In the wake of the tragedy of the Grenfell fire in north Kensington in London in June where it is thought over a hundred residents died, there have scarcely been two more effective politicians than Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, and Sajid Javid, a minister in the present government. They sit opposite sides of the political spectrum: Khan was a Labour councillor and MP before being elected Mayor of London last year on 1.3 million votes; Sajid Javid, formerly a director and investment banker with Deutsche Bank, first elected to Parliament as an MP in 2010 is a lifelong Conservative and a government minister since 2012. But what they share is a commitment to hard work and social justice.
Within days of the Grenfell fire, Sajid Javid had worked with the Corporation of London to purchase new homes within the borough of Kensington for the families who survived but had been traumatised and displaced by the fire. As Minister for Communities he had also demanded that the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Nicholas Holgate, step down for the failures relating to Grenfell Tower. “As a minister, I have always been prepared to make tough decisions,” he said in a statement. “I understood the pressures that come with public life but this disaster has shaken my comprehension of what it means to be in office.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan: “What all minorities need to recognise is today in a pluralistic society it’s not just a question of tolerating others, you’ve got to respect others”
The tragedy of Grenfell tower, a residential block of social housing for London’s poorest residents that was known to be inadequate on fire and safety issues, happened as London and its emergency services have had to respond in recent months to an extremist attack on Parliament and Westminster Bridge, a similar attack at London Bridge, and an attack by an individual of the far right on a Muslim Welfare Centre close to the Finsbury Park Mosque during Ramzan.
Sadiq Khan is the first London mayor who sees his role as being a seven days a week commitment but events have exacerbated demands on his office. In the last few months he has worked publically with Cressida Dick, the first woman Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, with Dany Amara Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, and with Amber Rudd, the Conservative Home Secretary, to reassure the city and to highlight its tolerance, its internationalism and its multi-faith community spirit.
This tone and hard work has been an obvious departure from London’s two previous mayors. Boris Johnson saw his role as a celebrity occupation, and was known to be ineffective; Ken Livingstone, London’s first mayor, saw it as a personal political platform.
Sadiq Khan has delivered a new seriousness of approach and purpose to the office when he was elected Labour mayor last year. He became Mayor of London on 1.3 million votes, beating Jemima Khan’s brother Zac Goldsmith and his Conservative candidacy, which took just under a million. A delighted Sadiq Khan was sworn in by choice in the multi-faith setting of the thousand-year-old-Southwark Cathedral, a short distance from Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank of the Thames. He said, “We all have multiple identities. I’m a Londoner, I’m British, I’m English, I’m of Asian origin, of Pakistani heritage, I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a long-suffering Liverpool football team fan, I’m Labour, I’m a Fabian and I’m Muslim.”
To that, by the government minister Sajid Javid, can be added an identity as an international banker. Javid has been in the top echelons of government since he was elected Conservative MP in 2010, but behind him he had an international career in banking and finance. He studied economics and politics at Exeter university, and then joined Chase Manhattan in New York. His time in the US also included a short time as an aide to Rudy Giuliani in his 1993 mayoral campaign for NYC. A significant career at Deutsche Bank followed, with Javid becoming managing director with responsibility for Asian markets. His entry into politics in 2010 quickly saw him promoted through the Treasury to the department of Culture, Media and Sport and then Minister for International Business under then prime minister David Cameron. In Theresa May’s cabinet he is now Minister for Communities.
What both men share are heritages in Pakistan. Sadiq Khan’s family were mohajirs, his grandparents migrating to Karachi after 1947. Khan’s father and mother moved to Tooting in London in the late 1960s, where their family of six boys and one girl was brought up. Sadiq attended a state comprehensive school named after Ernest Bevin, the great British politician of the left who founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union and was one of the guiding architects of the US’s Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-war Europe. He then took a degree in law. He married Saadiya in 1994, at the age of 24, and they have two daughters Anisah and Ammarah.
Khan describes himself as a Fabian, a reference to the intellectual movement of the left, the Fabian Society that was founded in 1884 by Sidney and Beatrice Webb to promote social and economic justice, and whose members have included George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, the campaigner for women’s rights Emmeline Pankhurst and Jawaharlal Nehru. Sadiq Khan then trained and practised as a human rights lawyer in London before being elected Labour MP in Tooting in 2005. Human rights, thoughtfulness tolerance and respect formed the basis of his political approach, but he has also emphasised the freedoms that living in the UK has given him:
“What all minorities need to recognise is today in a pluralistic society it’s not just a question of tolerating others, you’ve got to respect others. I challenge anybody to find another country in the world which is more progressive or has laws that protect minorities more than this country [the UK]. I speak to my cousins in Pakistan or India and they make the point that because [my family] aren’t well off and don’t have contacts in those countries, notwithstanding the fact that there is a Muslim majority in Pakistan, they couldn’t dream of being in the Cabinet or doing the stuff that I’ve done here, and I’m a minority in the UK both religiously and ethnically and in all sorts of ways.”
Sajid Javid’s family’s journey in many senses was more difficult than that of Sadiq Khan’s. His father Abdul Ghani Javid arrived at Heathrow in 1961 with £1 in his pocket. Sajid’s grandfather, the minister has explained, had “touchingly but mistakenly” thought that the £1 note would see him through his first month in the UK. The year to me suggests Sajid’s family were Mirpuris; in 1961 the Mangla Dam, constructed across the Jhelum at Mirpur, submerged the old city of Mirpur and would submerge 280 villages and displace 110,000 people.
Abdul Ghani Javid found work in a cotton mill in Rochdale, and then as a bus conductor and a driver. After that he started to sell clothes made by his mother Zabeida on a market stall before opening a shop in Bristol. Sajid, one of five boys, was brought up in Bristol and became the first member of his family to go to university. He has explained: “This is the root of my conservative beliefs. My mother and father had nothing and, like many people in their adopted country, worked their way up. There were, of course, ups and downs. But whenever my parents were knocked down, in business or anything else, they picked themselves up and started again. The abiding lesson was clear to me: don’t doubt yourself and don’t stop trying.”
Sajid married his English wife, Laura, in 1994. They met while doing a summer job in an insurance firm in Bristol as students, and they have four children: Rania, Sophia, Suli and Maya. His success as an international banker, as the media have noted, have made him very wealthy.
But it was Sajid Javid’s compassion, caught recently on camera for Channel 4 News, that made me really notice him for the first time. The attack on the Muslim Welfare centre in Finsbury Park prompted a ministerial visit. He was filmed in conversation with Runa Begum, a resident with a young son who was frightened for her community after the Ramzan incident.
Ministers rarely leave their cars for more than a few minutes. His interaction with her and his care suggested something profound is shifting in government and in politics and in London after the tumultuous events of the last few months. That has to be a good thing.