Denis MacShane / Jan 2023
David Lammy MP, the UK Shadow Foreign Secretary. Photo: Chatham House
The debate within the Labour Party on Europe has got deeper, wider and more interesting after a thoughtful speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy.
Lammy has been the MP for Tottenham since his by-election win in 2000 at the age of 27. Compared with all other Labour shadow cabinet members other than Yvette Cooper he has experience as a minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A Privy Councillor at 35 his upward trajectory came to a sudden stop after Labour went into opposition in 2010 and stayed there under successive leaders.
There are three points to remember about Lammy. His family background is from Guyana, the Afro-Caribbean nation of South America bordered by Brazil and Venezuela. There is something Latin in Lammy’s powerful voice – he won choral scholarships as a young schoolboy – and in his passionate engagement.
Secondly, he spent his secondary school years at a state boarding school in Peterborough, a traditional Church of England grammar school. This escape from the poverty of a Tottenham lone parent household as well as winning a place as the first black Briton to study at Harvard Law School followed by work for US law firms is unusual in Labour politics.
Thirdly no Labour MP was stronger in denouncing Brexit as a “swindle, a fraud, fundamentally won on false premises and lies with Russian interference proved beyond reasonable doubt” as Lammy told the Commons. He was the star speaker on Peoples Vote platforms.
Now he has to move from orator to calm, measured election winner. Lammy’s passionate pro-Europeanism in contrast to the equivocations of the Corbyn-led Labour Party is not in doubt. But having lost in 2016, and again in two general elections in 2017 and 2019, a mature parliamentarian cannot keep saying “I’m right, the voters can be ignored.”
Instead Lammy is at the heart of Labour’s efforts to think through Britain’s EU policy. Wishes are not votes, denunciations of Brexit are not policies and Lammy’s first task is to get his party into power.
The Tories plus the isolationist press – Telegraph, Mail, Sun, Express, bits of the Times or Guardian opinion pages are helped by the omertà of the BBC refusing to report fully on the damage caused by Brexit.
Far more important is the refusal of the UK’s main economic actors – the FTSE 1000, the CBI, the BCC, the NFU, the transport sector or supermarkets to campaign with their membership or patsy busines editors to expose Brexit and reflect public opinion as expressed in endless polls showing Bregret.
Business is now so dependent on Government help and support especially during the Pandemic and now altering recovery it dare not challenge a Tory cabinet which has only one identifiable pro-European in it and Jeremy Hunt is keeping his head well down.
The LibDems are not calling for “Rejoin” and for the SNP the issue of Europe is purely an instrumentalised politics to support their ultra nationalist secessionist ideology.
So Labour has little choice but to play defensive on an immediate rejoin or a new referendum which as examples from Switzerland, Norway or Quebec suggest could easily end in a second and permanent No.
At the Davos World Economic Forum Sir Keir Starmer said that Brexit “isn’t half-baked. It isn’t baked. It didn’t work.” Of course there is no economist in Britain who believes rupturing trade links with our closest trading and investing partners over centuries can be made to work.
Lammy was much clearer at Chatham House. It was time to end “the ‘magical thinking’ of the Conservative Party, he argued. And that means, yes, “recognising the damage the government’s bad Brexit deal has done to our economy. Investment down. Growth, sluggish or non-existent. 45% of businesses say they are having difficulties trading with the EU. The number exporting to Europe has fallen by a third. In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, this is a scandal.”
Of course Lammy had to intone the official mantra of No return to the Single Market, Customs Union, or allowing British citizens to work, live, retire in Europe but he went on to say Labour will help “fixing the Northern Ireland protocol" (which key negotiators in London, Dublin, Belfast and Brussels seem to be achieving anyway ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and President “I’m Irish” Joe Biden’s state visit to King Charles.
Lammy also said Labour would focus on “reducing friction on food, agricultural, medical and veterinary goods; strengthening mutual recognition of professional standards and qualifications to unlock trade in services; unblocking participation in the Horizon scheme to unleash research and development; using the 2025 TCA review to reduce barriers to trade; and improving links between our students and universities.”
All of these are admirable objectives – a return to perhaps 5 per cent of the rights and privileges the UK enjoyed when in the EU - but most can only be given effect by at least a partial reengagement with the Single Market and freedom of movement. There is no evidence from any source in Europe that just because there may soon be a new government in London, it will be allowed to cherry pick bit and pieces of access to Europe it likes but reject all reciprocal obligations.
Lammy pushed the reengagement with Europe envelope as far he could. He talked of a EU-UK security pact. But that already exists in Nato and in different EU security and defence arrangements from cyber, Frontex, to the delivery of tanks and heavy guns to Ukraine.
Britain’s army has lost so many soldiers under Tory cuts it can now barely put a division in the field. The Royal Navy flagship aircraft carrier, The Prince of Wales, has spent most of its time since its launch being repaired, MoD housing for soldiers is a disgrace. British defence ministers and military commanders do not attend European conferences on security.
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have agreed to take part in President Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community where the UK sits with Albania, Georgia, Kosovo and Turkey in a kind of second class waiting room whose occupants want to become full EU members.
It is better than nothing but no substitute for sitting at the table with voice, vote and veto where big decisions on Europe are taken.
Lammy’s Chatham House speech was well crafted and he is investing time in visiting EU capitals, getting to know next generation European political leaders which none of our Brexit Tory prime ministers or foreign secretaries could be bothered to engage with since 2016.
But in a year’s or 18 months’ time when we are much closer to an election, the Chatham House speech and probably the approach to Europe will need revision and new words.
In government that will be even more true especially as business starts attacking Labour for weakening the UK economy by sticking religiously to standard Tory lines of “Just Say No to Europe.”
David Lammy has spent 22 years in Parliament –more than Sir Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting combined. He is investing heavily in preparing himself to be Foreign Secretary. He has lost two illusions. The first is that Rejoin or a New Referendum are practical politics. The second is that he now knows making Brexit work is dead end politics.
Still only 50 he will be one of the most important ministers to watch if Labour forms the next Government.