Tribes by David Lammy review – how to mend our divided society

Episodes of memoir, including DNA tests, a police frisking and a death threat, enliven the Labour MP’s first-rate study of social division

On 16 April 2018 David Lammy, barrister and MP for Tottenham, delivered a parliamentary speech excoriating the government for its mistreatment of members of the Windrush generation. Far from a cynical exercise in political point scoring, this was a cri de coeur, which was met with gratitude in British Caribbean households, as well as tears of relief. The government squirmed, and soon afterwards the home secretary resigned.

At the heart of Lammy’s speech was a plea for empathy, and this is the idea that shapes Tribes, an appeal to repair the breaches caused by the tribalism so evident in our disputatious, Brexit-addled society. How can hospitality rather than hostility become the default?

Part memoir, part cultural and political analysis, Tribes opens with Lammy undertaking a DNA test that reveals his genetic match to the Tuareg tribe in Fafa in Niger, the Temne tribe in Sierra Leone, and the Bantu people of South Africa, along with traces of Scottish DNA. He’s excited by the results, which complicate the narrative of his heritage, enabling him to identify as more than just “a descendant of slaves” (as the Daily Telegraph once described him).

Tribes follows on from his first book, Out of the Ashes, an interrogation of the 2011 Tottenham riots that he characterised as an “expression of the decline of mutuality in British culture”. In this new book he draws parallels between the individualism and greed of the rioters (the stakeless holders in society) and the amoral bankers whose greed precipitated the 2008 financial crisis. “Neither showed ... any respect to those with whom they shared connections, nor any pretence of responsibility for the society of which they were a part.” The seeds of our current disharmony were sown in Thatcherite neoliberalism, which ultimately, Lammy believes, failed poor people in subsequent decades and led to a destructive “hollowing out of communities”.

Lammy writes in plain, earnest prose, but Tribes is more affecting when he dispenses with the politician’s penchant for statistics and offers a self portrait: the son of Guyanese migrants from a council block in Haringey, who has become a stalwart of the House of Commons. His account of familiar humiliations endured by black youths such as “stop-and-search” is enlivened by personal testimony. Aged 12, Lammy tells us, he was “jumped” by three policemen: “They frisked me down over my balls and buttocks with such familiarity that I wet myself.” But ultimately he was fortunate. Awarded a scholarship to a state boarding school in Peterborough, he excelled both academically and as a cathedral chorister. Early in the book he returns there to take the political temperature of local people.

Lammy has been Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000.
Lammy has been Labour MP for Tottenham since 2000. Photograph: Alamy

Tribes is suffused with a generosity towards the white working class in the city, their tongues loosened by Brexit to air grievances about the number of eastern Europeans who are living there. Though he hears numerous versions of “I’m not a racist but …”, Lammy concludes: “Diversity, immigration and technological progress can be hugely positive, but when they break down shared ways of life and social cohesion, it is understandable that people get defensive.”

As he knows from being abused regularly online, the internet has facilitated the globalisation of tribal identities. In a remarkable passage he describes attending the trial of David Hall, the retired 72-year-old engineer who emailed him, threatening: “As you attack the White population of Britain in your aims to gain Black Supremacy in this country, remember what happened to Jo Cox.” Hall’s “free speech” defence failed and he was given a suspended sentence. Lammy casts him not as a pantomime rightwing villain but as a lonely candidate for compassion who was emboldened by an online tribe of bigots.

What can be done to combat the prejudice and vengeful “communities of feelings” of the new tribes? Lammy wonders if “contact theory”, put forward by the psychologist Gordon Allport might provide answers. In Botswana the government reduced tribal conflict by compelling officials from a particular tribe to relocate to areas dominated by another tribe. Lammy reports on the founding in an impoverished part of Wigan of the community centre Sunshine House, to foster “an ‘encounter culture’ for previously isolated individuals to meet”.

Can empathy be learned by people who have little connection to each other? Tribe’s most challenging section centres on the controversies around identity politics. Lammy notes that the Combahee River Collective black feminists who are credited with introducing the term “identity politics” in 1977 combined a focus on their own oppression with the objective of equality for all people.

Personal investment, he asserts, is an incentive to finding solutions. Considering the official inquiry into the death of his friend the artist Khadija Saye, who died in the fire at Grenfell Tower, Lammy observes that public inquiries in Britain, including that on Grenfell, are headed by white middle-class men. Why are black legal professionals always overlooked? The solution is certainly not “colour-blindness”, as popularisd in the 1990s, which leads to a failure to see prejudice when it plainly exists. Records show, he writes, that “progress in social justice is inextricably linked to recognising our identities”.

Like many black people in the African diaspora Lammy yearns to illuminate his past; on a pilgrimage to Niger, he’s moved by the sense of belonging, articulated a century ago by the pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey that “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without a roots”.

But the question remains: what kind of history? Towards the book’s end, Lammy highlights the challenge of agreeing on a shared, sometimes ignominious national story. As long as British history is viewed through the lens of a “white past opposed to a multicultural present”, we risk perpetuating feelings of loss among segments of the population. He argues that “national pride will mean so much more if it’s accompanied by appropriate recognition of national shame”. It’s an admirable notion but one unlikely to find favour with Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Tribes is published by Constable (RRP £20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.


Colin Grant

The GuardianTramp

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