Labor could unilaterally recognize Palestinian state, says David Lammy

A Labor government would consider unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told the Financial Times in a wide-ranging interview on Britain’s position in the world.

Lammy, speaking during a four-day visit to India, said if Labor won power he would prefer to work with partners including the United States to recognize Palestinian statehood.

But he went further than his party leader Sir Keir Starmer in saying Britain could act unilaterally: “It’s not beyond contemplation.” Lammy added: “We should see where the bases are if we win the election.”

Speaking at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, overlooking the Gateway of India, the 51-year-old also admitted he could not imagine Britain rejoining the EU “in my political lifetime”, but promised to build stronger defense ties close with Europe.

Lammy has vowed to build relations with India, rejecting suggestions by President Emmanuel Macron that France could replace Britain in its “historic” role as the country’s main partner in Europe.

And he outlined a Labor foreign policy of “progressive realism”, warning party activists that it would often have to deal with autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia in Britain’s national interests.

Lammy and Starmer have been criticized by Labor members in recent months for their handling of the war between Israel and Hamas, including initially refusing to support a ceasefire.

Starmer last month told the Jewish Chronicle there was “no risk” of Labor returning to politics under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of recognizing a Palestinian state on “day one” of government, a view shared by Lammy.

The party’s position, agreed last year, is to “work together with international partners to recognize the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, as part of efforts to help secure a negotiated two-state solution.”

But Lammy’s willingness to consider unilateral action reflects growing frustration in Labor circles at the worsening crisis in Gaza and the movement on Palestinian statehood by the Conservatives.

Lord David Cameron, the foreign secretary, last month said Britain and its allies would consider recognizing a Palestinian state as part of diplomatic efforts to create “irreversible progress” towards a two-state solution.

Lammy was born in 1972 in North London to Guyanese parents. The first black Briton to attend Harvard Law School, he is unusual in Labour’s front line in having ministerial experience: he served in the last Labor government in several roles, including higher education minister.

In India he focused on a lesser-known part of his ancestors. He said his great-grandmother had been a contract worker from what was then Calcutta who had traveled to South America with “hope in her heart.”

After paying his respects earlier in the day at Mumbai’s cricket mecca Maidan, he praised his mother’s dal and roti and India’s transformation into a “superpower” that has much to teach Britain, from its ability to ‘IT to the electrification of its railways.

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy plays cricket on the Maidan in Mumbai
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy plays cricket on the Maidan in Mumbai ©Harsha Vadlamani/FT

Lammy was dismissive of Macron’s 2018 proposal that France should replace Britain as India’s “gateway” to Europe. He said Britain would play “a very important role”, but added: “India is too big to have one country acting as a gateway to Europe.”

One of the reasons for his visit is to try to rebuild support for the Labor Party among the more than 1.8 million people in Britain who have Indian ancestry, as well as to stimulate trade and build diplomatic capital.

Corbyn’s support for Kashmiri self-determination and perceived disdain for the undertaking saw Labour’s support among Indian-Brits collapse in 2019 to half the 60% level it achieved in 2010. Sunak’s arrival at number 10 in 2022 consolidated the Conservatives’ strong position among British-Indians.

During a two-day stop in Delhi, Lammy met Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, where he said he raised New Delhi’s relationship with Russia. “India understands the important markets it wants to engage with – and frankly it’s not Russia.”

During meetings with business leaders in the Indian capital, Lammy urged them to help keep the country on the Western path to ensure India and the West can collaborate on new technologies. “They know where the markets are, where the value chain and the supply chain are,” she said.

Lammy’s doctrine of “progressive realism” is a deliberate counterweight to the “ethical” foreign policy pursued by former Labor foreign secretary Robin Cook, which Lammy said “caught itself within the limits of what was possible”.

Although Lammy expressed admiration for Cook’s idealism, he said he was “better informed” by the pragmatic post-war Labor foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, who took on the Labor left with an Atlanticist approach that saw the birth of NATO and Britain’s adoption of nuclear weapons.

“I’m not going to sit with proscribed terrorists, but diplomacy requires that you sit with people who don’t share all your values,” he said. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have been vital interlocutors in the search for peace in the Middle East.

Lammy said he did not want to pre-empt the outcome of this year’s US election, but added that if Trump won Britain “he would use his influence to convince him that it would be a mistake to withdraw from Nato”.

But Labor recognized that whoever was in the White House, Europe would have to raise its defense level, Lammy said. He wants a UK-EU defense pact, overseen by the European Political Community, Macron’s brainchild, as part of a wider rapprochement with Europe.

However, defense and foreign policy are not explicitly among Starmer’s “five missions” for the government. Additional UK military spending will be limited by Britain’s tight public finances and demands for more spending on green policies, the NHS and schools.

Lammy’s hopes for closer UK collaboration with the EU will also clash with limits placed on the relationship by Labour’s insistence that Britain will not return to the single market or customs union.

Asked whether he could foresee Britain returning to the EU, Lammy said he could not predict whether Brexit might be overturned in the future, but added: “I think it’s an established position for my political life.”

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