Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots, by David Lammy, Guardian Books, RRP£9.99, 272 pages
Instant books by politicians seldom provide intellectual nourishment. David Lammy’s Out of the Ashes is a welcome exception. The black Labour MP for Tottenham has, until now, often disappointed the high hopes that many have invested in him. But he had a good riot this summer and now he is having a good post-riot.
The book is a mix of personal history, reflections on his north London constituency and why part of it exploded back in August, and a work of applied political philosophy. It is also the first proper manifesto for the relatively new Blue Labour current within Lammy’s party.
Lammy, like Blue Labour theorist Maurice Glasman, is as much a critic of the excesses of 1960s social liberalism as he is of the economic liberalism of the 1980s. Indeed, reflecting the views of many in his own community, Lammy is strikingly socially conservative (at least for someone on the left). He is horrified by the lack of manners of many of his young constituents and wants more authority in their lives, and he does not think that more legislation or more money is the answer to every social issue.
“The problem in Britain is not that we have too many rights. It is that we lean too heavily on them as a solution to every problem. Too often we reach for a legal fix to problems that are social and cultural … Our rights talk has led to a politics with too limited a vocabulary,” he writes.
He understands the stresses on black inner-city communities – the fatherless households (including the one he is from), the poor education, but also the self-inflicted wounds of a nihilistic defiance of “the system”. He grew up on those streets until a scholarship whisked him away to boarding school in Peterborough, so speaks without the nervousness of many white liberals.
He is dismayed by the power of the “gangsta” worldview pumped out by hardcore rap music, which tells inner-city kids that the system is rigged against them and that there is no point in playing the game. “No one wins if black children grow up believing that respect can be won only through fear, or that material wealth is reachable only through hustling and criminality,” he writes.
The police do not get a free pass. He is sharply critical of their handling of the death of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, which triggered the August riots, and has some interesting reflections on their inability to “stop and search” young black men without creating huge resentment. But the riots are mainly an extraordinary moment that help Lammy to illustrate the failings of ordinary Britain.
Lammy, who began writing this book after Labour’s defeat in 2010, is scathing about the design faults in the welfare state which have, among other things, created a public housing system dominated by the workless poor and by immigrants (with a housing benefit bill which costs more than the army and navy combined each year). And, daringly for a man of the left, he prefers an idea of welfare fairness based on club membership and reciprocity rather than “need” regardless of contribution. He is a communitarian not a liberal.
Out of the Ashes is dotted with neat aphorisms and policy reform vignettes on such things as police accountability, putting a price on work permits for non-EU citizens and affordable housing. There is also a hilarious anecdote about Gordon Brown’s tin ear.
This is not a book with many such lighter moments, but it skips along thanks to its author’s skill at storytelling. Most important, though the phrase Blue Labour does not feature, it begins to sketch out a post-liberal way of thinking for the centre-left that is alive to the many dilemmas and unintended consequences of progressivism.
To date Blue Labour has been an intellectual curiosity without much of a political base, indeed with many enemies on the left. Lammy’s book for the first time makes it sound like a credible political idea.
David Goodhart is director of the think-tank Demos and the founding editor of Prospect magazine