INTERVIEW: David Lammy: ‘You can be critical of your country and still love it’ – The Guardian UK

Interview  – Sun 15 Nov 202 – The Guardian UK
Illustration: Lyndon Hayes/The Observer – David Lammy has Guyanese roots

The Labour MP talks about belonging, Brexit and Caribbean comfort food

“I make sure I know where all the new Caribbean restaurants and takeaways are,” says David Lammy, “because there are times I need a certain type of comfort food. Somewhere like this is almost umbilical for me. It’s the food my mum used to cook.”

We are in One Love Kitchen, in Finsbury Park, north London, which began life in a city street-food market and opened here just in time for lockdown. While Uber Eats riders come and go clutching bagged orders, and locals queue for something from the invitingly smoky grill, Her Majesty’s shadow minister for justice is deliberating between the jerk chicken and brown stew. Actually, “umbilical” is almost literally right, he suggests with a laugh as he opts for the former, because he was conceived a couple of streets away from here, where his parents had a bedsit.       

Lammy has been thinking a lot about belonging and heritage of late. He started his prescient bookTribes – by far the most thoughtful analysis of Britain’s current divisions by a politician that I’ve read – a year before the Brexit campaign. The book begins with Lammy’s receipt of the results of a DNA test that determined his genetic ancestry beyond his parents’ native Guyana. The seductive – and possibly unscientific – results identified four significant geographic strands in the Lammy biology. One was from Sierra Leone. There was a bit of surprising Scottish, some Bantu South African. The one that really intrigued the Tottenham MP, though, was the large element of his heritage that linked him with the nomadic Tuareg people of Niger.

A couple of years ago, for the book, he went over to Niger to see that notional “homeland” for himself and was warmly welcomed into Tuareg life – he scrolls through his phone for a picture of himself in the white robes and turban he wore for an informal “initiation”. “It’s funny,” he says, “in the group shots of me with them that day, I have to look twice to see which one I am.”

The serious side of Lammy’s curiosity is, he suggests, common to all Afro-Caribbean people; the knowledge that “there was this great dislocation [of slavery] somewhere along the way”. When he was in Niger, he found himself staring at the Tuareg and feeling “some distant sense of longing to be ‘of them’”. One of Lammy’s children, his daughter, is adopted: “So my wife and I spend a lot of time thinking about family bonding and the sense of loss adopted children might feel,” he says. “I think the feeling in Niger was ever so slightly akin to that.”

A sense of parallel identities has been instinctive to Lammy since his unique childhood. There is something of a Dickensian trajectory to the way, as a boy, he was plucked out of his family in Tottenham – his single mother worked on the London Underground – to board as a chorister on a scholarship at the King’s cathedral school in Peterborough. After a shaky start he became head boy, and later became the first black Briton to win a place at Harvard law school. Among the most challenging chapters of his book are those in which he returns to Peterborough, a city he learned to love, to talk to parents of his old schoolfriends about the discontent that prompted a huge Brexit leave vote there.

One couple, called Clive and Kathy in the book, “who have been pretty much surrogate parents” to Lammy over the years, lay out in blunt terms the ways in which large-scale immigration from eastern Europe and Pakistan meant that they no longer felt at home in their city in the way they used to. Lammy listens hard to those anxieties, and similar stories from elsewhere in the country, as he thinks through the ways in which progressive politics might reconnect with those, mostly white, tribes in the Midlands and the north that it so comprehensively lost in the last election.

“I am intrigued by the idea of nation-building, a phrase that you rarely hear used these days,” he says. “Many of us have been to France or Spain when a festival is going on in a town, and you can’t quite believe the sense of civic belonging. You have to have that connection, if you are going to be able to handle globalisation.”

Ever positive, Lammy believes he can help reignite that sense. “Part of that is people on the progressive side showing you can be critical of your country and still love it,” he says. “We can be concerned with identity politics, but not at the expense of what we share.”

It always felt to me, I suggest, that Brexit was much more a vote against London, and its inclusive vision of society, than against Brussels. I was reminded reading his book of how we might complacently think of the 2012 Olympics as the last time the whole nation was at ease with itself – but how it was actually anathema to parts of the electorate.

“I was watching Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony with my wife,” Lammy says. “There was a mixed-race family at the heart of his story of the NHS, and we sat there smiling, thinking this was a story we were part of. That vision of green fields and Jerusalem. But it’s true that vision was being contested even as it was presented.”

One Love Kitchen

David ate Jerk chicken with rice and peas £9.50, plantain side £1.50. Tim ate Brown stew chicken with rice and peas £9.50, coleslaw side £2.50. Both drank Diet Coke £2. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In the years since, on social media, Lammy has often been on the nastiest receiving end of those reactionary forces. Hardly a day goes by without his being told to “go back to where he came from” – which he sometimes points out as the road round the corner from this restaurant. In one of the more dispiriting passages in his book he attends the trial of a man from Wolverhampton who has been sending him and others racist death threats. “This guy I saw in court was a lonely, sad, rather pathetic figure,” he says, “and ironically represented by an Asian lawyer. He got a suspended sentence and a fine.”

Did seeing him help Lammy to contextualise the abuse?

“It did,” he says. “But it didn’t make it better.” He talks of the ways that such racism is a byproduct of our “populist” politics. How it takes “the hard stuff in the in-tray of most western leaders – an ageing population, globalisation, the disruption of artificial intelligence – and tells you it is all Iqbal’s fault at the end of your road”.

The last time I talked to Lammy at length was at the high-water mark of Corbynism. He seemed sceptical of that alternative project even then?

“Growing up,” he says, by way of answer, “I was the sort of kid, who, perhaps because my father had left us, zoned in on mentor figures.” He had teachers, youth workers, professors who all wanted him to succeed. “I remember them telling me that Michael Foot would win the election in 1983,” he says. “And then that Neil Kinnock would win. I came to realise that, each time we lost, these teachers and professors, their lives did not change much materially, they were always comfortable. But for some of my family and friends, who really needed change, defeat meant things got much worse. It was never that I had a suspicion of the ideology of that leftist tradition, it was more I had practical experience that it was not going to work.”

He must feel more enthused by his role in the current shadow cabinet?

“I hear a lot of people in Tottenham telling me, ‘Keir is doing really well’, and he is. But until I go up to Peterborough and start hearing that, I know we still have a long way to go.”

That journey has obviously not been made easier by the pandemic, with Brexit following. Lammy has been working half the week at Westminster, has seen at first hand the apocalyptic emptiness of the capital’s streets, and despairs along with the rest of us at the government’s chaotic mismanagement of the crisis.

Before our lunch he has been looking at unemployment projections. His own constituency has the worst numbers. “Tottenham has this unholy alliance of people affected,” he says. “Security guards, cleaners, a huge amount of people in retail. A big concentration of freelancers and people working in the arts or the media. Projected risk of unemployment after furlough is coming out at 45%.”

In his book he has a few attempts to define our national character, but some things, he admits, will always baffle him. “How did we elect a prime minister who is really just a comedian? We seem unable to take serious things seriously.” But perhaps there is, he suggests, something very English about that, too.

Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society is out now (Constable)

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