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British MP David Lammy: Current Partisan Politics Are ‘Playing To The Worst Instincts Of Tribalism’21:13
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David Lammy of the Labour Party out meeting voters in North London.  (Courtesy)
David Lammy of the Labour Party out meeting voters in North London. (Courtesy)

David Lammy, one of British Parliament's most prominent and successful campaigners for social justice, belongs to many “tribes,” as he describes it.

He has roots in Guyana, where his descendants were enslaved people from Africa. But he was able to confirm where his African ancestors were from after taking a DNA test that showed his lineage went back to Bantu South Africa and Angola, the Temne tribe in Sierra Leone and the Tuaregs in Niger. He discovered he had a little bit of Scottish in him too, he says.

He uses this information in his book, "Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society,” where he explores how his connections to different communities, including his life in the United Kingdom and his career as a politician for the Labour Party, shape who he is and what he believes.

But sorting ourselves into groups can also be problematic, he says. It’s what has led to deeply divided partisan politics in the U.K. and beyond, he says.

In this current age of populism, he says “huge swathes of the population” are diving headfirst into “deliberately playing to the worst instincts of tribalism” in order to divide each other rather than unite together.

Extreme politics on the left and right are taking people further away from the real issues at play, he says. Social media and manipulation from external sources, such as Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, stoke those flames, he argues.

“You know, the challenges of our time — climate change, a global pandemic — actually require global cooperation,” he says. “That's the point.”

Interview Highlights

On finding his genetic sense of self

“Well, I think like a lot of African Americans who are listening, like a lot of folk who stem from the Caribbean or Latin America, we are hybrid people. And if you are the descendant of enslaved people, you know, at a certain point there was a dramatic traumatic interruption in which your descendants lost their language, lost their culture, lost who they were. And because most of those slaves were captured as really sort of teenagers, that chain and that link back to wherever you came from in Africa was broken. So there is a longing — and a belonging — that isn't quite there.

“It's an intriguing process to take your DNA test if you are the descendant of enslaved people. And that's the journey I went on — and it took me to Niger. And I write about that experience of going to a Black Muslim country, spending time with these wonderful Black Muslim people, praying with them, eating with them, sitting with them. And I felt deep, a deep connection that I said to them at the end of the ceremony they did for me that I will stand up in the House of Commons in London and I will stand taller than I was before I came here because I have a greater sense of who I am as I stand in that historic place, speaking truth to power.”

On how his tribes — his ancestry, nationality, career, etc. — interconnect

“I thought it was important if I was going to write a book about the new tribalism that is gripping our world, that is making politics deeply partisan, that is meaning that people fall into these rabbit holes and echo chambers, that I need to explore my tribe. … I'm the descendant of Guyanese people who were formerly Africans. But in the end, I grew up in London and in the city of Peterborough in middle England. I was very fortunate to go to Harvard Law School. I am a Black middle-class man here in the U.K. and in getting to what I wanted to write about, it was important to explore my tribes and I explore those tribes in the book.

“I talk about what it meant to go to a boarding school in Peterborough. I go back to that city. I speak to people who have strong views about immigration, people who took me into their homes, who fed me, who loved me because I had friends from that school who lived in the city but nevertheless have very different views to me. These are folk in the U.K. that would be like folk you would meet in the Rust Belt in America that would have voted for Donald Trump and feel very strongly against folk in the city and in Washington. I spent time with those people and talked about my affection for those folk, even though we had very different views. [I talked about] how I belong in that city and how that makes me English and how there are things about me, despite being a Black Briton, you know, things [about me] that are quintessentially English: my humor, the food I eat and like, the things that I grew up about with, and indeed my party, the Labor Party and the traditions that the Labor Party has as a senior British politician.

“So I explore all of that and I try to write about these things in a way that's not judgemental, in a way that's trying to listen and to hear and to bridge divides. You know, I'm married to a white middle-class woman. My children are biracial and I have a large white extended family, some of whom do not hold the same political views as myself. I'm trying to write in a generous way to arrive at a point where I explore the divisions that we're all living with that seem so powerfully strong in wider society at this time.”

On a story he heard from a taxi driver whose son had been radicalized by ISIS

“Well, it was a trip that I was in a sort of taxi on the way to Heathrow Airport. And it was just a painful story because, of course, in examining how this had happened, we touched on the loneliness of these young men sitting in their bedrooms, the internet, what was going on at the local mosque, the ways in which these young men were seduced into this violent extremism that had now had a catastrophic effect on their family.

“I linked that theme of loneliness to another individual who sent me and five other members of parliament here in the U.K. a serious death threat. And I went to his trial. And despite the fact that this man had called me the N-word, had held abused, had threatened to kill me, sitting in his trial I realized that this individual was kind of pathetic and was lonely. He was a lonely, mean racist, [who was] able to sort of ... be seduced into extremism — this is far-right extremism, the sort of extremism that killed my fellow MP and colleague Jo Cox a few years ago here in the U.K. These same themes coming up that I thought it was important to explore.”

On the human desire to belong

“We have an innate need to belong. And I think the other thing that I explore in the book is, of course, the theme of our times, identity politics. Here I am as a Black member of Parliament, of course, called to defend and speak up for minority Black communities here in the U.K. and globally to be in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter. But at the same time, I also recognize that if race is the start and end of every conversation, then we run the risk of not finding common purpose and a shared humanity.”

On whether we can find shared humanity

“Look, if you believe in human dignity, if you understand that before the invention of scientific racism, the science that allowed Europeans to go out and colonize and enslave the world, of course there's a common humanity. That means that empathy and compassion and whatever the color of our skin, we share so much more in terms of our genetics and our DNA. And I explore that at length in my book, 'Tribes.' But I guess you have to dismantle the architecture that has been years and years in the making and we're still on that painful journey.

“In a way, I'm uplifted by Black Lives Matter, because when I look at protests globally, whether in the United States, in Sydney, Australia, or in London, I see Black and white young people saying enough is enough. And I see active allies. They may not be Black, but they're active. They're using what they perceive to be their privilege to make a difference — and that inspires me.

“But I also worry Black pain, that gaze that settled on the dying man that was George Floyd, is so familiar. And in a sense, whilst the story is so often portrayed as being about Black people, in my view, Black people have been telling this story that is structural racism for hundreds of years.

“And the real question is not about blackness, it seems to me, it is a question about whiteness. It is a question about how majority communities finally now just don't just see, but act. And that's the opportunity that we have at the moment, that there is a sense that we have to act. And perhaps it is because of the current incumbent of the White House, the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street, the current incumbent in [Brazil's capital city] Brasilia. It's perhaps because of these individuals that we've reached this critical point.”

On reckoning with unconscious bias and racism

“Well, look, I am writing there about white fragility. And I say this married to a white woman with white family members. Let me be clear about that. But I'm writing about the way in which almost because of [Martin] Luther King [Jr.]'s call to look past color, can Black children and white children sit down together? That there's this assumption really that the best state is to be colorblind. And of course, that is not what King was talking about.

“King was getting way beyond that because being Black is real for Black people. It has consequences for Black people. And so it's not about being colorblind and it's not about individual acts of racism, it's about a system and a structure that is institutionalized, systemized and is ... so debilitating. You have to get past the fragility of, ‘Oh my God, that person just implied I was racist or called me racist’ or ‘Oh my God, what do you mean I've got an unconscious bias?’

“And let me tell you something from my point of view, from where I'm sitting here, that's not judgmental. It's me being honest about race. I remember when I came to America and I studied at Harvard Law School and then I got a job in Silicon Valley. And when I went to work as a lawyer in Silicon Valley, it was the first time that I had ever met Native Americans. I had all these weird ideas from cowboy films. Deeply, deeply prejudiced tropes about what it meant to be a Native American. I brought that baggage to that law firm, and I needed to be seriously educated about what it meant to be Native American. I had to face my prejudices and my assumptions. I had to unlearn that crap that had crawled into my soul. And I had to get over my prickliness of being challenged for having prejudicial views — and that's work. And I had to do that work. Now, I may have been assisted because I had experienced prejudice. But no Black man wants to be called prejudice. So what I'm saying is that was a system, a system that put Native Americans at the bottom of the heap. And in a sense, you have to unlearn that stuff and it's work. You have to do the work.”

On reparations in both the U.S. and U.K.

“The starting point is truth and reconciliation. As we saw in South Africa, repairing the damage is about truth. It is about reconciliation. And when I say truth, that means that we're no longer in a society where we question notions like white privilege. We're no longer in a society where we say, look, systemize racism doesn't exist. And then we get to a point where we have to discuss power and reckoning and repairing — and that to some extent is obviously financial and involves endowments.

“I'm really, really pleased that here in the U.K., we have universities like Cambridge University [and] Glasgow University doing the work to understand their slave history and what they did and why they did it. And then thinking about how do we move on from there?”

On whether voting should be mandatory

“I actually believe it should be. People died to give us the vote. Yes, let's make it mandatory.”

On if Brexit will happen at the end of this year

“Yes, I think that Britain will be leaving the European Union and it will be Boris Johnson that's the face of that departure. And that departure will hit the U.K. economy massively. It comes at the same time as the post-pandemic economy. So the U.K. is going to be, in my estimation, in a very, very fragile place in the global community, and it's deeply, deeply worrying. But it is Boris Johnson that has delivered it and he must be held to account for it.”

On whether it's possible that the U.K. would reenter the European Union in the future

“I don't think in my lifetime. The debate's been so scarring, but I think there's a reckoning. There's a reckoning for Britain in really coming to terms with not being the country of empire and not being part of the European Union. Now, whether it becomes the 51st state of the United States of America, we'll see. But some people think that is the only way that, frankly, this country can survive as we know it going forward. I haven't got a crystal ball. Let's see.”

On the rise of the far-right and far-left in many countries

“Well, in an age of deep inequality, where we're now going into a recession, depression for many economies where we have largely unregulated social media, I'm afraid we will see extreme politics. There's no doubt about it.

“However, I do have a lot of faith in this younger generation who I do think get it. They get climate change. The problem is they are some way from the levers of power. They're still young, right? Just look at the American election, look at the candidates and look how old they are. So we're in a bridging point. Let's see what happens in the November elections in the U.S. But it is a rocky period. We will get through it. And as one old-timer said to me, when we do get through it, my God, it's going to make the 1960s look tame.”


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.


Book Excerpt: 'Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society'

By David Lammy

FROM APATHY TO TRIBALISM

I am from Guyana, or at least both of my parents were. As the test I took revealed back in 2007, my DNA is a close match to members of the Tuareg tribe in Niger, West Africa, but I do not speak their language. I grew up in the British Caribbean community in a single-parent household in Tottenham, but I spent term time as a choirboy at a boarding school in Peterborough. I am British, English and a Londoner, but my answer to where I am from changes depending on how far I am from my first home on Dongola Road in Tottenham. I am a member of parliament for the Labour Party, but I did not spend my time at university wearing a red rosette and knocking on doors. I am a lifelong Spurs fan, but occasionally I lend my support to Peterborough United F.C. I have faith in Christianity and its traditions, but my views are progressive. I grew up working-class with no elite connections, but these days I am one of the Queen’s Privy Councillors, and I am friends with the man who became the forty-fourth president of the United States of America. I am black, but I am happily married to a white woman, with three mixed-race kids.

These are several of my identities. Each classifies me according to a characteristic that qualifies me for membership in a specific group. My identities are fluid and cross-cutting, and a couple of them even contradict. There is no doubt that they have contributed to who I am today: the views I hold, the dreams I have and the prejudices I cannot shed. I am all my identities at once, but at the same time none of them on their own define me. They are socially constructed, in so far as they would be meaningless if it weren’t for how they relate to other people.

Sometimes I use my group identities to make a political point. I make no apologies for this. Blackness is as rare in the House of Commons as it is in an Alpine ski resort. I am not the only black member of parliament, but we could probably all fi t into one cable car. When I perceive an injustice towards the black community, I speak out against it not as an objective observer, but as a member of that group. Of course, there are times for cool, dispassionate and objective politics, but there are other occasions when it is important for politics to be about who you are, where you come from and where you belong.

When seventy-two people were burned alive by a preventable fire in a social-housing block made up disproportionately of black, Asian and minority-ethnic people, I spoke with a special passion reserved for those whose lives are just as precarious as mine was growing up. When it became apparent that thousands of British citizens were being subjected to the full force of Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ because of their skin colour, I thought of my parents when I called it a national day of shame.

When I entered public life after the 2000 Tottenham by-election, triggered by the sad death of my formidable predecessor Bernie Grant, our main challenge during the campaign was to make sure that people turned out in what was traditionally a safe Labour seat. This was particularly difficult after our party’s momentous landslide victory in the 1997 general election. In the end I won a comfortable majority, but only around one quarter of the electorate used their ballot papers. I remember being told this was the third-lowest turnout in a by-election since the Second World War. It was more evidence of an apathy in politics, particularly among young people, that was beginning to become a concern to broad sections of the media.

Apathy was the subject of my maiden speech in Parliament. I spoke about the lack of engagement between voters and politicians, and called for political parties to make more effort to get the public interested. There was a sense that most people no longer cared about politics because the two major parties agreed on too much. Some academics, politicians and journalists bought into Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the liberal democracy we had achieved marked the end of history. There was excessive consensus. Not enough to argue about.

Indifference is poison to democratic politics. Meaningful options are vital if we are to offer people choice. Debate is necessary for us to further understanding, to synthesise opposing viewpoints and to come to wise conclusions. Yet complaints about apathy in our politics feel strange and foreign now.

Twenty years ago, when I first became an MP, I could never have predicted how far the mood would shift. Concerns about apathy have been replaced by deeper worries about toxic new forms of tribalism. Factions within political parties have become more bitter enemies of each other than of their supposed opponents. We have a resurgent, populist nationalist right that is anti-migrant, denies climate change and wants to roll back human rights. On the far left there is a dangerous minority who have confused anti-capitalism with anti-Semitism and have turned inwards, not wanting to reach out to the world. In between the extremes of far left and right, too many of us are guilty of jumping to conclusions based on who a person is rather than what they say.

Analysing the phenomenon of tribalism as though I am an objective observer would fail to recognise that belonging is deeply personal. A balanced account of why we have become polarised, and what we should do about it must not only address the dangers of tribal membership and suggest what should replace it. It must also contain a personal exploration of the groups where I have found belonging. This should include all the virtues of group membership as well as its defects. I therefore begin this book with a section called ‘My Tribes’, where I retrace my sense of belonging in three groups to which I am personally connected. I do this to find out what we can learn from the differences between each of these tribes: what holds them together, how open they are to new people, how they are changing and what it feels like to be part of each of them. In the second part, ‘How Belonging Can Break Society’, I focus in on the loneliness crisis we are experiencing and address criticisms of identity politics. In part three, ‘How Belonging Can Make Society’, I put forward some ideas for how we can, together, move beyond tribalism for the benefit of all.


Excerpted from "Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society" by David Lammy. Copyright © 2019 by David Lammy. Republished with permission of Little, Brown Book Group.

This segment aired on July 29, 2020.

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