Letter from Washington: David Lammy: inside the Beltway

May 15 2024 / The New Statesman

Last week I was in Washington DC with David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary. Britain’s politics are juvenile: consider the recent absurd antics over Natalie Elphicke in the House of Commons. But so is the way we treat our politicians.

Lammy arrived in Washington alone, having taken an early morning connecting flight from Newark (parliamentary pressures meant he missed his planned flight to Dulles Airport). He was met in DC by Ben Judah, his adviser and ideas guru, who had travelled down from New York. Lammy had flown economy class and had no entourage, no diary secretary or personal assistant with him. Nor did he have an assigned driver. His schedule in the Beltway was extraordinarily hectic but he used his time well – to network, to listen and to learn. He travelled around town in various Ubers.

A passionate liberal Remainer during the protracted Brexit wars – he was a prodigious and belligerent tweeter – Lammy is also a self-described communitarian. As Britain’s chief-diplomat-in-waiting, he wants to build bipartisan alliances in the national interest. And as the first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School, Lammy has long-established family, personal and professional relationships in the United States. When he arrives in the capital senior politicians want to meet him, both Democrat and Republican.

Keir Starmer knows this, and it was one reason he wanted Lammy to lead for Labour on foreign affairs. Lammy, co-chair of Starmer’s leadership campaign, was less sure when first approached. “I needed time to think about it. I have young children and there would be a lot of travelling,” he told me. But he was persuaded that it would be the right role for him at the right time: he is an Atlanticist and internationalist but accepts that the so-called liberal order has fragmented in what he calls “a newly dangerous world”.

On the morning of 8 May, Lammy gave a short speech at the Hudson Institute. He shared a platform with Jim Risch, a hard-line Republican senator and Beltway fixer. Lammy described himself as a “good Christian boy” and a “conservative” Labour politician, and described JD Vance, the fast-rising Republican “New Right” senator, as a friend. But none of this was cynical or said merely to please. Lammy embraces ambiguity and paradox. In a recent Foreign Affairs essay he wrote that “progressive realism” would inform his approach to world affairs. The phrase has resonated in Washington. “I like the realism,” Senator Risch quipped, “but not the progressive part.” The concept of progressive realism is inchoate. Is it a form of liberal universalism? Or an aspiration to have a foreign policy based on the social and economic rights of the British people?

Speaking at the Hudson Institute, Lammy said: “I’m a man made of the Atlantic. My parents were from the Caribbean, their siblings spread out from New York to London. And I share something deep with millions of Americans. Because if I have the privilege to be foreign secretary, I will be the first to be able to trace his lineage back through the Atlantic slave trade.”

The next afternoon, at a private meeting, he was heralded as a role model and inspiration by Hakeem Jeffries, the highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives and former whip of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Lammy’s personal story is inspiring. He has what Paul Gilroy calls a kind of “double consciousness”: he knows who he is and where he is from and what he represents. And he aspires to pursue liberal enlightened goals in a world that does not follow liberal enlightened rules. “The world is what it is,” he said to me as we travelled in an Uber to the White House. And then he repeated the statement, with added emphasis: “The world is what it is.” Is this what he means by “realism”?

While in Washington I caught up with my old friend (and former NS colleague) Mehdi Hasan. Hasan is renowned in the US for his forensic TV interviews: half left-wing shock jock and half peak Paxman-style grand interrogator. He likes to deliver fast-paced, fact-heavy monologues, scabrous and sarcastic, straight to camera. He left MSNBC in January (was he fired?) because, he says, he wants to speak freely about what he insists on calling the “genocide in Gaza”. He has since successfully launched his own media company, Zeteo, via Substack, and is back on air attracting controversy and serious attention in equal measure (see our recent interview with him).

No one should appear on The Mehdi Hasan Show if unprepared – even less so if he considers you to be a political opponent or antagonist. Mark Regev, the formidably articulate former Israeli ambassador to London, appeared on his MSNBC show last November. Their encounter is on YouTube, and it’s fascinating to watch as Regev, whom Mehdi has called a “smooth operator”, is led inexorably into a trap. He ends up, uncharacteristically, shouting in frustration at his interlocutor.

I was reminded of a breakfast meeting we’d had with Regev many years earlier in the City of London. Mehdi and I had struggled to find the venue and arrived very late. Regev was waiting for us. He was courteous but clearly annoyed. Later I was told he’d enjoyed the conversation, however, and was impressed by how well-informed Mehdi was on Israel-Palestine matters. He can’t say he didn’t have fair warning, then.