Opinion

"Millennials know what this country should stand for”: David Lammy rebrands Britain

In the eyes of the world, Britain’s never looked smaller, sadder or meaner. We met with MP for Tottenham David Lammy to rethink the national brand and ask what it is we want to be known for

“There are days when I wake up and look at the news, come into Parliament, and I just can’t actually believe the state we are in,” says David Lammy, flumping on to a sofa in the studio where we’ve photographed him for this week’s ShortList cover. “On every single index, the country feels chronically divided: between generations, rural and urban communities, ethnic minority communities and older, historically-white communities, between class, within families. And the brokering of how we come back together isn’t entirely clear.”

We’re discussing what to do about Britain’s identity crisis – you know, the one in which Blighty is bowler-hat-and-Brylcreem deep right now. And helpfully, David Lammy is not a politician prone to fudging words. Nor is he one who – and he’ll tell you this himself if you ask him – has much talent for “licking arse”. For 18 years as a backbench MP, Labour’s man in Tottenham has worked hard on his reputation for telling truth to power (and consequentially been hampered in fulfilling his potential).

The 46-year-old’s critics – mainly in Whitehall – see him as a maverick self-promoter and backbench pain-in-the-arse. But he needs no treats from them. “I’m not interested in crawling up the greasy pole, currying favour wherever power lies or being knighted,” he says. “[What motivates me] is representing people, framing and kickstarting important debates in this country.”

Few debates are as important right now as national identity. And you don’t need Don Draper to tell you that Brand Britain is broken (though Lammy thinks it is specifically England with the problem). To the world, we’ve never looked more closed-minded and confused. As our government cosies up to Trump, it turns a blind eye to corporate greed. We’re spending billions divorcing Europe, largely at the behest of an ageing electorate who’ll be dead by the time Brexit fully unfolds, while people burn to death in tower blocks. Hate crime, knife crime, teen suicide and homelessness are rising. Social capital is shrinking.

Has Britain become the deluded, rain-sodden nation that people abroad have long-suspected we are? “I think what we are becoming is a laughing stock,” he says. “I think we appear to be in a masochistic place. And we shouldn’t underestimate quite how unsettled the rest of the world is by the pickle that Britain appears to be in. If we’re not careful we’re going to become Theme Park Britain. Little England.”

Of course, half of Britain – the mainly young, progressive half – is deeply ashamed of what Britain has become (three days after our interview, for example, some 700,000 of those people marched through London to demand a second Brexit referendum). This half of the country believes Britain should stand for equality and compassion, not intolerance and isolation. Put to one side all the electioneering, the party-political posturing and the power struggles: what Britain needs is a re-brand. And, for that, Lammy has ideas.

“In a sense, this country is being held back because people want to tell myths about our history and about who we really are,” says Lammy, meditatively.

This is his first point: we must debunk the lies that built British identity. National identity is, after all, one of the oldest examples of fake news there is; a myth sold to us by political elites to make us care enough about our made-up borders to die for them in wars. In our case, Brexit has fed a version of national identity based on a Britain that never existed; one where wars were won on cups of tea and Carry-On banter. Or, as the late AA Gill put it: “We all know what ‘getting our country’ back means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia.”

“Britain tends to want to tell a story about itself that’s about winning the Second World War,” Lammy says. “For school kids, it’s either Henry or Hitler. But there’s another story, and it’s massive. It’s a story of empire and colonialism. And within that story are some low moments. We’ve got to get honest about that. And there are real reasons why we’ve got to do that.”

Take the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of Commonwealth migrants were erroneously classified as illegal immigrants, despite having worked in Britain for decades. “They didn’t just arrive here in 1948 because they were invited and wanted a better life,” he says. “They were tied to this country because their ancestors were enslaved people.”

He’s jabbing his finger now. “It’s important to understand that history. England can be really great if you say, ‘Guys, warts and all, this is our history. We’ve learnt from it and that is why we want to stand up for people wherever they’re from.’ That is a great, great platform. But not if you’re prepared to create myths and constantly want to move on to the abolition of slavery and ignore the several hundred years that slavery went on for. Look at how Germany has so successfully come to terms with its past. This isn’t about being insecure about your history, it’s about being honest about it and helping others to move forward as a consequence.”

Of course, half of Britain – the mainly young, progressive half – is deeply ashamed of what Britain has become (three days after our interview, for example, some 700,000 of those people marched through London to demand a second Brexit referendum). This half of the country believes Britain should stand for equality and compassion, not intolerance and isolation. Put to one side all the electioneering, the party-political posturing and the power struggles: what Britain needs is a re-brand. And, for that, Lammy has ideas.

“In a sense, this country is being held back because people want to tell myths about our history and about who we really are,” says Lammy, meditatively.

This is his first point: we must debunk the lies that built British identity. National identity is, after all, one of the oldest examples of fake news there is; a myth sold to us by political elites to make us care enough about our made-up borders to die for them in wars. In our case, Brexit has fed a version of national identity based on a Britain that never existed; one where wars were won on cups of tea and Carry-On banter. Or, as the late AA Gill put it: “We all know what ‘getting our country’ back means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia.”

“Britain tends to want to tell a story about itself that’s about winning the Second World War,” Lammy says. “For school kids, it’s either Henry or Hitler. But there’s another story, and it’s massive. It’s a story of empire and colonialism. And within that story are some low moments. We’ve got to get honest about that. And there are real reasons why we’ve got to do that.”

Take the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of Commonwealth migrants were erroneously classified as illegal immigrants, despite having worked in Britain for decades. “They didn’t just arrive here in 1948 because they were invited and wanted a better life,” he says. “They were tied to this country because their ancestors were enslaved people.”

He’s jabbing his finger now. “It’s important to understand that history. England can be really great if you say, ‘Guys, warts and all, this is our history. We’ve learnt from it and that is why we want to stand up for people wherever they’re from.’ That is a great, great platform. But not if you’re prepared to create myths and constantly want to move on to the abolition of slavery and ignore the several hundred years that slavery went on for. Look at how Germany has so successfully come to terms with its past. This isn’t about being insecure about your history, it’s about being honest about it and helping others to move forward as a consequence.”

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The Windrush scandal is symptomatic of a bigger problem, though. And Britain’s ‘Johnny Foreigner’ fallacy is pure poison to Lammy. “It’s a lie,” he says, the pitch of his voice rising in line with his hackles. “The majority who come here are young people, coming to work and pay tax, funding the pensions for an ageing population, often doing jobs most Brits don’t want to do. The NHS would collapse without them.”

He’s approaching full falsetto now. “And this myth that somehow in a post-Brexit environment we are going to see less immigration? NONSENSE. When we go to negotiate a trade deal with India, what’s the first thing they’re going to ask for? Visas. And guess what? We’re going to grant them because we’ll be in a weak position. So after Brexit we will have more immigration, not less.”

It’s not that surprising that many of Lammy’s idées fixes boil down to race and class. Born to inner-city, working-class Guyanese immigrants in 1972, he went from a London council house to a state-funded boarding school in Peterborough (on a singing scholarship) to Soas to Harvard Law School to the bar, and finally, to the Commons – all by the age of 27. He says he was lucky for the opportunities he took that got him where he is. But he knows there are many millions of young people from similar backgrounds today for whom such opportunities are growing rarer than a first-time buyer in London.

“We have a system that I think is rigged,” he says. “It’s rigged to benefit Russell Group universities, for those with money to send their kids to schools with small class sizes in the public sector and tutor them at the 7+. At the end of that journey the world looks wonderful; of course it’s your oyster.”

Such an entrenched culture of inequality is hard to upend. A start, he says, would be to remove blanket charitable status of private schools. “I’m comfortable with private schools and people being able to exercise their choice,” he offers, “but it’s clear to me that a whole number of them are not charities, they are for-profit businesses that should be taxed accordingly. The gap is widening when it should be shrinking.”

For Lammy, there is no worse indictment of Britain’s rich-poor divide than the Grenfell Tower tragedy in which 72 people burned to death (including a Lammy family friend) on 14 June 2017. “People made complaints and were not listened to,” he says. “Working people who pay their taxes deserve far better from this country. I don’t think it’s solely an issue of poverty, it’s an attitudinal issue towards the importance and standard of public housing, and the people who live there. You can’t hear their voice. I grew up in an era when to live in a council house was something to be celebrated. Now it feels almost like a dirty word.”

We’re digging deeper into Lammy’s political meat and potatoes now. Thanks to his Freedom Of Information request last year we know that in 2015, 81 per cent of Oxbridge offers went to young people in the top two social classes. So what are we doing for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds? For Lammy, precious little. At the risk of oversimplifying a profoundly complex issue, this is one reason why gang-related crime is growing.

London’s murder rate has risen by nearly 40 per cent since 2014. “We’ve got an enormous problem [with knife and gun crime],” he says, solemnly. “And the truth is, because we have a lot of politicians who don’t have the answers to fixing the problem, they reach for two simple solutions that make no sense at all.”

The first is to increase police powers to stop and search. “All the evidence shows that will not stop this problem,” he says.

The second, far trendier solution is to blame (and then try to ban) drill music, a Chicago-inspired offshoot of grime but with more violent lyrics. “This is the kind of hackneyed response that once upon a time saw politicians blame Elvis and Cliff Richard for the spread of promiscuous behaviour,” Lammy says.

His proposed answer is twofold. First, increase neighbourhood policing. “There are kids in council estates who aren’t being groomed by gangs but who pick up knives because they are sh*t-scared,” he says. “And the reason they’re not feeling safe is that the estate hasn’t seen the police come through for weeks on end. Neighbourhood policing used to be as simple as a copper kicking a football around on an estate. As my mother would’ve said, ‘Idle hands make the Devil’s work.’ This doesn’t take a genius… it’s bloody obvious.”

His next idea is a little more controversial. “Drugs,” he proclaims. “Behind most of these crimes is a market. And there’s massive demand. The war on drugs has not worked. We’ve got to get serious about looking at drugs, particularly, I would say, marijuana, and looking at the subject of decriminalisation and/or legalisation.”

Hang on. Are you saying we should legalise weed? He smiles wryly. “I’m not going to do that in this interview. I’m afraid I’m not someone who wants to kick things off without doing the research. I might make an announcement, but not here.”

Right on cue, the work experience lad who represents the extent of Lammy’s entourage waves his phone clock in the air. Our time is up. But Lammy hasn’t quite finished. He wants to talk about hope, because he still has lots of that for Britain. But to turn hope into action, the Baby Boomers must “get off the stage”. “Y’know, yeah, rock’n’roll, sex and drugs,” laughs Lammy, a Gen-Xer himself. “But the other thing is they overheated the planet, gave us the financial crash, they are responsible for the neo-liberal capitalist view of the world that means we’ve spent a lot and saved very little.”

He thinks millennials are far from the bunch of Insta-narcissists that they are labelled by older generations. “I have shed-loads of hope for the millennials,” he says. “They are a large, progressive, exciting generation, aching to get their hands on the levers of power. Actually, on a whole thrust of issues – ethnicity, race, sexuality – they’ve got it.”

His finger’s going again: “They know what Britain should stand for: a confident, modern country, at ease with its past, able to stand on a foundation of multiculturalism and democracy; one that is fearless in defending those values in the world. An England that understands it has to redistribute wealth to ameliorate inequality.”

It’s easy to despair, to wonder what sort of country we’ve become, what kind of people we are behind the bromide of tolerance and decency we like to reel out. But actually there is hope. Because the qualities we’ve discussed – compassion, diversity, humanity – are very much alive in the modern, future-conscious half of Britain’s population. “There is hope,” repeats Lammy, the finger tapping the coffee table. “There is hope.”

Credits:

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Styling: Sam Carder Fashion Assistant: Itunu Oke Grooming: Alexis Day using DHC Skincare and MAC

Set Designer: Bryony Edwards Set Designer’s Assistant: Katia Hall photographs: Rex Features