TBB Talks … to david lammy about his new book

One of Parliament’s most outspoken MPs, David Lammy is known for his successful campaign for the victims of the Windrush scandal to be granted British citizenship and receive compensation from the British government.

He has also been at the forefront of the fight for justice for the families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. Lammy’s second book, Tribes: How Our Need for Belonging Can Make or Break Society, explores both the positive and negative effects of our need to belong, and how this need can achieve great things in communities, and wider society that individuals cannot do alone. David lives in Tottenham with his wife, two sons, one daughter and a brand-new puppy...

Introduce yourself?

I’m the Labour MP for Tottenham, the place I grew up in and have lived in for most of my life. I was a minister in the last Labour government, but have spent the past few years campaigning from backbenches and telling it like it is, on Brexit, Windrush, Grenfell, knife crime and fair access to universities. I’ve very excited to have just launched my second book, Tribes, which I hope can contribute to bringing our divided society back together again.

Tell us about Tribes, what was your inspiration or reason for writing this book?

I was originally motivated to write Tribes for two reasons. The first was a personal desire to understand where I belong. Like other British Caribbeans, I am the descendant of slaves, so I do not know where my ancestors come from more than a couple of generations back. By taking a DNA test, I was able to track down my roots. I then explored the other influences that shaped me, including my seven years at a cathedral school in Peterborough, which I credit with making me feel truly English. My second motivation to write Tribes was to understand why so many of us are, like me, searching for belonging, and what this says about the increased polarisation in our society. I wanted to look at policy solutions to the loneliness crisis, the spike in mental health issues and addiction that characterise many Western countries as we enter the 2020s.

What are the most prevalent ways you have seen the need to belong manifest in society?

I believe our longing for belonging after an age of individualism explains the tribalism we are experiencing in our politics. As lifelong careers and traditional class structures have broken down in recent decades, many people feel like they have lost their identities. The internet and social media have been one place people have started looking to find belonging in new communities. This has become dangerous when these tribes are supremacist – saying we are better than you – such as in far-right groups, which blame foreigners and people of colour, in far-left groups, which sometimes stray into antisemitism, gangs and religious extremists. But the truth is that tribalism is not limited to extremists. Many of us are seeking real connection and community in an age of the Internet. Social media newsfeeds rarely offer us new perspectives. Most often algorithms serve up content we already agree with. Trapped in echo chambers, we have come to adapt in strange ways.

Is the need for belonging a good or bad thing? Why do you think this is?

Whatever its moral value, belonging is a natural human desire that none of us can shake. In my view, belonging becomes negative when it is tribal, based around exclusivity and supremacy. Belonging is positive when it takes the form of an inclusive community, offering solidarity, cooperation and a lot of joy.

Many Black Britons do not feel a sense of belonging in the UK despite being born and raised here. As an MP how do you address this? Whose responsibility is it to enable people to have a sense of belonging in any space they move in?

I absolutely recognise this. And I think in part it is the fault of politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage who have actively promoted a kind of ethnic nationalism which suggests you can only be British or English if you have a particular skin tone and your ancestors have been here for 10,000 years. I think this type of nationalism is complete garbage. In Tribes, I outline some ideas to promote an alternative called civic nationalism, which is a common national identity built around shared institutions and values. It says citizens can find pride in what the people of one nation have built together, but also what they want to build in the future, in the vision of their shared ideals. It’s the job of politicians like myself to encourage the construction of new public spaces and places in which every Briton, whatever their skin colour, religion, or background can feel like they belong.

How have you personally created a sense of belonging for yourself in the spaces you work in, which are traditionally white spaces?

I have photos of my children and my parents in my office in Westminster. I read and consume black history and I lower my expectations of people who appear to have the very best education but are actually fundamentally ignorant of colonial history. My ancestors’ hard work, blood, sweat and tears built Westminster and the wealth of the United Kingdom, so I am quite clear that I feel totally comfortable here.

What drew you from a career in law to politics?

There is a long tradition of lawyers who start off fighting one case at a time but then start asking deeper questions about why that one young man is in prison, or why that a business has gone bankrupt. That brings you from law into politics. It’s a move from looking at individual injustice to general injustice. I’m glad I made the switch.

What is the proudest moment of your career to date?

I am proud of the campaigning I have done to expose the gross injustices towards the Windrush generation, many of whom were deported, detained, made homeless, jobless and left destitute by their own government. I am pleased that the work myself and others did has helped to expose the horrendous treatment of Black Britons by the Home Office, secured a compensation scheme and independent review into what went wrong. There is still much more work to do until these wrongs are made right and I am committed to doing it. 

What are your reading currently?

I’m reading The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna. It’s a thrilling love story about the misery caused by civil war in Sierra Leone.

If you weren’t an MP what would you be doing?

Fishing on the Essequibo River in Guyana, the country of my parents’ birth.

Tribes: How Our Need for Belonging Can Make or Break Society is available from all good book retailers.


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