers. Can you think of a better speech since the Coalition formed in 2010? Post your thoughts in the comments or tweet @spectator_ch and we’ll add a list of some of the best here tomorrow.

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