Out of the Ashes by David Lammy – review

The MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, provides an excellent explanation for the 2011 riots, says David Matthews

Stafford Scott: David Lammy's Out of Ashes does not grasp the scale of the community's mistrust

Part memoir, part political essay, Out of the Ashes aims to "offer a way forward for Britain" following this summer's riots. This is an ambitious task. All the indicators suggest Britain is going backwards economically, socially and politically. But David Lammy hits the ground running as the MP for Tottenham, in north London, and his book demands to be read.

Recalling an encounter with Gordon Brown, he reveals the difficulties of getting across a troubling message from the grassroots. In 2008, the PM summoned him and other ministers to a breakfast meeting in Downing Street. They were invited to pitch any "thoughts, suggestions or concerns" they had. Given the reality of gang activity in Lammy's constituency – an area of north London with some of the highest levels of social deprivation in Britain – he told Brown he was "really worried about knife crime". Pointing out that more and more mothers were visiting his surgeries to voice concerns over their sons' safety, Lammy asked the PM what could be done for these women. "Tax credits," said Brown. "If they're single parents and they're working, they'll be entitled to them." Brown then patted Lammy on the arm, thanked him, and carried on working the room. Problem solved.

Cut to 4 August 2011. Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, 29, is shot dead by police officers from Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit that investigates gun crime in London's black communities. Trident had apparently mounted the operation without informing the local police, thus jeopardising years of relationship-building between the community and local officers. Lammy's "heart sank" at the news, conveyed to him by the borough commander. He cut short a family holiday to return to a Tottenham awash with rumour, speculation and misinformation. Two days later, his constituency was up in flames. Within hours, the unrest spread like a contagion to other parts of the city before snaking its way around the country. He says he predicted the riots. This is a brave assertion to make. It's true, however, that, unlike most MPs, he was born and raised in the constituency he represents. And like many of his constituents, he knows about the challenges of single parenthood: his father left the family household when David was 12, forcing his mother Rose to bring up five children by herself. Aware of the tensions in N17, no doubt he did see the riots coming. After all, he'd seen it happen before.

In 1985, the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham erupted. Fuelled by racism, social exclusion, police brutality, poverty and the like, youths took to the streets. Duggan lived on that estate; PC Keith Blakelock died on it. The anger of the rioters, and indeed many pacifists, was articulated graphically by Lammy's predecessor, Bernie Grant MP. "The police got a bloody good hiding," Grant once said. The words were too strong, given that an officer had just been murdered in the line of duty. But those words became the tagline of the 1985 riot. Something political had happened.

The 2011 riots were, on the other hand, "an explosion of hedonism and nihilism", says Lammy. He writes of walking along Tottenham High Road in the smouldering aftermath, a stretch of road that, as a child, he and his father would travel, scooping up droppings from police horses on match days, to take home as manure. Passing the gutted post office he knew as a boy, he is struck by the putrid smell of burning rubber. Elsewhere he finds shopkeepers in tears. The rioters didn't just destroy his neighbourhood, they destroyed part of his history.

Reportage aside, Lammy offers a plausible explanation for what happened. Where Disraeli wrote in the mid-19th century of "two nations", Lammy writes of "two revolutions". "The first was social and cultural: the social liberalism of the 1960s. The second was economic: the free market, liberal revolution of the 1980s. Together they made Britain a wealthier more tolerant nation. But they have come at a cost, combining to create a hyper-individualistic culture, in which we do not treat each other well." Now rights have trumped responsibilities; and freedoms take liberty away from others.

Thanks to the outwardly banal, consumerist nature of the riots, David Cameron was seemingly "on trend" when he proclaimed the riots were "criminality pure and simple". Written off as the work of a "feral underclass", who deserved the draconian sentences they got, this supposedly criminal enterprise looked less a political problem and more one for the courts to deal with. But as Lammy reminds us throughout the book, a continual lack of education, ineffective parental guidance, poor role models, ill-discipline, unemployment and a host of social and developmental ills created the perfect storm for a riot. Yes, the rioters' behaviour was criminal. Yes, people have free will. But go to Tottenham, Hackney, Toxteth, Salford and witness the conditions people are living under. We know that poverty isn't just about a lack of money. It's about a lack of opportunity, prospects, hope. Failures of politics and society further up the food chain played a major part in the riots, as well as craven greed. Lammy points the finger, not just at Thatcher and Cameron, but at Blair and Brown too. This quartet has mortgaged British society, economically and morally. Riots and recession alike are their legacy to us. Ultimately though, it is capitalism and consumerism that are in the dock. "Consumption should supplement our relationships, not become a substitute for them," he says. He quotes a Blackberry message sent by a rioter to one of his young constituents, which in the pidgin text-speak of 21st century Britain, illustrates the flashmob mentality of many of the rioters: "What ever ends [area] your from put your ballys [balaclavas] on link up and cause havic, just rob everything. Police can't stop it." This is freedom "without any sense of duty" he argues. "Our society needs to reconnect with other important, informal regulators of behaviour. Notions of decency towards others. Pride. Shame. Admiration. Scorn."

But this prescription cuts both ways. Simply imploring our feckless youth to join the scouts or go to church to find salvation won't cut it in the current climate. Lammy knows this, which is why his coup de grace is aimed at the moneylenders, and by extension, the politicians that empowered their greed in the first place: "We cannot live in a society in which banks are too big to fail but whole communities are allowed to sink without trace." Cameron, I hope you're listening.


David Matthews

The GuardianTramp

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