The nerve David Lammy touched

David Lammy’s speech to the crowds at the People’s Vote march on 23 March hit a nerve. He’s been accused of likening the ERG to Nazis. Except that he didn’t. What people are hearing in his words deserves attention.

David Lammy, speaking Parliament Square in the rally at the end of the People’s Vote March

Lammy’s speech spent more time calling out the lies of the Leave campaign and the failings of Theresa May. But he did include this:

“I’m just looking over there at Winston Churchill. On 30 September 1938 he stood in parliament and said we would not appease Hitler. I’m looking across to Nelson Mandela, who would not give in to apartheid. We say, we will not give into the ERG. Will not appease.”

A few weeks later, he was interviewed by Andrew Marr. The first part of the interview allows Lammy space to put the case for a People’s vote, but then Marr challenges him, quoting that part of his speech, and suggests that he is likening the ERG to Nazis which he says is unacceptable. Lammy responds by saying he didn’t go far enough.

Writing in The Guardian, James Bloodworth joined that to Jacob Rees Mogg’s quoting of material from the extreme right AfD party in Germany, and says that, nevertheless, Lammy is wrong to make the comparison.

But Lammy has a point. Hearing and reading his actual words, they are a fair criticism. They raise the awkward question of how far Brexit support is something linked to the far right. Also writing in The Guardian, Suzanne Moore comments that he was right to call them out.

What’s revealing here is the gap between what Lammy said and what he was heard to say.

If someone says something, and someone else “reads between the lines”, that says at least as much about the one reading between the lines as it does about the one speaking. In this case an obvious reading of the furore is that there is a fear that the ghost of what haunted Europe in the 1930s is still around. A psychoanalyst would point out that this is at the level of the unconscious — a fear lurking beneath conscious thought, making it harder to engage with, but likely to show itself in slips of the tongue and assumptions people make.

Lammy’s actual point seems to be that we should stand up against the extremism which has been showing in ugly ways. Michael Heseltine, with greater eloquence, said something very similar in his outstanding speech on the same day, and rightly reminds us of the dark times which led people to say “never again” in forming what is now the EU. They are both right.

The recent report from the Hansard Society, suggesting that 54% of Britons would “welcome a strong leader who would break the rules” gives a sense of where the national mood is. Lammy and Heseltine are right to name this because we need to engage with it.

Notwithstanding things like the level of manipulation going on in the interview where Michael Gove coined the phrase “people have had enough of experts” I don’t think the ERG have taken on the role of fascist leaders, with whom people feel “united”. We’re not in the realm of Goebels’ infamous remark that “The will of the people is the will of the government and vice versa”.

My concern is that the fear implicit in the over-reaction to Lammy’s speech says we know that we are more vulnerable to the far right than we claim.

If the fears are lurking at the level of the unconscious, the answer has to be to name them so they can be spoken about. Perhaps Marr was giving Lammy the chance to put his case. If he really was seeking to tell Lammy that his language was unacceptable, then he is pushing this back into the domain of the unconscious, which doesn’t help anyone process it.

I’m also struck at the gap between Lammy’s speech (23 March) and this media storm, which began with a Marr interview on 14 April. If Lammy’s words really had been inappropriate he would have been called out at the time when he gave the speech. Instead it feels like Marr goading him when he is finally in the studio and cogently putting a case for the People’s Vote. People who accuse the BBC of bias would (and perhaps should) jump on this as evidence of Marr trying to obscure Lammy’s reasonable argument. I’m not convinced that the BBC is biased in quite that way. But broadcasters have a good sense of what their viewers want to see. That means Marr and his producers are guessing, probably correctly, where the nation’s anxieties are. That’s to create a situation where that worry is so great that it stops people engaging with what might well be the sanest way out of #BrexitShambles.

We have a problem in what has been surfaced by the Brexit process. It isn’t enough to talk about “compromises” and “deals”, or even a hasty People’s Vote. We actually need the anxieties around the far right danger to be named and engaged with if we are to move on.

One thought on “The nerve David Lammy touched”

  1. Mark Argent, thank you so much for this post. I have been thinking exactly the same since the Marr interview, but couldn’t quite put it together as you have. To me it reveals many failures in our public discourse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *