David Lammy: ‘My faith has been with me my whole life and it’s never left’

by
17 April 2020

The new Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy, talks about his mission to bridge the divides in society. Interview by Ed Thornton

PA

David Lammy speaks at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, in September

David Lammy speaks at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, in September

IN SEPTEMBER 1983, an 11-year-old David Lammy boarded a train from King’s Cross station to Peterborough, to take up a choral scholarship at The King’s School, the cathedral school and unusual in being a state-funded boarding school.

The move would shape both his political outlook and his Christian faith.

“I doubt I would have become the MP for Tottenham if I had not spent my formative years in Peterborough,” Mr Lammy writes in his new book Tribes: How our need to belong can make or break society. “Spending time meeting the families of my day-student friends, I gained a new perception of what life could be, and what Middle England could offer. Stability, culture, calm, comfort, duty, service, and tradition were instilled in me. I want to hold on to those values.”

Before boarding the train for Peterborough that day, David Lammy had spent his early life in Tottenham, north London, where he lived with his mother, a Guyanese immigrant, and four siblings. He describes it as a tough time. The riots in the early 1980s drew national attention, especially the murder of PC Keith Blakelock. “That was the backdrop. . . Peterborough gave me tremendous opportunities to find my voice.”

The impact of Peterborough is one reason that Mr Lammy, who has represented Tottenham for nearly 20 years, is difficult to pigeonhole politically. He is socially liberal (a vocal supporter of same-sex marriage, for example) and campaigned strongly for the UK to remain in the European Union. But he is loath to condemn people who voted to leave.

Many of them he would count as friends, such as Clive and Kathy, the parents of his best friend at the The King’s School, Jamieson, in whose home in the Peterborough suburbs he often stayed during the school holidays. In the book, Mr Lammy describes a recent visit to Clive and Kathy as feeling “like a family reunion”.

“Clive and Kathy are very fond of me, and I’m very fond of them,” he says. “They are Leavers; they have very strong views on crime, immigration, the EU. These are not the same as my own, but, in a sense, they reflect what lots of British families experience, which is big divisions based on perspectives on the country. Those divisions are played out across many families. They divide across urban and suburban environments, rural, and city environments.”

It was this sense of a country divided which spurred the writing of Tribes. “The book was conceived, I think, because I sensed a change in the atmosphere in the post- Brexit environment. I found people questioning my sort of legitimacy, really, as an Englishman. I took a strong view on the Remain side, and people often say: ‘Why do you hate England so much?’ or ‘You’re not English.’”

This is a painful accusation to hear. “I love this country, this country’s my home, it’s where my kids were born. . . I was surprised at how many people questioned my own stake in the country.”

As the political environment became increasingly toxic — especially for a prominent black MP who regularly receives death threats and racist abuse — writing the book was therapeutic. “It was an opportunity for me also to explore my own belonging and my own sense of place and self, and that took me to Peterborough, to Tottenham, and to my parents’ Caribbean roots, and also to Niger.” (He discovered from a DNA test that he was 25 per cent from the Tuareg tribe of Niger.)

 

THE book is part-memoir, part-policy analysis and prescription. He visits places that are part of his roots, and reflects on his complex sense of identity: “I am British, English, and a Londoner. But I am also European. . . I am black, but I am also happily married to a white woman [the artist Nicola Green], with three mixed-race kids.”

The book recounts his high-profile campaigns from the back benches, on issues such as Brexit, the Windrush scandal, and the Grenfell Tower fire (his friend the artist Khadija Saye died in the tower).

The sense in which he uses the term “tribes” goes beyond belonging to a particular ethnic group or nation. Instead, he uses it “as a metaphor to describe the creeping resurgence of our polarisation into groups at the beginning of the twenty-first century”. Tribal identities, he argues, “are not exclusively the result of your ethnic make-up or the place you live. Instead, they are often the product of the tensions and splits in the modern world.” Being part of a tribe satisfies “the very human desire to belong to something bigger than yourself”.

The need to belong lies at the heart of the book, which acknowledges that religion has played a central part in building communities and relationships: “Without organised religion, or a secular alternative, it is much easier to become convinced that we are simply individuals, without responsibility for society as a whole.”

 

IF PETERBOROUGH shaped Mr Lammy’s perspective on politics and society, it also left a lasting mark on his Christian faith. “I can’t remember a day between the ages of 11 and 13 when I wasn’t singing,” he writes in Tribes. “If I wasn’t performing at matins, mass, eucharist or evensong, I was practising. Every day for three years.”

For Mr Lammy, faith is integral. “I have a deep faith. It’s a faith that has been with me my whole life, and it’s never left; I’ve never doubted that faith. If anything, it’s grown stronger since both my parents have died.

“It’s a very cultural faith. Music has always been a big part of it. Choral traditions, hymns, bells and smells in the Anglo-Catholic sense — all of it speaks to the way in which I connect with God and the spiritual, and it gives me a powerful sense of belonging. . . It’s definitely a very big component of who I am.”

His faith has helped him “to show compassion”, he says, to people who have issued him with death threats, and has spurred him to try to build bridges across divides.

The Church of England has been reckoning with the racist treatment of the Windrush generation, for which the General Synod apologised in February (News, 14 February). What reception did his parents, immigrants from Guyana, receive in British churches?

“My family’s experience was typical of that generation, which was that they bounced around, really, from church to church, until they could find a friendly priest and a friendly environment. Even though they were Anglo-Catholics from Guyana, they went to Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed churches, partly because the congregations tended to have more ethnic minorities, and they were friendly environments.

“I don’t think, on reflection, my mother was entirely comfortable in those more Evangelical traditions. She landed at St Philip’s, Tottenham, and she was at home with the priest, Fr Ken Evans, who, sadly, died last year. It was typical of the Windrush [generation] that they weren’t always treated well.”

Mr Lammy thinks that the Archbishop of Canterbury was “right and brave” to assert during the Synod debate that the C of E was still “deeply institutionally racist”.

“I’m always surprised that people get quite so sensitive about the phrase ‘institutional racism’ that came about as a result of the Macpherson report [on the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993]. I’m surprised that people can be so sensitive, because I think people feel singled out in institutions and so they cower. . .

“Phrases like ‘institutional racism’ are not about the individuals: it’s about the institutions and something that’s systemic. That’s why it’s such an important phrase, because it gets at the heart of the matter — and the heart is usually power and vested interests.”

Mr Lammy has no wish to condemn the C of E. “There are many thousands of black and ethnic minorities who have found a home in the Church of England and have benefited greatly from the Church of England, including myself. You can be critical as well as accepting many, many people who have gained and benefited.”

 

MR LAMMY’s is “not a proselytising faith”, he says, but it informs his political outlook. Both Tribes and his previous book, Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots (Guardian Books, 2012), have “a communitarian spirit” running through them.

“There is a Christian Socialist spirit; there is a recognition that the Labour Party, in the end, was founded by Methodists, and it reaches out. . . It’s a faith that turns over the tables and was not afraid to speak truth to power, but it’s a faith that recognised the power of redemption as well and a certain generosity. The two, for me, go hand in hand.”

The coronavirus pandemic has revived the communitarian spirit, he believes. “Coronavirus is reminding us, one, of our humanity and vulnerability, and, two, how we must come together to support one another. . .

“The loss of life is horrendous and the fear is horrendous; but there may be just one silver lining to what is happening, and that is that we rely once again on our neighbours. The flowering of support for elderly relatives and neighbours and those with underlying conditions has been very, very special.”

While the pandemic has brought out the best in people, however, it has also displayed the worst, Mr Lammy says: a “super-individualism”, which is damaging to society. “The selfishness on display in some of our supermarkets has been utterly shameful.”

For Mr Lammy, hope lies not, ultimately, in economic solutions to society’s ills, but in finding ways for different people to encounter one another. “I worry that, today, if you don’t go to university in Britain, which is still the vast majority of young people, if you’re in Sunderland, how do you meet a young person from Tottenham? How do you encounter something beyond your town or your immediate community?”

One policy that he believes might bridge some of the divisions is a national civic service, similar to the one that President Macron has introduced in France. “It is a nod in the direction of . . . a sense of duty and common purpose at this time.”

 

A FEW weeks after this interview was conducted, the new leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, appointed Mr Lammy as his Shadow Justice Secretary (News, 9 April) — Mr Lammy’s first front-bench post in ten years. It is a job for which he is well qualified: he has practised as a barrister in England and the United States, and completed a Master’s at Harvard Law School.

On the evening of his appointment, Mr Lammy wrote on Twitter that he had had “a very productive call” with the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, “regarding the extraordinary pressures on our courts and prisons as a result of COVID19. In this crisis, I am determined to provide responsible and constructive opposition in the national interest.”

If ever there was a time for tribal political loyalties to be put to one side, it is now.

Tribes by David Lammy is published by Constable at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18).

WATCH: David Lammy’s reunion with his former music teacher, Mary Shepherd:

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