Four months ago David Lammy walked through the aftermath of the August riots in Tottenham - 'each footstep meeting with the crunch of broken glass, bricks and debris... passed charred remains of two police cars and a double-decker bus'. While David Cameron remained on holiday, a visibly shaken Lammy issued a statement denouncing the violence and defending his constituents. His address became one of the defining images of the summer riots.
Out of the Ashes is his attempt to give the period its defining analysis. Now that enough time has passed for newspapers to conduct investigations and politicians to write books, the process of sifting through our reactions and reasoning to what happened has began. Where on one side Cameron talks about 'feral youth' and 'criminality: pure and simple', on the other liberal sections of the media try to lay the blame at the door of the police and government cuts.
Lammy goes far deeper than this. With the riots an ever-present (and disturbing) reference point, he explores Britain’s failure to adapt properly to 'two revolutions... the social liberalism of the 1960s... and the free market revolution of the 1980s' which together, he says, have created a 'hyper-individualistic culture' in which selfishness reigns and civic pride is a distant memory.
Absent fathers (something New Labour 'were wrong in pretending didn’t matter'), minimum wage jobs that afford people no dignity (he worked in KFC himself where 'no one looks you in the face when they order'), a lack of proper social housing and Britain's archaic prison system are all cited as part of the crucible that led to the events of August.
His solutions are products of bold liberal thinking designed to reinforce conservative values. Prison sentences, for example, should be divided into two periods: punishment, followed by rehabilitation that includes proper mentoring and socialisation. This, he believes, will reduce the numbers of those who re-offend.
He sympathises with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ but believes it isn’t ambitious enough. Why, he asks, shouldn’t big businesses be forced to give all employees a financial stake in profits, helping to rebuild the idea of an honest day’s work as a cause for pride? It's a welcome attempt to find solutions to social problems in the private as well as public sector, something he criticises Cameron for avoiding.
By presenting his policy ideas in an accessible and methodical way, Lammy takes Cameron’s vague vision for a more caring, responsible society and reappropriates it for the left. In doing so he manages to articulate a far more compelling antidote to the ‘me-generation’ than the Prime Minister has so far, while also explaining that other Conservative buzz-term - 'Broken Britain' - with a clarity and empathy absent from the rhetoric of his political opponents.
Out of the Riots is also part-memoir and Lammy uses his own background growing up in a broken home in the area he now represents to illuminate these wider problems. These passages contain some of the book's finest writing - such as when he recalls sitting in his father’s taxidermist amongst bottles of chemicals and papier-mache mouldings ‘‘watching his hands bring this menagerie to life, and his broad, bright-white-toothed smile” as satisfied customers leave his shop.
Later, the recession of the 80s robs his father of this business and he starts drinking heavily, becoming ‘a broken figure’. “As his business lost its way” writes Lammy “so too did he.” These references to the ways in which his own father both failed and was failed by the state - as well as the voices of his constituents and his obvious love for Tottenham - give Out of the Ashes a welcome human touch.
The only disappointment here is that, despite ostensibly being about the riots, Out Of The Ashes feels like it's arrived too late. People have felt the erosion of community values and dangerous sense of disillusionment among Britain’s youth for a long time. The Labour boom years - or even during David Cameron’s early incarnation as a ‘caring’ Tory - would have been better periods to press arguments like these.
As it is, with the population resigned to a bleak years of austerity measures and more worried about where and how deep they’ll feel the spending axe swing, building a better Britain with a series of experimental reforms to public services is something of a hard sell, even with the threat of further riots on the horizon. Whatever we make of Tory cuts, more years of New Labour-style spending is an equally terrifying prospect to many of us.
Not that this should detract from what is easily the most compelling and rational response to the events of August to come out of any direction so far. Out Of The Ashes is full of ideas and insight, and presents a politician with a genuine understanding of the difficulties and fears of the people he represents - a quality we're going to need as much of as possible in the years ahead.