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The David Lammy interview: Ukraine could be the biggest conflict since World War Two

The David Lammy interview: Ukraine could be the biggest conflict since World War Two

(Image: Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

10 min read

From a crisis in Ukraine to concerns over China and Britain’s shaky relationship with the United States, newly-appointed shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has plenty in his in-tray. He tells Eleanor Langford about his hopes for the role – and the part he thinks the UK should play on the global stage. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer.

It may feel as if the justice brief and shadowing the Foreign Secretary present quite a contrast. But, for David Lammy, the two roles offer apt continuity.

The former lawyer made a name for himself speaking out on issues of crime and racial equality. He is perhaps best known for the Lammy Review – a report which revealed significant racial bias in the justice system – as well as interventions on the Grenfell tragedy and Windrush scandal. Few were surprised, then, when he was appointed shadow justice secretary by Keir Starmer in April 2020.

But the MP who has represented Tottenham for almost 22 years has also been outspoken on issues that go beyond United Kingdom borders. A 2019 speech he made to Parliament on the downfalls of Brexit garnered more than 1.5 million views on Twitter, while his 2020 Ted talk on climate justice has had more than 1.6 million views to date.

Such eloquence on international matters led Starmer to promote him to shadow foreign secretary in November 2021. How does he feel about making the leap to such a different brief? “I very much enjoyed being shadow justice secretary, I’ve long been associated with justice issues over many, many years,” Lammy says.

“I was very excited when Keir rang me up and asked me to take on this role. It happens that I’m taking it on at a time when human rights, rule of law, and democracy issues are absolutely central to the international debate. So, in a sense, there’s some continuity.”

“This is a big, important portfolio,” Lammy adds. “It’s important for the Labour Party, and it’s important for the country – the security that we have as citizens, particularly at a time of worrying developments in Europe. But also the challenges of globalisation, authoritarianism, populism.”

Before he contends with the wider challenges of the role, however, the Labour MP has more pressing matters to deal with. On the day we meet in Westminster, both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his own party leader have travelled to Brussels to meet with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. Top of the agenda? The hundreds of thousands of Russian troops amassing on the border with Ukraine, prompting fears of imminent conflict.

Lammy describes the mobilisation of Russian forces as “deeply, deeply worrying”, and adds that he is “very concerned” about the prospect of an invasion. The potential conflict could, in his view, “be the biggest event of that kind since the Second World War”.

High in Lammy’s thoughts are the Ukrainian people, and he speaks fondly of the country, having visited its capital of Kyiv a few weeks earlier as part of a parliamentary delegation. “When you’re in the country, you’re reminded of the aggressive neighbour these people have been living with now for years and years,” he explains.

“There’s a sort of eerie calm that can confuse the visitor to Ukraine. But it’s important to understand that calm as a kind of trauma, a collective trauma that exists because the Ukrainians have been living with this for a long time.”

Labour is placing its hopes in a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and has backed calls for a sanctions regime targeting Russia. Whatever approach the international community adopts, Lammy’s main hope is it is reached as one.

“It’s really important for us to be united right across Europe on the issue of Russian aggression, and to remember the starting point of that aggression – which is not the Russian people, it’s Vladimir Putin,” he says.

Remaining united “within our own democracies” is also a priority, Lammy adds, before offering cautious praise to his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. He says he is “grateful” that the pair have been able to “share information and work closely on this issue,” though caveats that this has been entirely on “Privy Council terms”.

It’s really important for us to be united right across Europe on the issue of Russian aggression

He does express frustration, however, that many in her department do not share his hopes for a collegiate approach. “Being in a situation where one doesn’t even hear the words ‘EU ‘ leave government ministers’ mouths when they’re in the Foreign Office is indicative of a sort of pettiness that doesn’t match the scale of the moment that we are in,” he adds.

As for Johnson’s handling of the crisis, Lammy is notably less complimentary. “It is worrying that we’ve got a Prime Minister that has been caught up dealing with a scandal of parties in No 10, losing staff, not managing to take calls with Vladimir Putin, at this very, very serious time.”

He also lays criticism on the government at large for failing to tackle Russian interference closer to home, having not implemented many of the recommendations in the 2020 Russia report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

Earlier this month, Lammy and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves wrote to their government counterparts urging them to act on Russian money moving through London. They also urged the Conservative Party to return £1.93m in donations from individuals linked to Putin’s regime.

The pair warned in their letter that “openness to illicit finance has begun to damage our diplomatic efforts, with the Biden administration being warned that the widespread presence of suspect Russian money in the UK could jeopardise Britain’s response to this crisis”. At the time of writing, no reply from the government had been received.

Lammy adds: “Why any government would be slow at dealing with this is a huge concern. I don’t think these are partisan issues. I think these are issues of national security. That ought to be the lifeblood of whoever is in power.”

On other matters, the shadow foreign secretary is happy that the government has listened. He said Labour had been calling for “months” for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over China’s human rights abuses. He notes, however, that the decision was made at the “11th hour” and only after the United States and Australia had announced their own boycotts.

Lammy says one of the key challenges of his new shadow brief is “the emergence of China as a more aggressive actor” on the global stage. Tackling the rise of the new “superpower,” in his view, requires a “layered” approach comprising both partnership and a robust resolve. Issues like the climate crisis require the former, but he says the latter is needed to combat human rights abuses perpetrated by China against the Uyghur people.

“You cannot deal with China unilaterally,” Lammy adds. “The size of the country alone means that it [requires] a multilateral approach.”

“That’s where it is hugely important that the United Kingdom has the strongest multilateral arrangements. That means our relationship with the European Union, our relationship within NATO, and our position on the Security Council, with the United Nations.”

The relationship with one of the UK’s key partners, the United States, is particularly close to Lammy’s heart. He studied at Harvard Law School — the first Black Briton to attend — where he met and befriended a young Barack Obama. Since then, he’s maintained close links with the Biden administration and the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington DC.

The UK-US relationship, however, is not in a good place. As one of the chief architects of Brexit, Boris Johnson is not a favourite of US President Joe Biden, who has spoken frequently of his concerns over its impact on peace in Northern Ireland.

They valued greatly Britain’s influence in Europe and are questioning whether we still have that influence.

“When I was in Washington, just before Christmas, I was worried at the amount of friends on the Hill that were raising with me the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol,” Lammy recalls. He warns that many of his US contacts have expressed a “real concern” that the Good Friday Agreement could be under threat, saying they viewed it as “unthinkable” that Johnson would rip up a protocol he drew up.

“This was not how they had come to understand the UK,” he says. “The UK was seen as a reliable, responsible partner that is steadfast in the importance of the rule of law.”

Britain’s standing in the US has also been hindered by Brexit itself, Lammy claims. He says many in Congress raised with him the status of “our position in Europe”.

“They valued greatly Britain’s influence in Europe and, notwithstanding the fact that we’re not in the European Union, [are] questioning whether we still have that influence,” he adds.

On that count, he lays the blame firmly with Johnson. Can the relationship with America be repaired while he remains in office? “I think the problems for Boris Johnson, as UK Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, are fatal. I think he’s fatally wounded,” he says.

“What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is that our enemies are laughing at him, our allies are despairing at him, and our population are ashamed of him. And, for all of those reasons, he should go.”

Lammy has, of late, had extra reason to be frustrated with the Prime Minister. Days before our meeting, Lammy, Starmer and Baroness Smith of Basildon, Labour’s leader in the Lords, were accosted in Westminster by a group of anti-vaccine protesters.

They had been returning from a meeting at the Ministry of Defence on the developing situation on the Ukraine-Russia border, which the shadow foreign secretary described as “the most serious” briefing he’d attended “in the 21 years that I have been in public life”.

As they neared Parliament, the mob broke through barriers to reach them, shouting “expletives” and accusing Starmer of being a paedophile protector.

They were echoing comments made by Johnson a week earlier, in which he claimed that Starmer, who was previously director of public prosecutions, “used his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.

“They were continually referring to the Jimmy Savile case, shouting ‘paedo’. There was no doubt about it — the situation was febrile,” Lammy recalls. “It felt threatening. There was violence. There was pushing. There was shoving.”

Neither he nor Starmer have hidden the fact that they believe there is a link between the incident and the Prime Minister’s words.

The shadow foreign secretary says he has never heard any world leader “other than Donald Trump” make such comments, and accused Johnson of repeating “fake news and crude caricatures” and bringing the views of “hard right hate groups… into the mainstream”

“I have no doubt that this [incident] underlines why we have had the centuries old rules in the House of Commons about language, about truth, honesty and integrity,” he adds.

The Prime Minister’s words – and their consequences – hardly exemplify the more cooperative approach to politics that Lammy envisions. He speaks often through our meeting of the need for “bridge building” on the global stage, but also of his hopes for a more “unified democracy” closer to home. Perhaps, as foreign secretary in a future Labour government, Lammy will be able to tackle that.

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