This is an excerpt of a wonderful, wide-ranging interview undertaken by Huw Spanner over Skype with David Lammy MP in May. It is published here with the kind permission of High Profile interviews. The full interview can be read – for free, alongside many, many other amazing interviews with leading cultural figures – on the amazing High Profiles website here. The photo is © Andrew Firth.
You mentioned your Christian values. In a recent interview,2 you said that ‘God for me is cultural.’ What did you mean by that?
I think what I meant is [that] I’m not in the business of forcing my faith down anybody else’s throat – I can’t really stand the proselytising Christian traditions. Because I lost my father, and my mother died over a decade ago, my faith has been cultural. When I’m in a church, it locates me in something of my family, it locates me in those early years in Peterborough as a cathedral chorister; and those are comforting feelings, I guess. In that sense, [my faith] is terribly British. It’s the bells-and-smells stuff that I find culturally very comforting.
My Christian faith has given me a sense of self. You know, politics is a rough and tough game, to be honest, and you can lose yourself, to alcohol and drugs and those sorts of things, if you haven’t got that sense of self. If I was being glib, I would say that I think I would have struggled if I just located my sense of self in the Guardian. I need a little bit more than that.
Guyana has a very rich culture. How deep do your roots go there?
We didn’t have the money to go there very often – I remember going once as a young child and being attacked by a bunch of chickens in the yard – but my parents talked a lot about Guyana and it mattered hugely to me.
The first opportunity I got to get to know the country, I went – and I kept going back. I think I’ve been there every year since I was 18 – in a way, I feel most at home there, swimming badly in the Caribbean Sea or eating pepperpot. So, I do feel I’ve got deep roots in the place. And, to be honest, when there has been so much questioning of how English, or British, people like me are [since the EU referendum], it’s mattered to me that Guyana has been there.
Being a minority is always a bit of a challenge: there are burdens and scars that we carry, some of which are hard even to talk about. But the way that I have coped is by holding on to those bits of my identity that are located in very solid places.
Guyana is actually in South America and it’s got elements to it that feel very South American – there are Amerindians, very present – but in the end it’s a Caribbean culture, a community of Africans and Indians. My mother’s grandmother was from Calcutta. So, we’re quite a mixed-up lot, the Guyanese. And there’s a tremendous fragility to the people, because we are the descendants of former slaves and indentured workers.
I have found that the [perspectives] of such people mean a lot to me, the kind of empowerment I get from the heroes of that world, whether it’s Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X or Rosa Parks, or indeed the founders of modern Guyana, people like Forbes Burnham3 and Cheddi Jagan.4
Is identity a zero-sum game? You identify as Guyanese (and I read that you’re proud that you may be a quarter Tuareg), but are you the less English as a result? Or can you be fully both?
Well, I’m not sure it’s as binary as you’re making out. I’m hugely proud to be English.
It occurred to me that I was English [in my twenties,] when I was apparently at a very successful point of my life, working in a California law firm after graduating from Harvard. I had this office that looked over the Pacific but I missed Ribena and Walkers crisps and rugby fields and the BBC, and all the things I cherished. I was the loneliest I’ve ever been in my life and I had to come home, because I was deeply homesick.
It’s a huge privilege, and hugely rewarding, to serve in the House of Commons, and you can’t really do the job unless there’s quite a big [part] of you that sort of loves your country and the people that you rub up against. I’ve always said that I could only ever have been the MP for Tottenham or Peterborough, really, because that sense of place means a lot to me.
I went back to Peterborough for my new book, Tribes,5 and I spent a lot of time with folk who are zealous Brexiteers – and zealous Conservative voters, many of them – but they still adore me and I adore them! It’s a big dimension of me that, you know, they made an imprint on me.
[At the same time,] Tottenham is on the map in the consciousness of this country because we’ve got a great football team, yes, but also, unfortunately, because of the riots [in 1985 and 2011]. So, I suppose that one of the things that are important to me to hold on to, that empower me to speak up on behalf of the people I represent, is an understanding of being powerless, of being written out of the story, of having to hold on to your stories or they’re quickly erased and forgotten – all of those things.
And I’m aware that those feelings can exist all at the same time, I guess.
The subtitle of your book suggests that ‘our need to belong can make or break society’…
There is, I think, a new tribalism in society today – I don’t think anyone would dispute that Britain feels more polarised now than it has for many years. The people who filled the gap when my father left were, overwhelmingly, Middle-England Brits, and so I’m very much a child of consensus, if you like; and yet in the current environment I find myself forced to defend the turf a lot.
I don’t think I would ever have dreamed, in those early Blair years when people were writing about ‘the end of history’6 and it looked like politics was going to be fought in the centre for evermore, that we would be back in this place where those rights fought for and gained in the 20th century are being challenged, and everything is once again up in the air.
I’m now into the last third of my political career, perhaps, [and] I think the first 10 years was a time of consensus. I was the MP for Tottenham but I had a lot in common with MPs from Middle England. Cool Britannia was the theme. This second period has been way more divisive, particularly the last five years, from Farage7 to Trump. The murder of Jo Cox8 – oh God! it’s been tough.