David Lammy used to be a politician who was worth listening to; an MP from a working class, African Caribbean background in inner city London, who was prepared to speak honestly about problems in his community. In his 2011 book, Out of the Ashes, Britain After the Riots, he drew on his knowledge of Tottenham which he has served as MP since 2000, to analyse the causes of the riots. In it, he bravely condemned absent black fathers for failing their children and helping to drive criminality and gang culture on the streets (some studies estimate as many as 60 per cent of black children in the UK grow up in single parent households, and Lammy noted that amongst the 19 young people arrested for rioting in Tottenham, only two lived with both their parents).
Lammy said what was – and is – often felt to be unsayable amongst mainstream politicians – that parental responsibility matters and that broken families are not wholly the fault of the state. This is a position that black conservatives in America have argued for a long time but is rarely made in Britain. In the same book, Lammy also made worthwhile points about the need for more funding in the further education system, stronger discipline in schools, and the effect of the smacking ban in undermining parental authority.
With his unusual perspective and interesting backstory, Lammy was identified as a significant political voice; he held several government jobs in the Blairite years and gained enough experience to consider himself a possible future Mayor of London.
So what happened? His political career plateaued and, perhaps in a search for renewed relevance, Lammy has reinvented himself as a kind of Parliamentary shock jock.
Ostensibly, his purpose is still to speak up for marginalised black communities but there has been a significant change of tone. Now his message seems to be shaped to appeal to middle class liberals with an appetite for cultural self abasement. Lammy now blames problems within BAME communities squarely on ‘white’ society. His folk demons are anyone he can reasonably (or unreasonably) accuse of racism.
Every week he seems to pop up throwing out barbed comments and outrageous lines of attack against political opponents. His comments this week on The Andrew Marr Show comparing members of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group to the Nazis is not untypical. It’s not smart or honest, but it hits the button for a certain kind of audience.
Lammy’s entire strategy seems to be to find racism everywhere and to interpret facts in the worst possible light. Sometimes he simply gets facts wrong. In 2017, he produced a report for the Government about race and the criminal justice system, which he claimed in subsequent media appearances showed that black people faced unfair racially biased treatment – although it was noted at the time that in fact, much of the data
in the report indicated this was not the case.
In fact, Lammy’s command of facts has long been fairly tenuous. This was highlighted by his hopeless appearance on Celebrity Mastermind, when, among other howlers, he confused Marie Antoinette with Marie Curie and said that Henry VII came after Henry VIII. It was an embarrassing inept performance for an MP who benefited from a scholarship to Peterborough Cathedral School and later attended Harvard Law School.
Nor does Lammy appear to value consistency. A few months ago, he accused Sunday Times
columnist Rod Liddle of racism for pointing out that black kids are more likely to end up involved in knife crime because of their absent fathers. Did Lammy forget that he once made exactly the same point? As David Goodhart wrote
recently, “The David Lammy of 2011 would surely have attracted the attention of the ‘zero tolerance’ policemen of 2019.”
Is this mere forgetfulness or something more cynical? It could be that Lammy has decided to sustain his career by playing to a base of left-leaning urbanites and Guardian readers. He can whip up anger, slander opponents and denigrate institutions knowing that he is preaching to the converted.
Judging by the number of followers he has on Twitter (c. 500k) and his frequent appearances in the media, Lammy does have a fan base. He has plenty of influential people ready to jump to his defence. A long list of media figures, including LBC Radio Presenter, James O’Brien, and the BBC’s Emily Maitliss liked or commented favourably on social media about his ERG comments. Bizarrely, one academic from the LSE even claimed that to criticise Lammy for being “over-emotional” was a “racist trope”. Not only is Lammy beyond reproach, anyone criticising his hysterical exaggerations and tub thumping, shouty speeches is being racist.
Does Lammy deserve this adulation? In a word, no. But his ‘tribune of the dispossessed’ act serves a purpose for a certain kind of left-liberal, Remainy, right-on person who wants to feel good about themselves and ardently believes themselves to be superior to the oiks and gammon who voted for Brexit. Lammy flatters their moral vanity under the guise of telling truth to power.
What a shame that a politician who had potential and a sense of higher purpose gave in to his own ambition. His involvement in public life now generates an unnecessary amount of poison and fake news.