George Galloway appears at every turn to be something of a personal and political enigma. He is a life long socialist yet he was expelled from the Labour Party. He was so desperate to get back into the House of Commons that he set up his own political party; called it Respect and won the seat of Bethnal Green & Bow at the 2005 General Election, with a swing of 26.2% from ironically, the Labour Party. To compound it all he rarely attends or votes in Parliament. He has one of the worst attendance records amongst MPs having only attended 16% of votes. He is referred to as Saddam Hussein’s only friend in Westminster, yet seemingly is off George W Bush’s Christmas card list. Some call him a rogue and others merely “Gorgeous George” and oh yes there was that Celebrity Big Brother episode. Love him or hate him he remains one of the few real ideologists in a somewhat sanitised Parliament, so obviously I had to go and meet him, well really...
George Galloway was born in Dundee on the 16th August 1954 into a traditionally left-wing family. His father’s side of the family were Trade Union activists whilst his mother’s side were Irish at odds with Britain’s policy on Imperialism and Colonialism.
As such “I ate it [politics] up for breakfast really from the earliest age. I was handing out leaflets on school gates on Polling Day, when I was seven or eight years old. And by my teens, I had no intention of doing anything else with my life other than what I have done. So I have been very lucky.”
Lucky indeed. He left school at sixteen to become a factory worker with Michelin Tyres. In the 1987 General Election, Galloway aged 33 won the Glasgow Hillhead seat for the Labour Party, which he held until 2003 when he was expelled from the Labour Party for his opposition to the Iraq War and, amongst other things, for suggesting that: "... the best thing British troops can do is to refuse to obey illegal orders." Blair and his New Labour revolution were not impressed. So what made him become so out of touch with his Party?
“My actual political position has not really moved at all. But the centre of gravity has. The first time I saw Alistair Darling was when he was a bearded Trotskyite, pressing Trotskyite tracts on bewildered railwaymen at Waverley Station in Edinburgh. I later saw him as Transport Secretary denouncing the records of the RMT Union for their work to rule on London Underground. And that metamorphosis is only one. I remember Stephen Byers when he was a militant; Alan Milburn when he was in the International Marxist Group. I knew John Reid very well when he was in the Communist Party of Great Britain, as were a lot of them, to the left of me. Times have changed.”
Indeed they have. But perhaps one of the differences is that they actually turn up and vote in the House and well to be honest you rarely do.
“What I have to do is find more and more ways of speaking directly to the people. There is no point in appearing as a one man Party in the House.”
What do you mean? You chose to stand for election.
“Look, in voting terms for example, you can almost always, more than ninety percent of the time only vote for the Prime Minister’s Motion; or the Leader of the Opposition’s Amendment. There are rare occasions when you can vote for a Liberal Amendment. I rarely want to vote either for the Prime Minister’s Motion or David Cameron’s Amendment, and even sometimes I do not want to vote for the Liberal Democrat Amendment. There is no other means of voting in the Commons. There is no Abstention Lobby. So there is no point in being there, and there is no point in listening to the ’poodles’ baying according to the latest instruction from their pagers.”
So what do you do instead?
“Yesterday I did three things. I appeared on the Politics Show on the subject of the London Regional Opt-Out. Then I went to speak at a demonstration and then I drove to Birmingham to address a rally. I got home at two o’clock in the morning. That was a Sunday. Most of my days are spent meeting and speaking to as many people as I can.”
Well whilst that might be good for George Galloway and Respect, can it actually be to the benefit of your constituents?
“Well my constituents are served by my office. My office is the biggest Constituency office in the country. It is got more staff and a better qualified staff than any other. I have got two first-class Oxford graduates, First Class Degrees, working for me, and four others.”
Is there not somewhat contradictory? You, a working class socialist, turning to the alleged Upper classes for supporters?
“The people I meet from Oxford and Cambridge are the brightest … [people I ever meet] and [are the] most politically developed people I ever meet”
“So my constituents are served by the biggest and best Constituency Office in the country. It is not my job personally to sit and take the details of a problem with the wheelie bins, and the high flats in Bethnal Green, but somebody has to. And my office does. And they do it in my name. And the rest is just cant and hypocrisy. The idea that the job of being a political leader is to be a social worker 24/7 is absurd. The job of being a political leader is to be a political leader.”
Alright, you mentioned Bethnal Green, can we discuss the local elections and the thorny subject of vote rigging.
“We won 12 seats in the local elections and if the House of Lords does its job, on one of the cases very soon we will have 15, or 18 or 21, or even 24 Councillors. Because we were cheated, systematically by someone who has been rewarded now with the job of Chief Inspector of Schools. Christine Gilbert the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets wife of a Labour Minister presided over a system of election which was at best wide open to systematic fraud.”
What do you mean?
“Well the failure to even enquire as to whether 18 out of 21 flats really did sign forms asking for their ballot papers to be redirected to a small flat somewhere else. When taxed as to why they had not checked on this, they said it was not their job to check on whether these people really had asked for that. But any sensible system would have said that is inherently unlikely. We had better check on that. Why would 18 out of 21 households redirect their ballot papers to a single address?”
It is pretty unlikely is it not?
“Well when it was pointed out to them that that single address was intimately connected to one of the candidates in the election, you would have thought that even the most nasally-challenged would have been able to smell a rat. But they did not. And only when Andrew Gilligan, in the Evening Standard, blew the whistle, and the other media piled in behind it, was there any appreciation shown that Tower Hamlets might be in the grip of a system of political corruption that would, to borrow a phrase from a judge, shame a banana republic.”
I understand that this is not just restricted to London.
“Take Birmingham where 6 Labour councillors were thrown out of office and prosecuted having been caught at midnight in a car-park actually filling in hundreds of ballot papers.”
So what is to blame for this?
“New Labour has become an agency for political corruption. They have instituted changes to the Law which make political corruption much easier. They have resisted the calls of the Independent Election Commission which they themselves set up, to make corruption more difficult, and you have to ask yourself ‘is this a coincidence, or is it an intended consequence?’ My belief is that it is an intended consequence. And there are local rotten boroughs, of which Birmingham is one and Tower Hamlets was another where the only way Labour could cling on to power was by institutionalised political corruption.”
Tough words, but so what can be done?
“Most people know that what we are crying is right, but they do not care to help us, so most of them sit on their hands and wait and see. Ironically, one of the last uncorrupted parts of the British Constitution is the Judiciary. The place that Left-wingers like me used to routinely denounce as an integral part of the Establishment. But time after time, the House of Lords, the Law Lords, the Judiciary have turned out to be and, it must be because of their independence, just about the last uncorrupted part of the British State. Everything else – Parliament, the Executive, the Security Services, the Military top brass, the commanding heights of the media, the BBC are all on-side. Or were all on-side, for the New Labour Project.”
So have you been getting it wrong all these years by attacking the Judiciary?
“Well….maybe not. Maybe we were right then and we are right now. Maybe the veneer of bourgeois democracy has been stripped away and the last piece of the veneer, which is refusing to be stripped away, is the Judiciary, but maybe it will be, in time, maybe it won't. Maybe Labour will lose power before it succumbs. I do not know. But on the so-called Terrorism front, on civil liberties generally, or on any idea of justice, the Judiciary have turned out to be the last defenders of what used to be the things that made Britain a kind of special place.”
So what about the government’s recent comments about the failures of the Judiciary over their implementation of the Human Rights Act?
“Well it has come to something when a Labour Government spends so much of its time pouring vitriol on something called the Human Rights Act. Something which they themselves incorporated into British law and which they waved as a flag of their ‘New Labourness’ and now excoriate at every opportunity, both as a means of slandering the judges, and because, intrinsically, they find that the Human Rights Act impinges on their ability to discard as they see fit, as they roll across each wave of controversies, the traditional freedoms and liberties of the people in this country.”
So what you define as the individual’s human rights?
“Well I think the main problem in this country has been that we have no Constitution. We have no Bill of Rights. We have no clear set of rights and obligations to the society. We always argued that ‘it would be alright on the night’ that traditional British pragmatism would be a better way of securing freedom than these foreign ideas of Constitutions and Bills of Rights.”
Most would have said that it has
“Well it may have for a time but it does not now”
Arguably it has been one of Britain’s strengths that it does not have such a constitution to tie it. That good will win out through the midst.
“For a time, but that depended on Parliament being a Parliament worthy of the name. We no longer have a Parliament worthy of the name, as I have just been saying and, consequently, the Executive can order the Parliament what to do, including orders to discard the very things that made Britain Britain.”
What do you mean?
“My father is dead now, but if he had lived to see the day when a Labour Government would preside over a system whereby people could be detained, first in Belmarsh, now at home under house arrest, without charge, without trial, without limit of time, without sight of that of which they were accused, without the ability to choose their own legal counsel. He would simply not have believed it. Because for people of his age these were things that happened in other people’s countries not ours. The absence of these things was one of the emblems of Britishness, but we slipped so quietly into that good night. Only the judges tried to cry ‘freedom’ about it and all that happened was that the Parliament then said ‘well, if it is illegal to discriminate against foreign residents in Britain in this way, we’ll change the Law. We will change it to apply to every person, whether British or not’, and they got away with it. They got re-elected, and thus an absolute corner-stone of liberty was abandoned.”
So I take it you were not in favour of the government’s proposal earlier this year for terrorist suspects to be imprisoned for up to 90 days then?
“Now these young men were freed from what will now become known as Forestgate after I think nine days but they had to appear once at least in court in that period. If Labour had got its way these young men would have disappeared into the maw of the State for three whole months. And yet we see that the basis for their arrest was entirely false, utterly fatuous, and with very grave consequences for confidence in the Law, in the Police and the Security Services, in the Government and the State, to boot. We were in the past able to depend upon a Parliament worthy of the name. We no longer have it.”
You state “a Parliament worthy of the name”. Presumably you did not think Thatcher’s Conservatives between 1979 to 1987 was worthy of it’s the name? Is it just the fact that you feel so let down?
“No I did not think it was worthy of the name in a sense. I probably didn’t. You are right. At the time. But in retrospect I can see that it was…”
Well what was the difference?
“Well when I came into Parliament in 1987, there were upwards of a hundred people that you would describe as men and women of independent minds in all parties. Who would have, and did stand up for liberty. Stand up for justice, stand up for the right thing, irrespective of what the Whips said. Irrespective of what the Party leadership said. Now I look at the green benches, and I see a shiver running along, looking for a spine to run up.”
Alright let us talk about America. In May 2005 a U.S. Senate committee accused Galloway along with former French minister Charles Pasqua of receiving the right to buy oil under the UN's oil-for-food scheme. Galloway attended the Senate to argue his innocence and also took the opportunity to denounce the invasion of Iraq as having been based on "a pack of lies".
“It was my finest hour. I do not think even my worst enemies would deny that”
Last I heard the Senate was going to commence proceedings against you.
“Coleman [the Chair of the Committee] accused me of perjury. I said ‘put up or shut up’. Well they appear to have shut up. It has been nine months since Mr. Coleman opined and not a single letter or phone call so it was a pantomime. So he started that day, a year ago as a Presidential hopeful. But he did not end that day in quite such a good position”.
Your thoughts on Guantanamo Bay?
“You have to understand how the rest of the world views this scar on the face of civilised opinion that is represented by this Guantanamo festering sore, which was the United States’ biggest problem in the world. It is their recourse to such coarse and vulgar and implicitly threatening language that is the main reason why anti-Americanism is a wave which is sweeping the entire world and if they can not see that, then they are blind as well as stupid. But I am afraid they are blind, and stupid and we have a world in which we have a single super-power, which is a giant with the mind of a child. And a spoiled brat child at that.”
I am thinking about the three recent suicides there and the fact that I understand you recently met Moazzam Begg who spent approximately two years in Guantanamo.
“Yes I met Moazzam Begg recently. It was amazing to be there, holding, shaking hands with a young man who, himself, had regularly contemplated suicide because he knew that he was in this legal black hole and he imagined that he would be there forever. He had no anticipation that he would ever be released. And, I know Cuba very well. I know what it is like. I can imagine what it is like to be in a cage in the tropics, where psychological, and other forms of torture, are regularly visited upon an inmate. It is a surprise that more of them have not committed suicide.”
So is there a place for torture when dealing with terrorists?
“No. Torture is an absolute Rubicon, and as a moral question, it absolutely defines the difference between a civilised society and a barbaric one. Absolutely defines it. Whatever information, extracted under torture, most of the information extracted under torture will be false. Because people will say anything under torture. But even insofar as any accurate information was extracted under torture, the seepage into the soul, of the society responsible for that torture, would be more damaging than anything averted by the extraction of that information. I think it is an absolute moral Rubicon. And the United States has crossed it.”
Does anyone really care?
“Yes. There are those of us who do care. Or, we will be complicit in that good night. And I don’t care if I was the last man saying this, I would still say it. But I am very far from the last man saying it. I think the majority of British people, if they could be reached, in a proper way for such a discussion, would agree with me.”
And that brings us to Big Brother. Was that the right thing to do?
“Definitely. I had three goals. I attained them all. The three goals were to raise a substantial amount of money for charity, in my case, a Palestinian charity feeding desperately poor and hungry people in Gaza, which I achieved. We doubled the amount of charity income. To use my fee to employ two new members of staff in my constituency office, which I have done and to take the existence of my politics, my Party’s existence, to a wider public.”
Yes, but …
“Now I can assure you that, on that latter point that has been done. Everybody in the country now knows me. Everyone in the country, more or less, has heard the name Respect. For a small Party two years old, with no money, that’s a very difficult thing to do without thinking and acting outside the box. And that is what we did.”
Yes and I accept that a lot of people now know your name, but for the right reasons?
“Now, I am not saying that being known is the same as being supported. I am not even saying that the people who run down the road after me to get their picture taken with me, which happens on every street, in every town and city in the country, I promise you that. I am not saying that those people, who want their picture taken with me, necessarily agree with me, or even like me. But it is not a bad start. It means that the next time they see I am on Question Time; they are more likely to watch it. That is one of the reasons why the Question Time audience last time was three million, instead of the two million it had been the week before.”
Alright I understand that more people know you now, but really the purring thing was not really your finest moment, now was it?
“Well, actually, I do not quite get that. I knew that the leotard would be a grotesque image that would haunt me. It was a compulsory task. The punishment for not doing it would have been the starvation of my housemates and myself. It was a game of charades. And I played it. And to this day I do not get why doing quite a passable impression of a cat should be so extraordinary.”
In many ways George Galloway appears something of a contradiction. One moment he is puffing robustly at his cigar, the next the smoke is pierced by the anthem of the Soviet Union ‘the East is Red’ playing on his mobile. We even had the highlight of a short adjournment during the interview to watch a clip from London Tonight which he had filmed earlier that day. Whether he is right in everything he says is up for debate. On occasions he speaks with vitriol and perhaps even regret and disappointment. Some think he is a fool, others a rogue and some even an enemy of the state. But can that really be true? Maybe he is a dying breed. A passionate politician who looks outside the box and uses bright emotive language and, oh yes a degree of rhetoric to make his point. Or maybe he just calls it as he sees it. Whether we agree with him or not and that is a matter for you, we can not help but listen. After all I just ask the questions.