The Politician: David Lammy

Empire, emerging tribes and our need for community

Dan Crowe: Is politics broken?

David Lammy: I’ve been in public life for 20 years. I remember when I decided to go into politics. Everyone was a centrist then. The Blair years, the Clinton years. It really doesn’t feel like that today. And yet, political actors still matter hugely. They determine the shape and feel of a generation. So politics is very much alive. Sure, I’m gloomy about the world and our prospects over the next decade or so, but what makes me optimistic is the millennials. I do think things are going to improve once that crowd get their hands on the levers of power. I just hope we can last that long.

We seem to be in full-time crisis mode.

There is a disconnect between politics and values these days, even among the millennials I meet. There were massive advances in the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, poor people, black and brown people, gay men and women, disabled people, working-class people, were so put upon, so held down. But by the end, because of people like Mandela, Harvey Milk and, yes, Emmeline Pankhurst, the party of labour became empowered. I just think – Wow, how could it be 2020 and all those achievements are fading?

Can the pendulum swing back?

Yes. And it will. It’s all highs and lows, valleys and peaks. It feels tough now, but in 10 or 15 years… Well, let’s just say the 1960s are going to look tame. Watch out for the arts. Our writers and artists will be leading the way.

Is this in part about the collapse of empire and people searching for what Britain means now?

I remember coming back to Britain after I’d been to Harvard. I was working in California as a lawyer with some success. But I wasn’t American, and I wasn’t motivated sufficiently by money. Besides, Britain seemed really exciting then. Lately, I’ve questioned that decision. Not on my own behalf, but for my family, my children. I worry that Britain doesn’t really want to reckon with its past. You know… the hangover of empire; the narratives like “We won the war on our own” – that inability to recognise how much we were assisted by Europe and the Americans, bankrolling us after the war. Those real truths. So, in part, yes!

I’d like Britain to fess up to its history, warts and all; not because I want everyone to hang their heads in shame or guilt, but because I think this could be an extraordinary country again, the country that offered the world the 2012 Olympics. That was a wonderful moment. But just the year before, I was at the epicentre of the rioting that swept the land. So there’s always been a flipside to our greatness, our promise. It’s only by reckoning with who we really are, by forging a belief and a patriotism that we can all buy into, that we can move forward.

The antiquated House of Commons intercom system, soon to be overhauled

It feels like a lot of intelligent people are fine with the erosion of what we once cared about: the BBC, the NHS… It’s hard to comprehend this attitude…

I’m more suspicious of what masquerades as intelligence these days. We have a political class that goes to certain schools; to one of two universities. This creates a confidence with Shakespeare and Kipling, which has its strengths – but also huge gaping holes. And it sure doesn’t nurture empathy. Why do we value prime ministers that have been grabbed from the bosom of their parents at the age of seven and shipped off to boarding schools? There are some very perplexing and dysfunctional elements to our society.

And yet, look at the novels that get written in this country, look at the ground-breaking comedy that gets made here. Look at the fashion, and the design, and the sport, and the tech. But if we lose the BBC, we will go the way of the US, with its Fox News. We have to fight for freedom of speech, for the primacy of facts. At the moment our prime minister seems to have other priorities.

How do you feel about identity politics?

It’s certainly getting a hard time from the right, with jokes about “wokeness” and “virtue signalling”. It’s also getting a hard time from parts of the left who believe that the real issue is class. At the same time, there’s a serious rise in hate and racism. I would like to stop talking about the “ism” of racism or sexism, and start talking about the reality. The truth is that for most of modern history, black and ethnic minorities, women, gay men and women, those with disabilities have been at the bottom of the heap. They’ve been denied the ability to dream: to grow up, say, black and female on a housing estate and dream of being a Hollywood actress or the CEO of a FTSE 100 company, and know that they can get there. The truth is, those who are being criticised for identity politics have merely been asking, “Can we have some of the pie? Can we share it?”

And the people with power don’t like that…

Exactly. The identity that has dominated the world – male, white, privileged – is fighting back. Its beneficiaries complain about identity politics, when it’s their identity that has defined our era: I find that ironic… rather selfish, and I think it needs a lot of challenge.

But if politics becomes just about identity and not a means of coming back together, then that is also problematic. Because things will stay the same, we’ll be setting up divides that can’t be bridged. We have got to emphasise what we have in common, as well as our differences. It won’t be easy. Most of this comes down to power and the means of giving it up, honestly and gracefully.

Lammy on the balcony of the House of Commons

How are people in high places, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, allowed to get away with the shocking things they say?

Just a short while ago, figures like that would have been subjects of ridicule and not taken seriously – a joke, really. This brings us to the second element of identity politics: the way in which both social and mainstream media inflate and elevate these figures instead of challenging them. Some of this Rees-Mogg stuff is white supremacist in nature and, to be honest, neo-Nazi. I find it ironic that this country, not so long ago, went to war against that kind of hate. And yet we seem ambivalent about it now.

Do you think Britain will survive this “us and them” populist decade?

I’ve had moments of acute depression in my life, so I know what to expect when the black cloud descends – as it has occasionally in the past, rather eventful, year. Anger too. But what truly upsets me is the way in which our prime minister and his cabal seem totally, unashamedly detached from caution, reason and especially truth. I sense the unease and disquiet and upset and angst that quite a lot of good, decent people feel about our country’s future. We may well survive our new status, which will inevitably reshape itself to fit the realities of the wider globalised world. But our values, our cohesion and our good sense will be tested as seldom before.

Are we becoming more tribal? And is this a bad thing?

I’ve just written a book, Tribes, on this subject. The increased tribalism in society is a reaction against an age of individualism that went too far. As lifelong careers and traditional class structures have broken down in recent decades due to technological changes, many people feel like they have lost their identities. The Internet and social media have been the place people have started looking to satisfy their longing for belonging. This has become dangerous because often the tribes they find are supremacist. Far-right groups say they are better than foreigners and people of colour, far-left groups sometimes stray into antisemitism and religious extremists feel superior to those of other religions. But tribalism is not limited to extremists. Many of us are seeking real connection and community. Social media newsfeeds rarely offer us new perspectives. Most often algorithms serve up content we already agree with. Trapped in echo chambers, we have started to adapt in strange ways. The more time a moderate individual spends on social-media websites, the more extreme their views and opinions are likely to become.

To move on from tribalism, we need to focus on building inclusive communities. Tribes are closed groups which define who they are by who is not a member; communities are open groups which define who they are by shared ideals. By allowing people to find meaning in inclusive community identities, we will have the collective confidence to challenge the problems that go far beyond them.

Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society by David Lammy is now available in hardback (Constable)

Photography Cian Oba-Smith

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here