HOMECOMING for political heavyweight
— In a special interview ahead of this year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections, IAN DUNN speaks with socialist politician George Galloway about his life in politics, how his Faith has been influential in forming his political views and what he hopes to achieve by standing for election in Scotland
George Galloway is back in Glasgow. He has returned to the city where he made his name to fight for a Scottish Parliament list seat in the May elections. He returns with a reputation, warranted or otherwise, as a bombastic litigious, egocentric Dundonian who used his prodigious verbal skills to bludgeon his way from the streets of Dundee to House of Commons to the Big Brother House to the US Senate, making half a dozen enemies for every friend along the way.
He was certainly not shy about playing to type when he visited the Scottish Catholic Observer offices. Dismissing Tony Blair as a practitioner of the ‘Bob Monkhouse Doctrine—once you can fake the sincerity the rest is easy,’ Mr Galloway was not slow to bring up his own achievements: a national radio show in the US and numerous ‘well-attended and well-paid’ speaking engagements on the other side of the pond. As he talked about his Faith, politics and career, however, he emerged as a softer and more self-aware person than many would give him credit for.
He painted a vivid picture of his early life in Lochee or the ‘Irish quarter’ of Dundee, and growing up in a political family that had him handing out leaflets at school gates at the age of six. As a child in what he called an ‘Irish Republican’ household in Dundee, George Galloway was very conscious of Catholic persecution there.
“We were fully aware of the fact that Catholics were a religious minority, that their rights were frequently criticised and sometimes imperilled,” he said. “I remember hearing in 1967 that a school in Coatbridge was given a half-day holiday to celebrate the first Catholic in town to have got a job in a bank. I was later in parliament with several people who were at school, St Patrick’s, and they confirmed the story. Not many people in England would believe that but it is a true story.”
With a throaty chuckle he delivered the kicker.
“These days of course if you found out a Catholic worked in a bank we’d likely be ashamed of him!”
However, when he moved to Glasgow he found another level of bigotry all together waited for him.
“I had a lot of trouble in Glasgow with the sectarian thing,” he remembered. “Death threats, police protection, I didn’t like that at all.”
He recalled a story from his early days in the city that gave him a taste of Glasgow’s unique political culture.
“It was on the first Saturday of my election campaign against Roy Jenkins in 1987 and I was on Byres Road on an open top bus,” he said. “ And a very twee, well dressed, twin set and pearls sort of woman was calling up to me from the pavement. I leant forward to hear her and she said ‘We know what you are!’ I thought she was going to say Commie or something, because she looked like a toff, but she said in a very west end accent, ‘You’re a Fenian b**tard.’ And then I knew I was in Glasgow politics!”
Though he believes this poison is still a part of Scottish life,—‘you only have to see the e-mails circulated by formerly high officials on the SFA to see that’—he said it has faded.
“We must acknowledge that it has changed,” he said. “Once upon a time you had to look hard for a Catholic fireman, or in the chartered professions, and that’s not anything like as true any more.
“These things have changed but they linger because it is racism and it is born of the same conditions and circumstances as people who are against Pakistanis being here because they feel they are taking something from them—a job, a house, a woman. These ideas are deep in the human heart I’m sad to say.”
Faith and politics
Now 56, Mr Galloway’s own spiritual journey has been complex. Although he lost his Catholic Faith in his 20s, he began regaining it in his 30s.
“The thing that brought me back to my Faith, and I raise this with some trepidation as I am in an election, was the issue of abortion,” he said. “I was coming under tremendous pressure in left-wing politics to support abortion. Whereas I believed not just from my early Faith but intellectually that this was not a question of rights but a question of the destruction of someone’s rights. The unborn child who was helpless and, moreover, most in need of the protection of society, yet society was legislating and the social consensus had developed that abortion was some kind of progressive thing.”
There is a sadness to his tone as he recalled these memories.
“In 1982 there was a big push in the Labour party in Dundee on this question and I was practically the only defender of the pro-life position,” he said. “Being forced to sit down and think through all these things brought me back to Faith because if you believe that the unborn child is a human being and has rights then you believe life begins at conception and there is no other point at which it can begin and that takes you on to areas of God.”
Since then, however, he has found that that rediscovered Faith has been a source of great solace.
“It goes hand-in-hand with my politics,” he said. “I believe we are all God’s children, we are all our brother’s keeper and that informs my internationalism and social democratic beliefs.”
It has also made him a defender of God in an increasingly antagonistic secular society.
“There’s a tidal wave of aggressive secularism, Dawking-ism and Hitchen-ism, right now and if I ever get the time I am going to write a book making the case for God,” he said. “It’s quite fortuitous Christopher Hitchens and I dislike each other so much because it would give me a good place in the market for it. I don’t think we should be on the defensive against these people. I accept belief in God is far-fetched, but it is far more far-fetched surely to say the voice of Pavarotti evolved from a bottom dwelling slug through a random series of mutative accidents.”
In contrast to his dislike of aggressive atheists, he said he finds much to like about the Muslim community with which he has forged many links due to his campaigning against the war in Iraq and injustice in the Arab world.
“A sense of family very highly treasured among Muslims,” he told the SCO. “I’m teetotal, and have been teetotal all my life. I like the fact Muslims don’t drink because I think drink can be a really bad thing. I like the fact that the Muslim population is very hard working, not lying around bemoaning their lot, not queuing up at the dole. If they can’t find a job they open a shop or a stall or a restaurant.
“They are like immigrants in general in every society dedicated to working hard and pulling their position up and making sure their children have a better life than they had, and also sending something back to the old country. I like all these things.”
In an age when a key word of politicians is choice, Mr Galloway has a morally abstemious quality that verges on the old-fashioned and he revealed many aspects of modern British society very much not to his taste.
“The belief that things are what matter and that getting the latest and more things is going to make you happy;” he listed, gathering emphasis as he warmed to his theme, “the extraordinary explosion in use of drugs; the extraordinary explosion in drunkenness especially among girls; the horrific number of abortions and abandoned single teenage mothers; the level of crime in the country; and level of anti-social behaviour in the country. These are all symptoms of sickness and there’s a lot of sickness in our society.”
He has a diagnosis of the illness you rarely hear from politicians.
“I think the disease is Godlessness, a loss of faith in community and communal action, a loss of faith in society among political class that things could be better than this,” he added.
These are not views you often hear from many in the main political parties, yet Mr Galloway still insists: “I’m Labour, real Labour.” He professed bemusement at how he believes his old comrades, such as Dr John Reid and Alistair Darling, who once dismissed him as a ‘back sliding reformist,’ have inverted their views when in power.
“The first time I met Alistair Darling he was pressing Trotskite tracks onto bewildered railway men at Waverly station,” he said in jest.
Mr Galloway admitted to sometimes wondering what would have happened if he had taken a similar path but he does not think he has it in him.
“I’ve always followed a policy of being rigid in principle but flexible in tactics believe it or not,” he said. “I am able to compromise and coalesce with people with whom I am not in full agreement, because I think politics almost always requires that. What I could never do is say something I didn’t believe. I can agree not to say something that I do believe. But I couldn’t say something I did not believe and I think that may be a difference with some politicians.”
Unlike his old friends in Glasgow politics, he took a very different path. It led him away from the prospect of high office and instead into campaigning relentlessly for justice in the Arab world and, famously, against the war in Iraq.
“It just so happens that most of the injustice that has led to war and instability in the world in my lifetime has been in Muslim countries,” he said. “I’m not a ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ type, all dewy-eyed about the Arab world. I know its frailties and shortcomings and darker side very well. But when you’ve spent as much time as me, getting on for 35 years, deeply absorbed in the Arab world and culture you obviously fall in love to some extent with the good parts of its culture.”
It was his Arab connections that led to him being called to the US Senate and perhaps the high point of his career to date. Summoned to defend himself over allegations he had been involved in illegally trading in Iraqi oil, he launched a grandstanding verbal assault on his accusers.
“God gave me wings that day,” he said. “It had a big impact in the US but I think it also changed peoples’ views of me here and if it didn’t change their views it at least blunted their hostility.”
A less pleasant event, though one which also brought him fame and fortune, was his spell in the Celebrity Big Brother house, which he admits, was a big hit to his ego.
“I went in very confident I could remain aloof, my plan was to write a novel in my head,” he said wryly. “And at the end I was squabbling over tobacco: ‘Where’d you get that, you didn’t have that this morning!’ So it was hellish and I wouldn’t do it again, but I did raise a lot of money for orphans in Gaza, so I don’t regret it.”
It also added to his not inconsiderable personal fortune.
“The fact that most of the money I’ve got was from newspapers who told lies about me does make it sweeter,” he said.
The Telegraph alone paid him and his lawyers £2.3 million after a court found against their claims he had been in cahoots with Saddam.
“That buys a lot of peace of mind,” he said. “But I long ago realised that pursuit of money is not the same as the pursuit of happiness but it leaves you in a good position.”
And after all that he has returned to Glasgow.
“I was in Glasgow for a very substantial part of my life, not just the 18 years I spent as a member of parliament here, which is a long time by any reckoning in one job, but before that as a Labour party organiser for the formative years of life,” he recalled. “I feel the city’s problems acutely.”
He believes Glasgow has been ill served by successive administrations at Holyrood, saying Labour took it for granted and the SNP hasn’t felt much of a stake in the city.
“I was driving on the south side last night and the potholes were so big Chilean miners were climbing out of them,” he said. “I was reminded once again of just how improvised the public realm has become, and I want to do something about it, if I can’t solve it at least I want to make sure everyone knows about it and knows that it is a national scandal.”
He said poverty will be at the heart of his campaign.
“If you’re born in Drumchapel you can see Bearsden but you’ll live 10 years less on average, and that is a national scandal and I’d like to spend what remaining years God gives me campaigning on these issues,” he said.
If elected he sees his role as being ‘a sort of tribune for the city and the causes I believe in’ and has no ambition to be ‘a member of a delegated sub committee or a minister or anything like that.’
He also believes there is more space at Holyrood than Westminster for a single independent politician to make a difference
“Margo McDonald is a very good example and, although I disagree with her on many things including the so-called right to die bill she introduced, I respect her,” he said. “I respect the extent to which she has been able to be a woman of independent mind in our national parliament and have influence. I see myself as the Glasgow equivalent or would like to be if elected.”
Win or lose at Holyrood, he is also very much looking forward to a date next January he doesn’t intend to miss: a court date with Rupert Murdoch and his employees over the allegations that the News of the World hacked into his phone messages.
“They’ve offered me an enormous amount of money but by the grace of God I don’t need money,” he said. “I want my day in court, I think they are the most venal publishing organisation on the face of the earth.”
He also professed no fear to taking on such a powerful organisation. “They have nothing I want, I mean they might try and reveal certain sins I’ve committed,” he said with a twinkle, “but everyone knows I’m a sinner.”