Potential for meaningful change

Tottenham MP, David Lammy outlines his vision of justice in his latest book, Tribes

Rt Hon David Lammy MP

By Bella Saltiel

“This crisis is reminding us of our common humanity,” David Lammy MP tells me.

I am speaking to Mr Lammy on the phone from my living room. Like most people around the country, we are both in self-isolation. Shared experiences like this emerge from the chaos caused by the pandemic – and because of this, Lammy says, there is potential for “meaningful change.”

Lammy addresses this change in his latest book, Tribes, which he begins by suggesting that all humans want to belong. This leads him to take a DNA test which reveals his mixed heritage.

Lammy’s story illustrates one of his central
messages, that ethnic nationalism is divisive, and forces an identity “defined by the colour of your skin” or the home of your ancestors. In Tribes, he argues that failing to understand the ‘other’ has fermented systemic polarisation, and he suggests replacing ethnic nationalism with ‘civic nationalism’ – amending a national identity crisis that has used migrants as scapegoats.

A possible solution, Lammy argues is by developing migration laws at a sub- national level, as well as developing an inclusive national identity. This, he tells me, requires the government to “think about how we, as citizens, encounter one another,” and he imagines this would be achieved by facilitating a compulsory civic service that would rebuild the ‘civic hearts’ of communities starved by austerity, whilst also addressing “the way in which, in this country we’ve hoarded power at the centre.” His message feels ironic during forced isolation but he insists that, on the contrary, the ‘encounter culture’ really is a new way of thinking about the common good.

Perhaps, one thing that the Coronavirus pandemic has given us is a shared story. Right at the centre of Lammy’s ‘civic nationalism’ is one that champions English values without becoming a homogenising force. When Lammy reimagines England, it stands up for its ideals, enshrining a vision of justice in the world by speaking truthfully about the savagery of colonialism.

Lammy believes this is in part because of the problematic way history is taught in the UK, and it this failing in the education system that has led to a generation that does not know its own country’s history. He says: “[Britain] doesn’t understand that those people that came here after the Second World War were invited here, it doesn’t want to understand that they were descendants of enslaved people.

“Britain has a responsibility for the Windrush Generation. It should be handling that generation with tremendous respect, understanding the fragility that comes from that very painful history. Instead, the brutality with which the Windrush were treated is kind of incomprehensible.”

In her Lessons Learnt Review, inspector of constabulary, Wendy Williams, reveals that in June 2017 there were estimated to be 524,000 people who were born in the commonwealth, and living in the UK, who arrived before 1971. 57,000 of them self-report as not being UK citizens. Williams reports that over a period of 16 years, 164 people from the Windrush Generation were forcefully detained or removed from the UK.

Lammy views the Windrush scandal as being an example of Britain “whitewashing history and not really facing the truth.” However, he insists we can build a proud national identity, whilst still acknowledging this brutal history, because reconciliation is “not entirely about hanging your
head in shame.”

“There’s lots of virtue in being English, – our sense of humour, our wit, the fact that we are, on the whole, a nation that’s able to queue peacefully,” he says.

Lammy emphasises how proud he is of his constituents, mentioning in particular, all of the people, whose stories of perseverance he has included in Tribes. He is proud for having the possibility to serve the public, and he’s hopeful.

He said: “I believe in the human spirit, but these are very, very challenging times. We’re living in the times of Trump and Farage and Bolsonaro.”

Nevertheless, Lammy adds, it is still a world “in which we have to come together.”