Sajid Javid hates identity politics and has spent most of his political career avoiding it. But his speech today showed how effective he can be when he discusses his own life story. Having his mum in the hall was quite something: this is a woman who grew up in poverty in the Punjab and came to Britain with nothing. She now looks at her son as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is what Michael Howard referred to as the “British dream”. She thought it was a big deal when the first Asians moved into Coronation Street, he said: now they’re in Downing Street and still “living above the shop”. And then he spoke to her in Punjabi, asking if she remembers his dad’s first shop which was about a mile away from where he’s standing. “Sorry, that’s between us,” he said after. “I forgot you were there – just trying to make her feel comfortable.”
Whatever you think about Javid, Asians moving into Downing Street – Priti Patel, the daughter of Ugandan Asians, as Home Secretary – it’s quite a moment. There will be a great many British Asians who never thought they’d live to see the day when Punjabi was spoken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, from the stage of the Tory party conference. The shop was a mile away from the Tory conference centre stage, but it might have seemed a world away: except not in Britain. It’s an important part of our island’s story in general and the appointments (Boris appointed more BME cabinet ministers than all of his Labour predecessors put together) does matter. Representation matters. It’s not enough for the Tories to say that they believe in equal opportunities: you need to demonstrate progress. A party needs to live its values.
Now, people are divided into those who think this is tokenistic nonsense – and those who think it matters. I know why I’m in the latter camp. When I think of my own journalistic heroes, the ones who most inspired me in my career, they tend to be Scots: Andrew Marr, Neal Ascherson, John Buchan, Kirsty Wark, Andrew Neil, Niall Ferguson, and more. Now and again, I ask: why? They’re very different people, from different backgrounds. But in a daft kind of way, I saw all of them as showing that someone like me could make it to the top: that, if they did it, it must be possible. At the hotel I’m staying in, there’s a portrait of great Mancunians from Emmeline Pankhurst to Noel Gallagher. A reminder of the genius this city has produced: an inspiration to its children now.
So I can see why Mrs Javid would have seen it as significant when the Desai family took over the corner shop in Corrie. It was a sign of (as her son put it today) “the most successful multi-racial democracy in the world” with people who cohere around British values. Today there are at least 250,000 Brits who grew up speaking Punjabi at home; youngsters who look a bit like Sajid Javid who ask how high someone with their background might be able to climb. They have their answer today.