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27 September 2023

My own special relationship with North America

Also this week: Meeting progressive peers in Montreal, and bridging divides in football and politics.

By David Lammy

There’s always a moment on a transatlantic flight, when trolleys have gone round and the food platters have been cleared up, when everyone finally relaxes. The truth is, I must have flown across the Atlantic dozens of times, and this quiet comes round like clockwork on every flight.

As shadow foreign secretary, I’m an Atlanticist, a deep believer in Britain’s military, intelligence and nuclear alliance with the US. But as a person, I’m also a product of the Atlantic. Sometimes, when the cabin stills, flying over the ocean, I think about the crossings that made me.

[See also: The Sunak-Modi bilateral]

First, my ancestors, taken as enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean. Then, my parents, part of the Windrush Generation, making their own journeys, migrating to Britain, as their siblings and cousins, like so many others, set off north to the US and Canada. And now my own journeys, thanks to this, spending childhood summers with my aunt in New York, then studying at Harvard, working as a lawyer in San Francisco… all the way to the journeys, like this one, that I make for Labour on foreign affairs. The US is such a part of me that my father is actually buried there. And come to think of it, I can’t remember one year since I was 18 I haven’t been to the Americas.

I’m suddenly broken out of my thoughts by a sharp miaow. My neighbour on the flight, a grumpy cat in its carrier, has woken up.

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Friends in high places

This time I’ve arrived in Montreal in Canada with Keir Starmer to represent the party at the Global Progress Action Summit for centre-left leaders. Keir was undisturbed by the cat, he tells me as we arrive, a bit embarrassed, to selfies and handshakes. It’s a rush of panels, sessions and one-on-ones, as world leaders want to meet Keir.

Over the course of the day we meet our brilliant host, Justin Trudeau; the impressive Jonas Gahr Støre, the prime minister of Norway; the exceptional Frans Timmermans, former vice-president of the European Commission, now leading the centre left in the next Dutch elections; and Sanna Marin, the former prime minister of Finland, who did such great work bringing her country into Nato. Everyone wants to build their relationships with Keir before the elections next year.

A nasty surprise in Paris

Only 48 hours later, I’m with Keir and Rachel Reeves on the Eurostar travelling from London to Paris to meet President Emmanuel Macron. On the Tube down from north London, I realise it’s just over a year since the Liz Truss disaster we’re all still paying for, and the shambles she brought to our relationship with France by saying she wasn’t sure whether Macron was a friend or foe. It’s this drunken-sailor messaging that has brought investment and trust in Britain to a record low. So we’re straight into a business dinner when we get there. Our message is simple: consistent, ambitious, reliable – that’s what our partnership will be like, so you can invest.

The next morning it’s breakfast overlooking the Arc de Triomphe with the kinds of French investors we want to celebrate, not insult. I get a nasty shock – for a Spurs fan, that is. Keir has a gift for Macron: a personalised Arsenal shirt. In the week of the north London derby, I try not to take this personally.

Bipartisan breakfasts

It’s straight from Paris to Washington DC for what is the fifth trip I’ve made to the US capital as shadow foreign secretary. And there’s barely any time to sleep as my colleague and friend John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, and I dash straight to our first breakfast meetings at 7.30am – a Washington tradition.

We’re rushing from meeting to meeting at the White House, Pentagon, National Security Council and on Capitol Hill, to stress that the real story in Britain when it comes to supporting Ukraine is unity. And we’re making the case for Kyiv as a crucial spending vote comes before Congress.

When you know the US, you know you’ve got to be bipartisan. In the time I’ve spent there, I have built up friendships on the left and right. I’ve always found it easy to talk to both sides of the aisle, with friends such as Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice. It has taught me that despite deep rhetorical differences, there is often a lot of common ground on foreign affairs. That’s why it was a priority for me to meet a lot of Republicans in the House and the Senate, as well as Democrats, to make the case for Ukraine and build the relations we need for government. Diplomats don’t cancel – they build bridges.

David Lammy is the shadow foreign secretary and the Labour MP for Tottenham

[See also: How the MeToo backlash helped Russell Brand]

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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List