British Isn’t A Colour: Rebranding Britain With David Lammy

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Published in ShortList (cover story) on 06 Dec 2018

In the eyes of the world, Britain’s never looked smaller, sadder or meaner. We met with MP for Tottenham David Lammy to rethink the national brand and ask what it is we want to be known for.

Photography by Tom Barnes (

“There are days when I wake up and look at the news, come into Parliament, and I just can’t actually believe the state we are in,” says David Lammy, flumping on to a sofa in the studio where we’ve photographed him for this week’s ShortList cover. “On every single index, the country feels chronically divided: between generations, rural and urban communities, ethnic minority communities and older, historically-white communities, between class, within families. And the brokering of how we come back together isn’t entirely clear.”

We’re discussing what to do about Britain’s identity crisis – you know, the one in which Blighty is bowler-hat-and-Brylcreem deep right now. And helpfully, David Lammy is not a politician prone to fudging words. Nor is he one who – and he’ll tell you this himself if you ask him – has much talent for “licking arse”. For 18 years as a backbench MP, Labour’s man in Tottenham has worked hard on his reputation for telling truth to power (and consequentially been hampered in fulfilling his potential).

The 46-year-old’s critics – mainly in Whitehall – see him as a maverick self-promoter and backbench pain-in-the-arse. But he needs no treats from them. “I’m not interested in crawling up the greasy pole, currying favour wherever power lies or being knighted,” he says. “[What motivates me] is representing people, framing and kickstarting important debates in this country.”

Few debates are as important right now as national identity. And you don’t need Don Draper to tell you that Brand Britain is broken (though Lammy thinks it is specifically England with the problem). To the world, we’ve never looked more closed-minded and confused. As our government cosies up to Trump, it turns a blind eye to corporate greed. We’re spending billions divorcing Europe, largely at the behest of an ageing electorate who’ll be dead by the time Brexit fully unfolds, while people burn to death in tower blocks. Hate crime, knife crime, teen suicide and homelessness are rising. Social capital is shrinking.

Has Britain become the deluded, rain-sodden nation that people abroad have long-suspected we are? “I think what we are becoming is a laughing stock,” he says. “I think we appear to be in a masochistic place. And we shouldn’t underestimate quite how unsettled the rest of the world is by the pickle that Britain appears to be in. If we’re not careful we’re going to become Theme Park Britain. Little England.”

Of course, half of Britain – the mainly young, progressive half – is deeply ashamed of what Britain has become (three days after our interview, for example, some 700,000 of those people marched through London to demand a second Brexit referendum). This half of the country believes Britain should stand for equality and compassion, not intolerance and isolation. Put to one side all the electioneering, the party-political posturing and the power struggles: what Britain needs is a re-brand. And, for that, Lammy has ideas.

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