March 5, 2020

David Lammy, the prominent Labour MP, has written a remarkable book, as fascinating an account of his life as of his breath-taking double standards.

Rich in description, Tribes begins with a DNA test landing on his doorstep. Driven to find out more about his pre-slavery roots, Lammy discovers he is part-Tuareg and journeys to Niger in search of his origins where his newfound co-ethnics wrap him in a long white turban and robe. Initiated into the Tuareg in a ceremony accompanied by the “infectious beat” of singing, drums and ululating, he feels this “immense sense of belonging” which changes his world.

“This has been one of the most special moments of my life,” he tells his hosts, and when in Parliament, he would now “stand much taller”. In the local capital, he recognises himself in the physical features of those around him.

Lammy’s quest for origins is the most interesting part of the book. He transports us to his ancestral community of Hopetown, Guyana. Here he recounts that “everyone in the village seems to be related to me in some way… the Thomsons, the Johnsons, the Semples and the Grants…” He speaks warmly of the luxuriant fauna and the local village festival, as well as his ancestors who helped establish the village in 1841.

It’s a powerful story of identity, so I was interested in how the book drew a connection between these rich life stories and those of England. Unfortunately, my admittedly academic outlook was repeatedly frustrated as the narrative chopped and changed between topics, rarely pursuing an argument for more than a few pages.

Yet when Lammy considers the ethnic English, his attraction to communities of shared ancestry takes a sharp dive. “An ethnic Englishness,” Lammy writes, “tied to toxic assumptions about group supremacy, has put down deep roots in recent years.”

His connection to the white English runs through Peterborough, where he attended a state boarding school and made local friends. The parents of one friend, Clive and Kathy, are depicted as generous, but critical of the new East European migration. While claiming to understand the feelings of insecurity induced by rapid immigration in Peterborough, Lammy admonishes those who don’t embrace the transition.

Some of the local white working class are “anxious about the changes society is undergoing and end up retreating into smaller groups,” yet “others are bursting with hope and generosity”. All that is needed is more opportunities for Clive and Kathy to mix with the “dozen or so hard-working Eastern European migrants crammed into the small family home next door” and all will be well.

The term ‘tribalism’ is often reserved for expressions of group feeling Lammy dislikes, notably English ethnicity and, more broadly, ethnic majority sentiment across the West. Minorities tend instead to have the more positive-sounding ‘identity’. Yet, as I point out in my book Whiteshift, attachment to in-group is not correlated with disliking out-groups in peaceful societies. Does someone’s attachment to being black make them anti-white? No, say decades of studies. The same holds the other way around, even as the book seems unable to separate English ethnicity from the unfalsifiable charge of superiority and domination.

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This said, Lammy does own up to being a member of various tribes, including the Labour one, and the book makes an important argument that competitive individualism has eroded older communal structures, paving the way for a less cohesive society. The solution, he argues, is a new localism, promoting mixing across groups, giving local authorities more money and power, as well as the mandate to set their own immigration policies.

The book is at its best when discussing Lammy’s autobiography and the identity questions faced by Afro-Caribbean Britons. There is no doubt that differing from the majority – on the grounds of race, sexuality, language proficiency, height or disability – makes life more complicated, and can give rise to discrimination and inequality. There has been considerable injustice on these fronts in the past, and indeed some persists today. However, whereas a systematic approach to this problem would place it in world-historical context, Lammy tends to lose his sense of proportion when discussing race in Britain and America, favouring — dare I say it — an ideologically tribalist approach.

It seems the book has two settings. The first, corresponding to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s deliberative “System 2″ is the macro discussion of individualism, loneliness and alienation, how these promote tribalism, and how to address it. This part of the book, though overdetermined and insufficiently alive to counterarguments, is based on academic studies and a clear thesis.

On occasion, however, Lammy toggles to a fast-thinking “System 1”, bypassing the prefrontal cortex to enter a totalising binary mode in which there are the good folk who embrace diversity and the bad ethnic nationalists/fascists/racists. While he acknowledges some difference between the “fears and anxieties” of the Mail-reading classes and “more sinister groups like…UKIP”, there is precious little in the way of nuance when it comes to understanding his tribe’s ‘other’. Perhaps aware that there might just be a tension between donning the mantle of Healer while demonising the outgroup, he claims that he has sacrificed his tribalism by calling out anti-Semitism in his Labour Party.

The problem, of course, is that Lammy’s ideological tribe is not just Labour, but the cultural Left, or, more specifically, adherents of what African-American linguist John McWhorter terms the “religion of antiracism”.

This secular religion holds that an identity group’s place on the oppressor-victim totem pole determines when it should speak or “just listen”, and that group experience endows a member of an oppressed group with both unique empirical knowledge and a moral authority, neither of which may be questioned with representative data or analytic logic. To attempt do so is to profane the sacred. To question whether a comment like “America is a colourblind society” is racist, or whether “white fragility” is an unfalsifiable trope based on circular reasoning, marks one out for excommunication.

Lammy is quite open about the fact that when the religion kicks in, tribalism is fine: “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.” Cue System 1. Back in System 2, we hear the reasonable argument that social media is helping to fuel division, anger and loneliness. Yet we also hear that the author has more followers than the daily circulation of the Times or Telegraph, using this platform to “call out opponents when I think they are wrong”.

For Lammy, when his identity – be it black British or the identity Left – is triggered, he feels entitled to dispense with System 2. The Windrush scandal, in which administrative sloppiness led to people resident for decades in the country being told to leave, was rightly criticised. So too was the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which building control failures were compounded by inept fire evacuation instructions. Theresa May’s campaign to crack down on illegal immigration was likewise bedevilled by bureaucratic errors in the Home Office.

The fact that these measures fell disproportionately — but far from completely — on black people and ethnic minorities led proponents of the religion of antiracism like Lammy to stick the ‘racist’ label on them. The same holds for Oxbridge, which Lammy berates for their low black student intake, his first port of call being to blame discrimination and racism.

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It’s one thing to deliver a strongly-worded accusation of racism if one has compared the public response to analogous situations in which the victims are predominantly white (Hillsborough, for instance). An honest attempt to rule out competing explanations would provide the scientific foundation for a claim of injustice. But to presume that because one possesses the right identity credentials, one’s outrage should cause others to fall to their knees in supplication is to overestimate the size of the progressive religion’s congregation. In fact, the main result of this priestly strategy is to fuel the polarisation Lammy rightly laments.

Some of the book’s policy aims, such as more money for local government, spaces for mixing across social lines, and facilities for people to interact face-to-face on the basis of equal status, are sound. The plea to overcome tribal division is welcome. However, the idea that Britain should not have a limit on the number of immigrants because businesses need workers, or because “the world is far wealthier, connected, and more reliant on the free movement of labour than in previous centuries” shows that Lammy is deaf to those outside the bubble. Calls for a global identity, Canadian-style multiculturalism and re-educating people to celebrate immigration come straight out of the New Labour playbook.

Writing off the views of older generations as rooted in chauvinism, Lammy essentially rests his hope in demography: baby-boomers dying off will allow cosmopolitan youth to bring forth the millennium. Like much of the Left, he has learned nothing from the rise of populism and urges ideological purity.

Lammy repeats the claim that British people uncritically celebrate Empire. Yet there is no evidence presented that this is what is being taught, or that Britons are unaware of Britain’s part in the Slave Trade. Yes, there is pride in Empire, but — as with Pakistani celebration of the Mughal Empire — this is more a reflection of general national sentiment than a moral statement.

And those like Oxford’s Nigel Biggar who seek to adjudicate the positives and negatives of Empire are under immense pressure to bend the evidence toward the latter. For Lammy to dismiss the view that transatlantic slavery was not distinct in world-historical terms – a claim made by the recent “1776’ group of African-American intellectuals – as a “glib attempt to deny a real injustice” is not an argument, but just a system 1 reaction.

Banging on about national sins more than already occurs in elite institutions can only feed division. Better to permit those who wish to pay more attention to sins to do so, others to foreground the positives, but all to agree on basic facts, basing claims in representative historical samples.

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At first I imagined that the book would engage in more self-reflection about tribalism rather than criticising it for opponents while indulging in it for one’s own, yet at bottom the book fails to see the log in its own eye.

It caricatures Leave voters and ethnic English people attached to their identity as fearful, backward-looking authoritarians, yet part of nationhood and local identity includes historic ethnic composition. It is possible for people — including minorities — to be attached to the distinctive ethnic composition of England without this implying that non-whites are less English. Seeking to conserve a critical mass of distinctive characteristics, or slow their erosion, is not the same as excluding from membership. To use the charge of ‘exclusion’ as a stick to beat those who want slower ethnic change or more time for ethnic assimilation is to stoke the politics of division.

A critical reflection might have asked how the African-Caribbean residents of Hopetown, or of Guyana, should react if their town or country were to transition to majority Indian. It might have mused about Afro-Creole cultural and political hegemony in Guyana and other diverse Caribbean societies.

It might even have reflected on Lammy’s Bantu ancestors, who enslaved pygmies and conquered the San the way agriculturalists in North America conquered the hunter-gatherers there. Not because Lammy’s co-ethnics are worse, but because they have acted the same as whites in analogous situations.

Ultimately the book fails because it sidesteps the role of progressive tribalism in stoking cultural conflict and polarisation. There is an accommodation to be had, but not on these terms. 

David Lammy’s Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society, is published by Little, Brown, priced £20

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