A Labour government would consider unilaterally recognising a Palestinian state, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told the Financial Times in a wide-ranging interview on Britain’s place in the world.
Lammy, speaking on a four-day visit to India, said if Labour won power it would prefer to work with partners including the US in recognising Palestinian statehood.
But he went further than his party leader Sir Keir Starmer in saying that Britain might act unilaterally: “It’s not beyond contemplation.” Lammy added: “We would have to see where the ground lies 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 tighter defence ties with Europe.
Lammy vowed to build relations with India, rejecting suggestions by President Emmanuel Macron that France could replace Britain in its “historical” role as the country’s main partner in Europe.
And he set out a Labour foreign policy of “progressive realism”, in a warning to party activists that he would often have to deal with autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia in Britain’s national interests.
Lammy and Starmer have come under fire from Labour members in recent months over their handling of the Israel-Hamas war, including an initial refusal to back a ceasefire.
Starmer last month told the Jewish Chronicle there was “no risk” of Labour returning to the policy under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of recognising a Palestinian state on “day one” in government, a view shared by Lammy.
The party’s position, agreed last year, is to “work alongside international partners to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as part of efforts to contribute to securing a negotiated two-state solution”.
But Lammy’s willingness to consider unilateral action reflects growing frustration in Labour circles over the worsening crisis in Gaza and movement on the question of Palestinian statehood by Conservatives.
Lord David Cameron, foreign secretary, last month said Britain and its allies would consider recognising 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 on Labour’s frontbench in having ministerial experience: he served in the last Labour government in a number of roles, including as higher education minister.
In India he dwelt on a less well-known part of his ancestry. He said his great-grandmother had been an indentured worker from what was then Calcutta who travelled to South America with “hope in her heart”.
Having paid homage earlier in the day to the cricketing mecca of Mumbai’s Maidan, he praised his mother’s dal and roti and India’s transformation into a “superpower” with much to teach Britain — from its prowess in IT to the electrification of its railways.
Lammy was dismissive of Macron’s 2018 suggestion 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 any one country acting as a gateway to Europe.”
One reason for his visit is to try to rebuild support for Labour among the more than 1.8mn people in Britain who have Indian heritage, as well as to drum up trade and build diplomatic capital.
Corbyn’s support for Kashmiri self-determination and perceived disdain for enterprise saw Labour’s support among British-Indians crumble in 2019 to half of the 60 per cent level it had garnered in 2010. Sunak’s arrival in Number 10 in 2022 cemented the Conservatives strong position among British-Indians.
During a two-day stop in Delhi, Lammy met India’s 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 that’s not Russia.”
During meetings with business leaders in the Indian capital, Lammy urged them to help keep the country on a western track to ensure India and the west could collaborate on new technology. “They know where the markets are, where the value chain and supply chain is,” he said.
Lammy’s doctrine of “progressive realism” is a deliberate counterweight to the “ethical” foreign policy pursued by former Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook, which Lammy has said “snagged on the limits of what was possible”.
While Lammy expressed admiration for Cook’s idealism, he said he was “most informed” by Labour’s pragmatic postwar foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, who took on the Labour left with an Atlanticist approach that saw the birth of Nato and Britain’s adoption of nuclear weapons.
“I’m not going to be sitting down with proscribed terrorists, but diplomacy requires you to sit down with people who don’t share all your values,” he said. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, were vital interlocutors in the search for peace in the Middle East.
Lammy said he did not want to pre-empt the result of this year’s US election, but added that if Trump won then Britain would “use its influence to persuade him it would be a mistake to pull out of Nato”.
But Labour recognised that whoever was in the White House, Europe would need to raise its game on defence, Lammy said. He wants a UK-EU defence pact, overseen by Macron’s brainchild the European Political Community, as part of a wider rapprochement with Europe.
However, defence and foreign policy are not explicitly among Starmer’s “five missions” for government. Extra UK military spending will be constrained by Britain’s tight public finances and the clamour for more spending on green policies, the NHS and schools.
Lammy’s hopes of a closer UK collaboration with the EU will also run into the 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 rejoining the EU, Lammy said he could not predict whether Brexit might be overturned in the future, but added: “I think it’s a settled position for my political lifetime.”