Sajid Javid kicked off his bid to be Conservative leader with a speech that majored heavily on his upbringing and childhood as the son of an immigrant. He appeared relaxed and spoke with genuine fluency, but his calmness belied the big and fascinating risk his speech is taking.
The Home Secretary is the first ethnic minority politician to directly run for the premiership in the democratic era, although Diane Abbott, Ed Miliband, Chuka Umunna and Michael Howard have both run for or held the job of leader of the opposition. But he of course, isn’t the only ethnic minority politician to achieve a degree of success in the Conservative party, though he is far and away the most successful.
But there is a clear playbook for that success, and Javid deviated from it repeatedly. Usually, an ethnic minority Conservative on the make talks at length about the value of opportunity, working hard and how Labour politicians assumed that they ought to be in their party. The most recent high-profile example of this is Kemi Badenoch’s 2017 conference speech, but most have dabbled in a version of it and it is a mainstay of many ethnic minority Tories’ stump speeches when they go for selection.
Javid did something very different. He talked about hard work and opportunity, yes. There were frank sections, too, about the racism he experienced in his own community when he fell in love with a white woman, but the braver passages struck closer to home.
He talked about arriving on a trading floor and finding “old-school bankers in old-school ties” who underrated and underestimated him – a demographic well represented in the parliamentary Conservative party and even more so in the wider membership. He talked about his disgust for the word “half-caste”, an antiquated term for mixed-race people that many ethnic minorities detest, but one that many members of the Conservative grassroots will, without malice, use out of habit. He talked about people suggesting that he shouldn’t seek a career in Tory politics – but those people weren’t in the Labour party. The usual line in these type of speeches is essentially ‘Labour thought they owned me because I’m an ethnic minority’. Javid went with a speech that went further, effectively saying ‘Some Conservatives thought they could reject me because I am an ethnic minority’.
That is an experience that many ethnic minority Conservatives, including those who have succeed, at a local and a parliamentary level have, but for obvious reasons they tend not to make it a feature of their public speeches.
It’s similar to the frankness with which Jo Swinson is talking about gender diversity in the Liberal Democrats – and that party has a far worse record at selecting and electing women and minorities than the Conservative party – but Swinson starts as a strong frontrunner. Javid has a hell of a task even to make the final two, let alone to defeat Boris Johnson. It’s striking that he is using his time in the race, however brief it might be, to talk so frankly about race and racism both within and without the Conservative party.