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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Why it’s time to put our tribes to one side

David Lammy MP has written a book called Tribes. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Im / Barcroft Media via Getty Images - Credit: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL reviews the personal and political messages in David Lammy’s new book Tribes.

There is, the saying goes, a good book in everyone. David Lammy has written one. I will confess – when the Labour MP and former minister first contacted me and asked me to read it, I thought “oh no, not another bloody tome to add to the piles beside my bed,” loosely divided into ‘those I want to read’ and ‘those I have been asked to read’. One of the downsides of being a soon to be 16-times published author (plug alert, my book on depression, Better to Live, is out in May) is that other authors and publishers think you might want to read their books, review them, offer a comment for the cover.

David’s request was more simple – could I get a review done in The New European? But I could tell by the tone – “I think you will find it interesting” – that he hoped I would do it myself. The timing was not ideal, as I have recently discovered the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, and, guided by my pal Edi Rama, the country’s prime minister, artist and (plug alert two – subject of a profile in one of the above-mentioned 16 books, number one bestseller, Winners: And How They Succeed) I have been hoovering my way through his novels. Any reading time for David, therefore, would eat into the reading time for Kadare, seven of whose books were in the ‘want to’ pile, four down, three to go.

That I interrupted my latest literary obsession to read David’s book speaks to the theme in the title, Tribes. I am, as is often pointed out by friend and foe, very tribal. David belongs to several of my tribes. Most obviously of course the Labour tribe and though I have been formally expelled for voting tactically in the European elections, I consider myself to be more tribally Labour than those who have reduced the party to its current parlous state, who are just tribally helpful to keeping the Tories in power.

David expressed support for me at the time of my expulsion, so cementing tribal feelings of brotherhood. We are both London tribe too, he by birth, me having seen my children born and grow up there. We are football fan tribal, and though our teams may differ – his Spurs and England to my Burnley and Scotland – the common feelings of football fandom provide another bond. And of course we were very much part of the pro-Remain, anti-Brexit, People’s Vote tribe.

With these tribal connections and more, how could I not at least give the book a skim read before getting back to Kadare’s masterpiece, The General of the Dead Army? But when I got into it, I really got into it. It is nicely written. Above all it is rich, in thought, history, anecdote and experience.

Analysis of big themes like technology, climate change, terrorism, loneliness, nationalism, mingle with real stories of real people to whom he listens without prejudice or judgement.

One page he is talking to Bernie Sanders, the next Michael Heseltine, then Spurs footballer Eric Dier and having his eyes opened to the possibility that football crowd tribalism can feel very different to a player than to a fan.

This is no celeb fest, however. He revisits Peterborough, where his singing talents won him a place in a state boarding school, to try to find out why those who backed Brexit joined that particular tribe.

He meets the father of a London taxi driver whose son joined ISIS, to explore how he chose that tribe. He shares some of the disgusting racist abuse he receives as he delves into the growth of far-right nationalism and does not pull punches when it comes to calling out populist politicians who enable and encourage.

But this, in the spirit of non-tribalism, is much more than an exposé of his political opponents. A revealing passage concerns the time he was hauled over the coals by Ed Miliband for going what the then Labour leader considered to be “off message”.

And when he gets to solutions that might meet the central challenge posed in the subtitle – how our need to belong can make or break the good society – he looks beyond boundaries of left and right to explore how the tribalism which is doing so much to divide us can be made to build a sense of community.

His proposal for “national civic service” sounds like it comes from the right. The way he argues it however, makes it sound anything but. “There are reasons to support a new politics of belonging from both the left and the right,” he says. “Small c conservatives who value tradition, family values and place should be invigorated by the opportunity to restore pride in our localities. Left-wingers who value solidarity, the social fabric and equality should spot it as a chance to create opportunity and hope for the many.”

I have a rather strange habit when I am reading non-fiction. If I see something that particularly interests me, I mark the point with a pen and fold in the corner of the page. You can see from the picture that there were many such moments. One concerned his observation – particularly telling given the centralising mindset of our current prime minister – that more than 70% of UK public spending is under the control of the prime minister and the cabinet, compared with 20% in Germany.

He is at his polemic best when denouncing the effect of austerity on local government services that hold communities together. Another German contrast came on refugees. Follow our media, listen to many of our politicians and you would think every refugee entering Europe wants to end up in the UK. Fact time – at the peak of the refugee crisis, 2015, the UK received 32,733 refugees. Germany saw the registration of 1.1m asylum seekers.

He visits Wigan, where Labour MP Lisa Nandy warns that unless we develop the right response to current concerns in places like this, “we could have fascism in five years”. That one definitely got a turned in page! He states clearly however that though we progressives may all find many reasons to loathe what the populist nationalist right has done to exploit grievance around the world, we have not yet created the new politics that can properly challenge it.

David’s book deserves to be read in the context of the need to do so. The motivation for writing it is clearly political and personal. He gives the impression of never quite feeling that he belongs. At school as the only black child, at university, in a California law firm, in parliament as one of a tiny minority, he was always conscious of being different.

Yet precisely because he did move, geographically and career wise from the Tottenham tribe into which he was born, he sometimes feels a stranger there too. I felt another personal resonance on that one, as someone who grew up feeling Scottish in England, and English in Scotland.

The book starts with David revealing the results of a test to establish the make-up of his DNA. I did the same a few years ago and discovered that I was ‘42% Ireland/Scotland/Wales, 31% Great Britain, 16% West Europe and 11% Scandinavia’. Though clear I was a Celt, this left me somewhat confused, not least trying to work out the read-across from ‘Ireland/Scotland/Wales’ and ‘Great Britain’.

It meant I did not greet my results with the same excitement David greeted his – 25% the Tuareg tribe in Fafa, Niger. 25% the Temne tribe in Sierra Leone and 25% the Bantu tribe in South Africa. Amid the rest came traces of Scots. “We’re cousins,” I texted him as I folded down that page. Armed with his DNA results he explores his genetic roots. It is quite a journey though because of the threats posed by Islamic terror groups, he can only go so far and no further and certainly not to Fafa.

Ironic, he says, that “my journey to find my roots in the old tribalism was blocked by one of the most dangerous examples of the new”. It does not prevent however a lavish ceremony adopting him into the Tuareg tribe. His pride is palpable.

He should be proud, too, of the book that his journey helped to inspire, and the message it carries not just for some of the poorest parts of Africa, but closer to home too, that many different tribes are going to have to work together as communities to meet the enormous challenges of our times.

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