Interview: Grant Shapps

Housing minister and shul-goer Grant Shapps explains that, for him, there is nothing ‘chosen’ about being Jewish


By Christopher Richards, September 2, 2010
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Grant Shapps: “My goal is to get more homes built in this country in order that housing becomes more affordable for everyone”

Grant Shapps: “My goal is to get more homes built in this country in order that housing becomes more affordable for everyone”

Grant Shapps's rise to the front bench of the Conservative Party has been little short of meteoric - after all, he has only been an MP since 2005.

Many political commentators believe he is destined for big things; but what part does his faith play in his burgeoning career? The housing and local government minister is certainly in touch with communal life: he belongs to the Potters Bar and Brookmans Park Synagogue. However, he has an unconventional approach to religion.

"I suspect I have a relationship with my religion which will seem slightly weird to people who don't understand me," the 41-year-old says.

"I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don't eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don't mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It's like a way of life and it's good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

"All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don't know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn't care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim."

I feel totally Jewish. I am totally Jewish

His relationship with Israel and Zionism is also far from straightforward.

"In my youth, I was the president of the largest Jewish youth organisation (BBYO). At the time it wasn't a Zionist organisation, so I always thought I was non-Zionist."

However, he acknowledges that his views have changed over time. "I have probably become a lot more Zionist than I used to be," he says. "Jews have a history of being persecuted over a long, long period of time so I think it is absolutely right to have a country that is a Jewish state."

But despite his belief in the concept of Israel, Shapps admits the Israeli government often has not done itself any favours. "Sometimes it could have more forward thinking policies," he says.

As for the plight of the Palestinians, Shapps's position is clear. "I think it is absolutely inevitable that Palestinians will, and have to, have their own state," he said.

He is also convinced that, ultimately,conflict will be resolved in the Middle East. "There will be peace, the only question is when," he says.

Shapps's political inspiration is Benjamin Disraeli, who shared his Conservative beliefs. Of the UK's first and, to date, only Jewish-born prime minister, Shapps says: "He was very enlightened. He made sure that the working classes had the vote; and this was in the days before real enfranchisement."

More surprising perhaps is his admiration for former South African president FW De Klerk.

It took, he says, a brave man to stand up to the previous South African president PW Botha and demand an end to white minority rule. "He had absolutely nothing to gain but he paved the way for the end of apartheid. That is the measure of a true statesman."

Shapps reckons there is currently just a "smattering" of Jews in the House of Commons, spread fairly evenly between the three main parties.

It is a total which, he believes, is probably an accurate representation of the UK's Jewish population.

"Jews make up a quarter of a per cent of the country," he says."Of a population of around 64 million, only 300,000 are Jews."

In order to take part in a sitting of Parliament, MPs must attend prayers, a tradition which is thought to date back to 1588. However, despite our multicultural society, the prayers are exclusively Christian - so how does Mr Shapps, as an Orthodox (if unorthodox) Jew, overcome this obstacle?

"I miss out the words about Christ and don't say 'amen' after those bits," he smiles.

The same argument could, of course, be applied to whether Anglican bishops should retain their automatic right to sit in the House of Lords.

Yet it is something that Mr Shapps sees no reason to change.

He says: "I think that it is important that the country is tolerant and open but I still think that, in a predominantly Christian country, that we should respect the religion of that country.

"I suspect if I asked a group of my Jewish friends they would feel the same about it. In fact, I think that tolerance is one of the reasons that Jews have prospered in Britain."

As for his own political hopes, Shapps says he is not "riven by ambition. If I left politics tomorrow I wouldn't look back and think 'damn I wish I'd held this role or that role'. I will serve my nation in whatever way I can."

He is certainly enjoying the challenge of being in government.

"Having spent years in opposition shadowing umpteen different housing ministers it's great to finally get to do the job in person. We took immediate action on abolishing the hated and rather pointless Home Information Packs (HIPs) within days of taking office.

"My goal is to get more homes built in this country in order that housing becomes more affordable for everyone."

The fact of having to work with the Liberal Democrats in a coalition government has caused him few problems. "Sure we have debates over policy, but I have those discussions with our own MPs.

"On the big things like cutting the deficit and improving civil liberties we are in complete agreement. The people wanted their leaders to govern in the national interest, so being part of a coalition is a necessity, but I also think it is in tune with our times."

Shapps lives in the leafy commuter village of Brookmans Park, near Hatfield, with his wife Belinda and his three young children, Hadley, Tabytha and Noa.

It is clear that his family is a major aspect of his life away from Parliament.

"Even though I've had an incredibly busy few years, I'm really fortunate to have a constituency that is close to London so that I can come home at the end of each day."

"In any job, but especially in politics, you can become obsessed. My family is one of those things that helps me snap out of the Westminster village and back into my own village."

Snapshot

Born: 14 September 1968, Watford, Herts
Educated: Watford Grammar School, Manchester Metropolitan University (formerly Manchester Polytechnic)
Business: Founded his own printing company, PrintHouse Corporation, in 1990
Politics:
May 1997: Unsuccessfully fights North Southwark and Bermondsey seat for the Conservatives
May 2001: Unsuccessfully fights Welwyn Hatfield seat
May 2005: Elected as Welwyn Hatfield MP with a majority of 5,946
June 2007: Appointed shadow housing minister
May 2010: Re-elected in Welwyn Hatfield. Appointed housing and local government minister

Last updated: 3:18pm, December 6 2010